If you were to shout ‘You ain’t my mother’ in any public place in Great Britain, the chances are you’d get a chorus of ‘YES I AM’s in reply.
These are the words of one of the most iconic moments in TV history, let alone in EastEnders’. It was an event surely up there with Royal Weddings and World Cup finals in terms of providing a cultural touch-point for the nation.
This is not me exaggerating for comic effect. Nineteen years later, barely a day goes by where I don’t think about that moment in 2001 when Kat Slater revealed to her teenage ‘sister’ Zoe that she was actually her mother.
I was 10 years old and it was the first time I remember properly imbibing the pure spectacle of soapland; the first time it elicited a gasp; the first time it made an impression beyond the surface-level crush I previously had on Emmerdale’s Dave Glover.
I didn’t know much, but I knew something big had happened and my world would never be the same again.
The Slater family had been on our televisions for more than a year before that infamous scene and it is hard to imagine life without them now, 20 years after their moving van drove onto the square and angered Ian Beale.
Neither he nor we have known peace since – but nor have we wanted to.
Enthralled, viewers have watched on through thick and thin as the Slater sisters delivered one water-cooler moment after another, whether it was Little Mo clattering her abusive husband Trevor with a very symbolic (and very heavy) iron, or Kat and Alfie Moon falling in love over and over again with increasingly disastrous results.
With lockdown halting filming on EastEnders, fans turned to the classic episodes laid on by BBC in its stead.
The BBC, like many of us, recognised that there is a specific kind of nostalgia reserved for soaps and their characters, and even in Walford, it’s comforting.
It’s almost like having another home town just waiting for you, with the same familiar faces hanging around, existing whether you turn on the telly or not.
By now, the Slaters are like family friends or old, and very loud, neighbours. They have been there for more than two-thirds of my life and it’s got to the point where I truly believe that should the Slaters leave Albert Square, Walford will fall.
It’s certainly not been plain sailing for the family, which is perhaps to be expected given their postcode.
The level of longevity achieved by the Slaters comes at a hefty price, and the years have seen them dealing with every issue imaginable, from adultery (soapland’s bread and butter) to domestic violence.
In 2011, a controversial storyline saw Kat and Alfie cope with the death of their infant son Tommy, only to discover that a grieving Ronnie Mitchell had swapped their babies.
Prior to that, within a single year, Kat’s cousin Stacey had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, sexually assaulted by Archie Mitchell and forced to watch as the love of her life Bradley Branning fell to his death, evading capture for the murder she committed.
You name it, the Slaters have been through it, and they have never failed to make an impact.
But it’s worth noting that this isn’t limited simply to services to drama. In the weeks following Stacey’s bipolar storyline, calls to mental health charity Bipolar UK’s helpline doubled, whilst Riley Carter Millington, who played Stacey’s half-brother Kyle, became the first transgender actor to portray a transgender character in British soap history. It was a move that journalist Paris Lees described as ‘the biggest thing to happen for the transgender community in Britain this decade’.
It all comes back to the groundwork laid 20 years ago by four sisters and their formidable nan. We should have expected they’d last from the minute Big Mo dragged Pat Butcher to hell in the middle of the Queen Vic, upon arrival.
I still think back on that Zoe/Kat moment in 2001 and remember the sheer drama of it all.
To think there was a time before it existed is madness to me. There are friends I might not have made without that shouting match (I have been known to quote it with abandon in many a club smoking area).
There’s a deep-seated love of leopard print I might not have properly developed without the influence of Kat and her hallway wallpaper.
And, for better or worse, there’s a profound appreciation for soaps that I’ll never be rid of now, honed by a family second only to the Mitchells in their level of, what I believe is technically termed, hullabaloo.
Everyone thought the Millennium Bug was going to be the biggest reset of the year 2000. We weren’t prepared for Kat Slater.
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