Ever since the day I was born, Ian Beale has been there on the periphery of my reality, sobbing. This is the strange thing about Ian Beale, the liminal space he occupies in the collective British mind. Even if you don’t watch EastEnders week to week, even if you skip the Christmas specials every year, you still vaguely know what Ian Beale is up to – getting married again, getting divorced again, having his children murder each other, being homeless, crying on a sofa while Phil Mitchell turns ever more into a stone – whether you want to or not. EastEnders is just Ian Beale propaganda, really, designed to let you know that Ian Beale exists and – irrespective of whether you watch him do it – he is suffering.
This is all pertinent in the autumn season because, since lockdown lifted and EastEnders began anew, a series of Beale-heavy storylines have seen him cast as the Square’s ascendant villain, and the Christmas Day storyline is set to see him mysteriously attacked and left crumpled, prompting a classic whodunnit. I can recap his various beefs for you – Dot Cotton knows he is responsible for Dennis Jr’s death! Max Branning is fuming that Ian still owes him thousands on the Vic! Kat Slater’s quite annoyed he short-changed her £20 on a bar shift! Suki’s fuming that he sold her dodgy dealings out to the Walford Gazette! Phil and Ben just barely escaped arrest thanks to Ian’s tipoff to the police! Kathy’s had enough of him relying on her financially! Basically everyone in the Square hates him because he’s tight! – but it’s almost not about that. Ian Beale is the villain, not because the actor playing him has one of history’s most headlockable necks, but because the soap gods have commanded it thus.
There is something cosmic to soap villains: their villainy waxes and wanes. Ian Beale is in a villain cycle now, but he may well soon be in retrograde. EastEnders villains die, go to jail, are so loathed by the public that they have to leave; or they soften, become a background bad-boy hunk, convert to religion and come good again. Sometimes they just stop doing villainy for a bit because they had such a good offer to do panto.
In five years’ time, Ian Beale might just be a soft-edged dad again, alarmed to discover he has a sixth or seventh lovechild, a full-grown adult who has never texted him once before today who then turns up fully formed to shout at him in a launderette. Or: after a series of dodgy dealings, with Phil holding the keys and waving at him from the shore, Ian Beale pounds on the windows as his Escort bubbles to the bottom of the Thames. Hard to ever tell. It is out of our control.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter if Ian Beale is a villain now, because the constants in Albert Square aren’t “who is bad” and “who is good”, but instead the underlying murkiness of Walford itself. One day, soon, the ancient magick that glows beneath E20 will kick in again, and Ian Beale will be back where he belongs – inelegantly slopping egg mayonnaise into baps while Max Branning ignores paying him to chat up a recent divorcee – and all of this will be forgotten. For now, he plays an important role: by Christmas Day, 20 people will hate Ian Beale enough to want to attack him. There is balance to the universe again.