There’s nothing quite like a funeral for bringing back familiar faces and fond memories. “Doctor Legg was one of life’s gentlemen,” said dear old Dot Cotton. “There ain’t many left now. Except for you, Lofty.”
So it proved on EastEnders (BBC One) as two of the shouty Cockney soap’s original characters returned to pay their respects to a third.
Last Friday’s emotional episode saw the death of widely loved local GP Harold Legg (92-year-old Leonard Fenton) from pancreatic cancer, with longtime friend Dot (June Brown) at his bedside.
Now, on the day of the show’s 34th anniversary, came the good Doctor’s damp-eyed send-off. A special episode saw George "Lofty" Holloway (Tom Watt) and Mary "The Punk" Smith (Linda Davidson) return to Albert Square for the occasion.
Both Lofty and Mary left in 1988, the latter sticking up two fingers to Walford as she stood at the back of a Routemaster bus. Their comeback after 31 years made for an evocative blast from the past.
Queen Vic barman "Lofty" had always been a loveable loser. The hapless beanpole married teen mother Michelle Fowler, who’d just had Dirty Den's secret baby, but was duly dumped for his kind-heartedness. Pleasingly, this gentle soul had become a success story, owning a chain of 15 pubs and was so comfortably off that he could write a £20,000 cheque for "Chelle’s" daughter "for old time’s sake".
Lofty’s character has been pretty much replicated in current barman Callum "Halfway" Highway. Thankfully, the pair didn’t meet or the fictional east London universe might have imploded.
Single mother Mary was the Square’s resident wildchild – not to mention a sometime stripper and prostitute. "Where’s the punk gorn?" exclaimed Dot at middle-aged Mary’s newly respectable appearance – although there were still punky overtones to her bleach-blonde crop, military great coat and tartan scarf. Mary’s subversive side hadn’t been completely tamed.
Her daughter Annie (Marilyn O’Brien), last seen as a toddler, was not only all grown up but a senior police officer. "Who’d have thought?" smiled Sharon Mitchell (Letitia Dean). "Walford’s biggest rebel turns out one of London’s top coppers." There was dramatic potential for Annie to return for future episodes and possibly Lofty too. Mary less so.
As the old timers raised a glass to the much-missed medic, they reminisced about Pete and Lou Beale, Arthur and Pauline Fowler, Den and Angie Watts. It served as a welcome reminder of the show’s glory days, although I found myself disappointed there was no mention of Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and her little Willy.
As well as a trip down memory lane, this episode became a powerful plea for religious tolerance. A recent plot involved the increasingly frail Dr Legg becoming deeply upset by the appearance of anti-Semitic graffiti. Last week, we heard how he and late wife Judith met while fighting Oswald Mosley’s fascists at the Battle of Cable Street.
Here the mourners breakfasted on rugelach, before volunteers from the Jewish community arrived to ritually cleanse and dress Dr Legg’s body. "Do him proud," said Sonia Fowler (Natalie Cassidy, who was excellent in this episode). "We’re going to," came the reply.
As per Dr Legg’s instructions, the funeral procession paused at the Albert Square car lot – formerly the site of his house, which was flattened during the Blitz, killing his beloved Judith in the process.
With grieving Dot too wrung out to make it to the chapel of rest, it was left to granddaughter Sonia to read the eulogy Dot had written. "He spent his whole life looking after others," it said. "Didn’t matter who they were – what race, what faith or what creed. To Dr Legg, everyone was part of the same family."
With every soap departure comes an arrival – such is the circle of televisual life. Hence between the funeral scenes, we were subjected to some tedious business involving a deeply annoying pair of new characters: Masood Ahmed’s bickering nieces Iqra (Priya Davdra) and Habiba (Rukku Nahar).
Masood himself (Nitin Ganatra) said his farewells and emigrated to Australia – a storyline that even the character admitted was repetitive. This all jarred awkwardly with the Dr Legg storyline. The episode would have improved immeasurably by saving such distractions for next time and letting viewers wallow in nostalgia.
At least proceedings ended on a plaintive note. Every curtain on the Square was closed as a mark of respect and a candle was lit for Dr Legg. "God bless him," said Sonia. "God has blessed him," Dot corrected her. "He’s with his Judith."
As two flickering candle flames merged into one, a mournful arrangement of the theme music played us out. For added poignancy, a closing caption dedicated the episode to a member of the EastEnders crew: “In memory of Ann Slater, 1965-2019.”
I hope viewers had hankies ready. Irritating sub-plot aside, this episode did Doctor Legg proud indeed.