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Sunday, October 2, 2022

EastEnders goes Warhol with a 100-hour bender in the Queen Vic – The Lock-In review | Art and design

Time seems to be slipping in a bank holiday lock-in at an East End pub, where I nurse my beer and watch people in another pub in another decade, drinking their sorrows away, fighting and sharing the latest gossip from Albert Square. You notice the heavy boozing, as well as the smoking, in 1980s EastEnders. Characters regularly drink themselves unconscious.

The Lock-In tells the story of EastEnders from its start in 1985 to the present – from the drunken vantage point of its pub, the Queen Vic. Put together by artist Stanley Schtinter, this 100-hour long compilation of scenes set in the Vic raises hugely enjoyable questions about what the hell anyone watches anything for. I actually felt I could stick the full 100 hours, but was fairly certain I shouldn’t. The nicely Warholian effect is to expose the amount of time we regularly spend gazing at screens, either barely caring what’s on, or locked into a drama we know doesn’t really matter, but that entertains for a few hours. The only thing that makes this epic soap marathon different from binge-watching at home is that Schtinter frames it as art and as an event – by stitching EastEnders clips together in a way that melts narrative logic, and screening it in a variety of east London pubs.

I went along to the first day, at the Queen Adelaide in Bethnal Green, where my daughter and I, having made it a family occasion in the Queen Vic spirit, had to prop up the bar for a while waiting for Schtinter to fix a technical problem. It’s an art-friendly pub with antique snob screens and mirrors, a stuffed crocodile, and a toilet that doubles as a gallery, called the White Cubicle Toilet Gallery. We didn’t have to watch The Lock-In in the loo, though: instead, the downstairs bar had multiple screens in its cosy alcoves where you could settle down, drink in hand, to compare this real pub with the fictional one on screen.

‘Characters regularly drink themselves unconscious’ … the heavy boozing is striking.
‘Characters regularly drink themselves unconscious’ … the heavy boozing is striking. Photograph: BBC/Stanley Schtinter

From the quirky ambience of a 21st-century pub with one foot in the art world, you’re catapulted back to a sinister time of gangsters and crooks. Everyone seems pretty bent in the Queen Vic in 1985, the year EastEnders began. In this first section (each pub screening unveils a chronological 10-hour tranche), landlord Den Watts is already earning his nickname Dirty as he bullies hapless bar hand Lofty (who we learn is paid off the books, which suits everyone until Den’s accountant finds out), and, of course, cheats on his wife Angie. But it all comes in disembodied fragments. The removal of all the action elsewhere in Albert Square means the characters and their travails only come to us in a beery haze, chatting about dodgy goods and the odd killing, all over peanuts and crisps.

It’s engrossing. You try to make sense of the decontextualised scenes, and at the same time, if you are not either an obsessive student of EastEnders history or a veteran who has watched it since the 1980s, figure out who everyone is. Ah yes – that villainous youth who makes sinister references to a brutal murder he seems to know rather a lot about is infamous Albert Square villain Nick Cotton.

Then just as you’re getting clued in, there’s another moment of total impenetrability as various Beales and Fowlers refer to something else that we’d know about if our time wasn’t spent entirely in the Vic. Appropriately to the pub setting, it is as if we were suffering regular blackouts. Some stuff we understand. Other, perhaps very important, matters escape us entirely.

Schtinter has created a fine sideways homage to EastEnders, for its drama survives the damage. Then again, how healthy can it be to lose yourself in broken memories of a pub that doesn’t really exist?

Ironic from the start? … Queen Vic hits her own pub.
Ironic from the start? … Queen Vic hits her own pub. Photograph: BBC/Stanley Schtinter

This is an artwork in the true tradition of Andy Warhol, who created the very idea of an absurdly long screening when he subjected 1960s audiences to his eight-hour film Empire, consisting of a single shot of the Empire State Building. The Lock-In mixes Empire’s durational endurance test with Warhol’s later experiments in video and TV in the 1980s. Maybe EastEnders itself was the first Warholian British TV programme, ingrained with irony from the start.

Taking an ordinary thing and removing it from its natural context, stripping it of its naturalness, is art – and Schtinter nicely and wittily denaturalises a television warhorse. But he also suggests something about time. Watching TV and going to the pub are both ways of passing time. Put them together and you have a subtly troubling work of art. Is passing time just killing time? Why do we spend so much time idly diverting ourselves? The drinkers at the Queen Vic at least have a lot of other stuff going on: stolen goods to unload, affairs to conceal.

The silver-wigged master would have enjoyed The Lock-In. It has a fine sense of the absurd and an eye for the profundity of pop culture. Time!

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