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Peggy Mitchell’s funeral

When the landlady of a pub passes away, she doesn’t usually have millions of people turning up for her funeral. But this was no ordinary landlady and no ordinary pub. And people didn’t so much turn up to her funeral as tune in.

That’s because the funeral was on EastEnders, the long-running BBC soap opera set in the East End of London. The landlady was Peggy Mitchell, as played by the veteran actress Barbara Windsor. Peggy ruled over the Queen Vic pub with a will of iron and a heart of gold for many years. Now she has passed away and been given a traditional East-End send-off, complete with a horse-drawn funeral carriage and crowds of people from the local community standing by to pay their last respects.

As anyone who watches EastEnders will know, the Mitchell family have led an unusually eventful life and the Queen Vic has seen more than its fair share of excitement, from arguments to fights and even murders. The programme isn’t real life, after all: a soap opera has to keep its viewers entertained, not produce an accurate reflection of reality. The real East End of London is a much more racially enriched and vibrant place than it used to be. Cockney pubs like the Queen Vic – “rub-a-dubs”, as they were called in rhyming slang – are passing into history, so in a way EastEnders is a nostalgic show like Downton Abbey.

Peggy Mitchell’s funeral is an example of that nostalgia. Her funerals shows the way cockneys in the East End used to say goodbye to well-loved and well-respected figures from the local community. Funerals like that were common once, are rare now. But the writers and actors in EastEnders know their audience and are giving the viewers what they want to see. Community ties are loosening today and families often live scattered up and down the country or even around the world. The Mitchell family, with their fierce loyalties even amid the fights and feuding, give viewers a glimpse of older values.

Some viewers may even have regarded Peggy almost as a friend or member of their own family. They may have felt tearful as they watched her funeral and knew that she would no longer be on their screens shouting “Get out of my pub!” or getting involved in another of EastEnders exciting story-lines. Acting isn’t real, but it draws on real emotions and real situations. Viewers could understand that the Mitchell family wanted to give their matriarch the best possible send-off. She had deep roots in the community and in her own youth she must have seen many traditional cockney funerals. When her own time came, she chose to have the same.

Millions of people watched the funeral and perhaps it will influence some of those viewers in their own funeral plans. Tradition can be reassuring, offering us tried-and-tested ways to deal with situations that occur again and again in life. There have always been births, deaths and marriages. EastEnders has certainly had plenty of all three. People once knew how to behave on those occasions without having to think, because they had often seen how it was done by others.

Peggy Mitchell’s funeral will be one of the most memorable of the traditional send-offs, because she was such an important character, bound up in the history and traditions of the old East End. You could say that her funeral marked the passing both of an icon and of an era. Like the East End, EastEnders will never be the same again.