Saturday 6 August 2022

Square Deal: Consumer Rights Advice from EastEnders in 1991

I've encountered some curious offshoots of British television in the last 10 years, but one of the most unexpected oddities to land on my desk is easily Square Deal. Produced by the Office of Fair Trading in October 1991, it was a publication put together with the aim of empowering the average consumer with a comprehensive look at their consumer rights. On it's own, it's far from a scintillating subject, but the Office of Fair Trading had an ace up their sleeve: they would sweeten the pill by roping in the cast of EastEnders.

There's been a lot of EastEnders memorabilia produced over the years, particularly in the early days of the soap, but Square Deal isn't one which is regularly mentioned. In fact, Google brings up absolutely zero mentions of the glossy, 32 page magazine. Is it lost to the mists of time? Well, it was. Luckily, a loyal follower of Curious British Telly recently got in touch to see if I'd be interested in taking a look at it. They had acquired it, back in 1991, after seeing it mentioned in a comics trade magazine and writing off for a copy. It was an interest mired not necessarily in consumer rights issues, but more that it contained cartoons by the likes of Hunt Emerson. And, 30 years later, they popped it in the post to me.

The machinations of life in Albert Square and consumer rights issues are far from natural bedfellows, so Square Deal as a proposition is an intriguing one. It starts with a quick "Hello!" from Peter Dean where he explains, flanked by a cheery picture of Pete Beale with a handful of cherries, explaining that:

"The Office of Fair Trading has invented some likely situations for EastEnders to bring you information on consumer law, how to get value for money for goods or services, how to complain when things go wrong, plus loads of other handy tips which should help you get a square deal"

Sadly, it would appear that the actual input of the EastEnders cast is absolutely zero, aside from the usage of their photos and names. But, lets be honest, they were probably too busy filming and speaking to the Radio Times to get involved with something as niche as Square Deal. Mind you, I'm sure it earned the BBC a few shillings to put in the coffers for the EastEnders Christmas party. However, for a fan of British television, it's far from a disaster in terms of content - the myriad photos alone make for a nice snapshot of EastEnders during its, relative, infancy.

As a consumer rights publication, it's certainly a handy tool due to vast swathes of content packed into its pages. And, you know, it's kind of fun and a little more engaging to read up on the best ways to complain when the example used is Pauline Fowler buying a faulty iron. Not every feature dips into the EastEnders theme and, as such, the finer points of APR regulations are less likely to leave a mark with an EastEnders afficionado. Regardless, the EastEnders palette is in high demand and, lawks a lawdy, there's even a crossover section where Esther Rantzen, in her That's Life guise, deals with the many consumer problems facing the residents of Albert Square.

The purest success of marrying EastEnders and consumer rights is achieved within the cartoons of Square Deal. Although some of the cartoons use generic characters, there are still several that contain 100% genuine EastEnders cast members. Providing not only literal caricatures of the characters, they're also shot through with a nice dose of comedy. Under the Barry Cryer Emergency Comedy Act of 1972, they may not equate to comedy gems, but they're as chucklesome as three panel strips on consumer rights can be. My pick of the bunch are the Dot Cotton strips by Graham Higgins.

So, Square Deal, well, it's a magazine which certainly confounds and catches you off guard with its constituent parts being inexplicably joined together. Nonetheless, unlike oil and water, they just about, if you really use your imagination, come together. And, whilst it certainly has a whiff of the generic about it, it's also absurd enough to provide a pleasing novelty. Having the opportunity to flick through the pages of Square Deal may not have changed by the life, but it's certainly made it richer. And it's finally answered that eternal question of just how Ian Beale managed to buy a jumbo-size freezer when he started his catering business.

If there's anything particularly bizarre that you've picked up over the years related to British television, then please get in touch and maybe I'll feature it on the blog!

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