The long-running UK soap opera EastEnders, which was first broadcast in February 1985 by the BBC, is now more of a UK icon than the East End of London which it was named after.

Based in the fictional location of Albert Square, EastEnders tells the stories of supposedly ordinary London folk and their trials and tribulations as they coexist in and around the Square, its market, shops and the Queen Vic (Queen Victoria) pub.

The show began life as it meant to go on, with the discovery of the body of Reg Cox, a pensioner supposedly murdered by original EastEnders' bad-boy, Nick Cotton.

In the early days the show centred around two families: the Fowler/Beale family, headed by a tyrannical old woman, Lou Beale, who ruled the family with a supposed East End wisdom that took the form of bullying the women and emasculating the men; and the Watts family, who lived in the Queen Vic and took the form of philandering 'Dirty' Den Watts, his alcoholic wife Angie, and their adopted daughter Sharon who resembled a pig.

Other groupings included the Cotton family, consisting of chain-smoking Christian Dot Cotton, and her rogue son Nick, who was often found to be behind any bad happenings in the Square. London's ethnic minorities were also represented, many would say poorly, in the form of the Turkish Osmans who ran a café, plus black and Asian families whose characters now – and no doubt then - warrant so little merit that their names cannot even be found on associated websites.

Over the years the show's creators have praised it for its social realism, choosing to tackle somewhat grittier issues than its ITV counterpart, Coronation Street. Storylines in the 1980s covered the then uncharted TV territory of rape and homosexuality, including the UK's first onscreen gay kiss.

During the 90s EastEnders tackled HIV/AIDS, abortion, mental health, alcoholism, the list is exhaustive. Basically if it's in the news EastEnders will use the topic to try and gain viewers. While the BBC has commended the show's dealings with difficult issues many have criticised it for shamelessly using shock tactics to increase viewing figures.

Since it began many of the actors have become household names: Leslie Grantham (Den Watts), Ross Kemp (Grant Mitchell), Jack Branning (Scott Maslen) and Patsy Palmer (Bianca Jackson), but only a select few go on to further success once leaving the show due to the nation's strong association with them as their characters, such is the power and popularity of the show.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century only two characters – Dot Cotton and Ian Beale - remain from the first show, the principle families now being the Mitchells and the Brannings. Despite these changes the plots and acting remain as tenuously plausible as ever, and while critics lambast the often depressing storylines, the show has become part UK culture with its Christmas 'Omnibus Edition' now as integral to the season's festivities as the Queen's Speech, Turkey and family arguments.