It’s home to shady characters, infamous feuds, and has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed. But now it is Albert Square itself which threatens to create high drama – as the cost of re-constructing the home of ‘EastEnders’ soars to £87 million.
An independent report into a BBC project to move the iconic set, which includes the Queen Vic pub and Arthur Fowler’s bench, less than two hundred yards to a new site in north London has found costs have risen 45% in three years.
The National Audit Office (NAO) found Beeb bosses now expect to spend £86.7 million constructing a new backlot set for the long-running soap opera, which will provide additional locations, including a supermarket, according to planning documents.
The BBC – which is funded by the licence fee paid by viewers – previously said the project, dubbed “E20” in reference to the postcode of fictional Walford, would cost £59.7 million.
It said the new location will allow for more modern filming techniques and solve a number of health and safety problems.
The project includes upgrades to infrastructure at the BBC’s Elstree Studios site, also home to drama ‘Holby City’, variety show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, and the corporation’s election night coverage.
The BBC conceded that the E20 project will overrun its planned completion date by more than two years, with filming expected to commence on the new Albert Square in 2021, 22 months later than planned.
The delays and overspends were blamed by the corporation on a lack of interest from construction companies in bidding for contracts to complete the work, as well as prolonged discussions about the type of bricks required.
The amount of time needed to “weather” the new set so that it looks authentic was also underestimated, the NAO added.
The NAO also found that project managers failed to properly integrate the views of ‘EastEnders’ producers, leading to an unsatisfactory initial design.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said on Wednesday that the BBC “will not be able to deliver value for money on E20 in the way it originally envisaged”.
Morse added: “It is surprising that some of the reasons for this were built in from the beginning. Despite recent project management improvements, E20 is late and over budget against its 2015 plans.
“We believe that the planned benefits are still broadly achievable, but given the high-risk nature of E20 it will need close scrutiny until it is finished.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The set of EastEnders was built in 1984 and only intended for use for two years. Over thirty years later, the show remains one of the BBC’s flagship programmes and yet is filming from a set that is no longer fit for purpose. The new set will be suitable for HD filming for the first time and extend Walford to better reflect modern East End London.
“It’s a large, complex project which has already delivered many other vital improvements at BBC Elstree Centre but like any building work of this scale there have been challenges on the way, including construction market issues beyond our control and from working on a brownfield site. As the NAO recognises we’ve already made improvements and are keeping the project under close scrutiny.”
The Albert Square set was designed to replicate Fassett Square, east London, down to exact measurements, according to the London Evening Standard.
When ‘EastEnders’ was devised in the mid-1980s, producers originally planned to film on location there before a plot of land at Elstree was utilised for the permanent set. Homes on the real-life square today sell for around £1 million.
The upheaval comes after rival broadcaster ITV moved the sets and studios for ‘Coronation Street’ to a new facility at MediaCity, Salford, in 2013 for a reported £10 million.