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Friday, March 16, 2012

Watching EastEnders

I don't as a rule, watch EastEnders. I find this 'soap' so insufferably dreary that I don't want to watch the trials and tribulations of such unpleasant characters. I think, also, it's the fact that the plots get re-cycled with such monotonous regularity and none of the characters have any redeeming features. Why would people choose to remain in such a depressing and dead-end place as Albert Square?

I was, though, reminded of my experience of working on it as a Supporting Artiste. There was a scene in last night's episode, with Phil Mitchell (I can never distinguish between either of the Mitchell brothers, Grant or Phil.) He was in prison, and someone was visiting him. I did similar scenes when 'Dirty' Den Watts was in prison (for whatever crime I can't actually remember) and I was cast as a prison warder.  I think it must have been around 1988, so the soap can't have been running more than four or five years. I got a call from an agent and was asked 'have you ever worked on EastEnders?' To which I immediately replied, 'no.' He told me that the B.B.C. were filming a new drama called 'Behind Bars' or something, in a school somewhere in Elstree. I went to Elstree at the time I was given, to be greeted by production staff and immediately told that the show being recorded was actually EastEnders, the name 'Behind Bars' was a bluff so as to keep newspaper reporters at bay. I was taken to costume and make-up and changed into a prison warders uniform and had to wear a long overcoat over this uniform so as not to be seen by any tabloid photographers who were supposedly hanging around outside the school where the location was.

The scene was supposed to be the visitors' room in a prison. As a warder, myself and several others, were placed around the room, where there were tables with chairs by them. Den was sitting at one and was being spoken to by one other of the major characters (don't ask me who. I have an idea it might have been Pat Butcher. I think it was before she married Frank, so no doubt at that time she was Pat Wicks.) We just stood around looking 'ard, glaring menacingly at any of the 'prisoners' if they did something they shouldn't have done. Things on 'EastEnders' are shot really rapidly; a brief rehearsal, then a 'take.' Very rarely is there a second 'take.'  There isn't much room for error. If you make a mistake it's very likely going to be left in. They move on to the next camera 'set-up.' And so it goes. These scenes were directed by Julia Smith, who created and set up EastEnders. We got some direction. My 'note' was to walk 'with shorter steps.' So as to move past the camera and to be actually seen. In the scenes that I was in, for what I remember, you could only see the lower part of my body, and not my face.

I was re-called to do a further day's shooting, this time with Den Watts being interviewed in an office and I was the warder who let him in and out with a solicitor, or so I imagine. I also recall that it was the final day of Leslie Grantham's time on the show, and there was a large cake for the tea-break, decorated with a prison gate and padlocks etc. I do recall also having along chat with Leslie Grantham between 'takes.' A really nice man. You don't often get the chance to talk with the 'principles' on these shows. 'Extras' and/or 'Walk-On's' or 'Supporting-Artistes' aren't supposed to talk to the main actors. It's just the way things are.

A couple of years later I went to the B.B.C. Elstree studios to work on another B.B.C. drama, 'House of Cards.' They had built a Downing Street set behind the open-air 'EastEnders' lot. It was extremely hot and we were in very thick coats and suits. We were supposed to be journalists and photographers, and when the main character, played by Ian Richardson, came out of Number 10 we had to rush forward, with flash-guns going off. I had a chance to go onto the EastEnders set and have a look-round, and at one point we were almost run over by some of the actors, Adam Woodyatt, John Altman and I think Nick Berry, riding a motor bike around the lot. It was a really interesting experience, not only working on 'House of Cards' (I did several more days shooting on this at other locations around London.) but also looking round the 'EastEnders' lot.

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