Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace are in Dublin for a new play, and they’ll be back on
our screens soon for an EastEnders offshoot set in Ireland, writes Ed Power
THE last time EastEnders visited Ireland, a huge outcry ensued. In an instantly notorious 1997 three-part special, the Fowler and Beale families paid a call to the old country and found it to be populated with feral peasants beamed straight from the 19th century. Inebriates wandered the streets, donkeys brayed, everyone was unwashed and shifty.
Such caricatures were hardly unheard of on British television even in the late 1990s, but here the stereotyping felt especially venomous and, with the Irish embassy in the UK adding its voice to the protests, the BBC was forced into an apology.
Nearly 20 years later, EastEnders is returning, after a fashion, to the scene of the crime. A spin-off series described by its stars as “Albert Square-meets-Broadchurch” is to begin shooting shortly just outside Dublin, with beloved cockney couple Kat and Alfie Moon at the heart of the action. But there will be none of the Hibernophobia that blighted the soap’s previous Irish odyssey, say Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie, the actors who play Kat and Alfie.
“Drunks in the street and all of that,” says Richie (51), rolling his eyes. “I’m from a big Irish family. We weren’t involved in EastEnders back then, thank goodness. It’s like ‘oh do feck off’.”
It has been reported that senior figures at the BBC are keeping a close watch on the spin-off and that no slurring of Ireland will be tolerated.
Richie and Wallace, in Dublin to promote their new play, The Perfect Murder, shrug in unison. They weren’t aware the show was under such intense scrutiny. In any event, it is understood by all involved that they are to be respectful of Ireland.
“The kneejerk reaction was that ‘Oh, EastEnders are going to come over here and play the dopey card,’” says Richie. “That’s not the case. The producer, Dominic Treadwell- Collins, is from a big Cork family. He wants to set the record straight.”
According to Richie, the as-yet-unnamed drama, to be broadcast soon, will be connected to EastEnders in the most tangental terms possible. Rather than a kitchen sink soap, the BBC is planning a rural gothic murder mystery — one that happens to feature Kat and Alfie from Albert Square.
“It’s like Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives, with a bit of The Wicker Man,” says Richie.
“You’ve got this whole community with a dark secret. And then we turn up in the middle of the story. It has nothing to do with EastEnders and as a viewer you’re thinking, ‘Kat and Alfie — what are they doing there?’ It’s like Broadchurch — there’s so much going on, you could take the two lead characters out and it would still be interesting.”
Richie and Wallace are sequestered in one of Bord Gáis Energy Theatre’s vast backstage spaces. Wallace (44) is recovering from a fall and, with her leg propped on a chair, is visibly in discomfort.
Thus it falls on Richie to do most of the talking — a chore he is more than happy to fulfil. The sometime stand-up and musician is one of those always-on entertainers, his speaking voice so loud it drowns out the Jersey Boys rehearsals in an adjacent room.
Behind the two is arranged a banner-sized poster advertising The Perfect Murder, which opens at BGE on February 15. Adapted from a bestselling crime novel by Peter James, it features Richie and Wallace as a married couple living in the British suburbs. Unlike the cuddly Moons, they have a very dark secret.
“When I read the first script, I thought, ‘Kat and Alfie shouldn’t be there’,” says Richie. “It was uncomfortable to read, yet riveting and dark and sinister, but also had the warmth and charm that Kat and Alfie bring.
They’re a loveless, childless couple and instead of getting divorced, one of them decides they’re going to commit the perfect murder.”
There were early misgivings as to whether audiences would buy into the idea of Kat and Alfie as a scheming mister and missus. But the fish-out-of-water aspect of the casting has turned out to be a positive.
“People are maybe going in expecting one thing and then they get something very different,” explains Richie. “It will also hopefully draw into the theatre individuals who might not otherwise have thought of going, because they recognise our names from television.”
Soap actors often chafe at being typecast. Richie and Wallace try to look on the positives. To many, they will always be Kat and Alfie. Why not embrace this, have fun with it?
“When you’re in a programme like EastEnders, either you accept it or you play it down. We embrace it. A lot of actors would love to be the position we are. Who could play a cheeky cockney couple better than Jessie and me? There are people who are in their late 20s now who started watching us on EastEnders when they were 13, 14 — we’ve been part of their life.”
Richie and Wallace will depart EastEnders in the coming months with a dramatic arc that sets up their Irish adventures. They’ll miss the soap, which they describe as an acting roller-coaster.
“My favourite-ever episode was probably the one where Kat was to marry Andy and Alfie turned up in an ice-cream van, as you do,” says Richie. “The one we hated was where we had suffered a cot death. We’ve both got children and you obviously tap into that when you are acting.
“There was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it on screen. The funeral, which had a little coffin, was shot on a closed set and we just went to pieces. We were a mess. The producers watched and said they couldn’t put it out. They felt it was too real. We were gutted. The whole thing had to be reshot.”
Still, there are occasions he wishes he wasn’t so closely associated with Alfie. “I took over from Christian Slater in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. At the end, my character dies and someone shouts out ‘Don’t die Alfie!’ But that’s how it is. When you’re in people’s living rooms four times a week they are going to associate you with that person.”
The Perfect Murder runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, February 15-20
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