As two of Albert Square’s finest move to this country for a new series, Ed Power hears why they hope to make amends for the disastrous visit in the 1990s.
Fionnula Flanagan had never watched an episode of EastEnders when she was offered a starring role in Redwater, a gritty, Irish-set spin-off of the popular drama.
Nor was Flanagan, a grand dame of Irish stage and screen, au fait with the controversial 1997 episode in which the soap portrayed a visit to Ireland as a weekend among the mucky, violent peasants. So she did her research.
“I was horrified when I saw EastEnders,” she says.
“Everyone in it is just in fights all the time. I thought: ‘This is terrible.’ ”
Redwater is nothing like that. In fact, it isn’t really a soap. In a daring piece of brand extension, two of EastEnders’ most beloved characters, Kat and Alfie Moon (Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie) have relocated to a small Irish village where dark deeds are afoot.
With its twitching curtains and deep-buried secrets, the tone is closer to brooding whodunits such as Broadchurch, while the presence behind the cameras of Borgen director Jesper Nielsen conjures the spirit of Scandi noir.
“Our show couldn’t be more removed from EastEnders,” says Flanagan.
“The director is Danish and the tone is quite filmic. It has a très noir aspect.”
She is eager to reassure Irish viewers — Redwater is a BBC-RTE co-production — that there will be no repeat of the Hibernophobia which characterised EastEnders’ notorious 1990s visit to our shores.
Instead, the idea is to provide an unflinching portrait of small town Ireland.
“There’s no paddywhackery in it at all,” says Flanagan, 75.
“That would leap out at you right away. It has to do with modern Ireland and the tribal connections that run very deal.”
That Redwater would be at pains to side-step offensive stereotypes was a point reiterated by Richie and Wallace speaking to the Irish Examiner last year. Such prejudices simply wouldn’t pass muster today, they said.
“Drunks in the street and all of that,” said Richie.
“I’m from a big Irish family. We weren’t involved in EastEnders back then, thank goodness. It’s like: ‘Oh do feck off.’
“The kneejerk reaction was that ‘Oh, EastEnders are going to come over here and play the dopey card.’ That’s not the case. The producer, Dominic Treadwell-Collins, is from a big Cork family. He wants to set the record straight.”
Redwater, he promised, would be “Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives, with a bit of The Wicker Man”.
Richie continued: “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.”
I’d expected Flanagan to agree with my assertion that, today, it is television rather than cinema that offers the best roles for actors. But she doesn’t see it that way, arguing that American network television — which is, after all, where most of the work is — remains entirely formulaic.
“HBO, Netflix, Showtime, and others like them have been supplying much more interesting American television. But a lot of network TV is incredibly simplified. You know exactly how things are going to play out and that’s on purpose.”
She should know having flitted, through her career, between the big and small screen.
She has starred in prestige productions such as The Others and Transamerica while also earning a pay-cheque in cult series’ such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which she had a recurring role as a wise alien.
In the 1980s, Flanagan also became a figure of controversy when she advocated for Sinn Féin to be brought into the Northern Ireland peace process. With the IRA campaign at its peak, this provoked furore both sides of the border — and saw her predictably condemned in the British media.
It also brought her into the orbit of senior Sinn Féin figures, including Martin McGuinness. She believes the late deputy first minister is owed enormous credit for sitting down with his former enemies and was obviously saddened at news of his passing in March.
“He was a tremendous loss — for Ireland north and south,” she says.
“He was a modern Irish leader who understood the value of co-operation and moving forward in a peaceful way. He was someone of immense courage, nobility, and bravery.
“Brexit is going to bring a great deal of discomfort to the peace process and then you look at the forces of rage and resentment that brought Donald Trump to power.
“Unfortunately we’re all going to suffer the consequences — which is why someone such as Martin will be sorely missed.”
Because Redwater is a mystery, she can’t say much about her character, beyond confirming she is the town matriarch and not the sort of person on whose bad side anyone would wish to fall.
She becomes a person of interest to Kat and Alfie when they travel to Ireland in search of the former’s long lost son.
Director Nielsen has said the show is about how one woman’s search for a lost child opens Pandora’s box...
“How the strong bonds of love in a family can hold everything together, and yet at the same time — destroy everything,” he says. “It has echoes of a Shakespearean drama, told in a rich cinematic style, loaded with humour and suspense.”
Flanagan agrees the drama wrestles with some dark subject matter — the suppressed whisperings and shoulder nudges that were for decades a feature of Irish rural life. That isn’t to say the shoot was an ordeal however.
With filming largely taking place in Dunmore East, the actress relished every moment.
“It was fun — but so bitterly cold. Dunmore East was beautiful. It was lovely to be work at home. Redwater is a decent representation of what ‘tribal’ Ireland is like — it is indicative of what the countryside is like. The close-knit family connections… I don’t know if it pertains to the cities, where you have such a mixed population.
“For rural Ireland, it’s a pretty good representation.”
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