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Exclusive: Bryan Kirkwood (Executive Producer, 'EastEnders')

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Bryan Kirkwood

© Lime Pictures

During his three-year tenure at Hollyoaks, Bryan Kirkwood created some of the most memorable storylines and characters in the soap's history. Following the success of the McDean phenomenon, he announced his decision to stand down from the role as the show's leading producer in order to pursue other projects. He remained with production house Lime Pictures to head up E4 spinoff Later, which featured the British Soap Award-winning parachute death. Earlier this year, he succeeded Diederick Santer as executive producer of EastEnders - a job he's eyed for years. Here, in his first interview since taking helm of the Good Ship Walford, Bryan speaks about his plans for the BBC serial, Zöe Lucker's casting, Lisa Fowler's whistlestop return and Barbara Windsor's "epic" departure as we enter into a new era of EastEnders.

Firstly, congratulations on EastEnders' success at the British Soap Awards!
"What a night! I'm so chuffed for Diederick and the team. It's a brilliant send-off for him as he leaves the BBC to pursue his own projects but it really raises the stakes for me next year…"

How does it feel to take over a soap that has been doing so well recently?
"It's exciting, yet respectfully intimidating. Like any show, there's always an opportunity to move on to the next chapter - the next burst of energy. Diederick and the team did the best job over the last three years, culminating in the Soap Award-winning spectacular live episode. It feels like the right time to be taking over."

How different a ship is it to helm compared with Hollyoaks?
"There are loads of similarities and at the same time, plenty of differences. They're both large-volume serial dramas and I have the same large pile of scripts that never gets any smaller. And of course, there's a large and varied cast. The similarities are pretty clear. However, the scrutiny on EastEnders is immense - far greater than Hollyoaks. There's a huge sense of responsibility on EastEnders, too, what with the size of the audience and their age range."

How has everyone adapted to your arrival?
"Everyone's been really welcoming. I didn't know what to expect from a show that has such a large and well-established cast that's full of people with many years more experience than me. I can honestly say that they've been a joy to work with. They've really responded well to my plans and I'm so excited to be working alongside such an amazing team."

What was your first week like?
"It was surreal, I'll admit that! I had a handover week with Diederick and I shadowed his diary in the crossover. Then it was just me. It's quite an extraordinary situation to have people like Barbara Windsor, June Brown and Pam St. Clement queuing up outside your office to see you. I've watched these people on television all my life and I'm a massive fan, but you have to overcome that and realise that you have a job to do - that kicked in very quickly!"

Had you been on the Square beforehand?
"Diederick gave me a tour of the exterior set some weeks previously and the obvious thing that everyone says it that 'it's really small'. It's brilliant, though. It's like having a massive train set to play with."

What's your overall vision for the show?
"The obvious fear is that I'm going to turn EastEnders into Hollyoaks - but that's not going to happen. Quite the contrary. I feel the storytelling tactics on Hollyoaks - like the dream sequences and flashbacks - work brilliantly because that's how it was originally conceived. In contrast, my approach to EastEnders is to make it as real as possible. It must exist in reality. Over the course of 25 years of story, the sense of it being a real place with real people has occasionally been lost. I'd like to retrieve that and ensure that sense of reality runs through every story."

Did you set yourself any personal goals for your producership?
"I want to continue the successful storytelling that Diederick has established. His legacy is a show that tells big, satisfying, talked-about stories. That's what I like doing best and I'd be more than happy if we can continue that over the next few years."

When does your first episode air?
"It's June 7. Diederick and I share the executive producer credit for two weeks."

Is there anything in those episodes that marks your arrival?
"In the first episode, there are a handful of arrivals. That wasn't part of the plan, but it was quite nice that all these people turn up, bringing a burst of fresh energy with them. We have Zöe Lucker's first appearance as Vanessa Gold. There's Kim Fox reappearing, played by Tameka Empson. And we also have Ellen Thomas who plays Mercy's Nigerian grandmother Grace, too. So it feels like it's the start of a new chapter."

How did the recent spate of axings come about?
"EastEnders has a huge cast and I think it's imperative to keep things moving in the right direction. Every couple of years, soaps have to look at who's performing well; who's come to the end of their story; and which families need rebooting. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with performance and it all comes down to refreshing a show as a whole. Unfortunately, that means some hard decisions have to be made and it's a horrible process for everyone to go through."

Were you disappointed when Lacey Turner expressed her intention to leave?
"I'm naturally disappointed that Lacey's going. Diederick had brought me in on her intentions some months ago, so I knew it was on the cards. I wish her the best of luck, though. She's one of the most talented young actresses on British television and she's had a huge five years here, so I completely respect her reasons for wanting to move on. I'd welcome her back with open arms, but for now, it's about sending her out in the best way possible and finding the next actress to fill Lacey's shoes. When characters like Stacey leave, it gives you the opportunity to tell a brilliant story."

Is it quite a burden to be the producer responsible for Barbara Windsor's exit?
"It's not a burden - it's a massive honour! My first big story that I got my teeth into was Peggy's exit. Over the course of 15 years, she's become the quintessential matriarch of the show. We can't get it wrong and I'm really excited about it."

What feel does her exit have? Would you rule out returnees?
"All I'll say about Peggy's exit is that it's both epic and poignant. As for returnees, I wouldn't rule it out."

Kat and Alfie were your first signings - how did the idea of their return come about?
"At around the time I started in my handover capacity, Diederick, John [Yorke] and I got together to talk about Barbara's exit and the massive hole she'll leave at the heart of the programme. We talked about who - currently and in the show's history - could fill that gap. Nobody can come close to filling that Barbara-shaped hole, though. So we quickly came to the conclusion that Kat and Alfie, as two other extremely popular characters, were right for a comeback.

"We've talked at length about Kat and Aflie: Where have they been? Are they still together? Are they still in America? Have they been in touch with the family? Rest assured, all of those questions - and more - will be answered when they return. It's been so exciting to be talking about two amazing characters and to fill that five-year gap."

Did you arrive at EastEnders with Zöe Lucker in mind for a role?
"There were no preconceived ideas. It all came about when Simon Ashdown - who I enjoy working with enormously - pitched the idea of a new character, Vanessa Gold, as a Zöe Lucker-type. So we approached Zöe and we were just delighted when she said yes.

"Vanessa brings a different flavour to the show. She's very strong-minded, but she's quite a positive character. EastEnders has a lot of very strong, feisty, shouty women and it's great fun - Shirley, Bianca, Carol, Zainab, Denise, the list goes on. We wanted Vanessa to come in with a different energy and although she doesn't suffer fools gladly, she has a real sense of herself. She knows that she's likely to rub women up the wrong way and she knows what she wants. But she doesn't intimidate or use bullyboy tactics. She's clever, interesting and she might just have a secret…

"She's a force of nature with Max. With Jo Joyner on maternity leave, we needed a story for him and we now have another fantastic actress for him to work opposite. Vanessa also comes with her daughter Jodie Gold, who's played by a talented new young actress called Kylie Babbington. I'm really excited about her - she's a ray of sunshine."

Where did the idea of Lisa's return come from?
"We have Louise back on screen and it felt that it was an obvious opportunity to approach Lucy Benjamin and ask her to return to help that story along. Lisa was part of one of the biggest storylines in soap history, so I'm intrigued to see how her return affects the people who she has connections with - Peggy and Phil. I'm really happy with the reasons for her return…"

Are there any plans to introduce any new sets? Or use sets a little more than they're being used currently?
"The external set - the Square, Bridge Street, Turpin Road - is an amazing one to work with. I don't think we're enjoying the space as much as we could do. I think it could reflect a typical London suburb a little better and I also think that we could make it a more workable area. Coronation Street has the factory and Emmerdale have taken steps to replicate that but what we have on here is a thriving, busy and buzzing East-End market, so I'd like to see much more of that. We'll be using the external sets a lot more to showcase what the show's known for - and to take it back to its roots."

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