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Soaps Interview

Exclusive: Bryan Kirkwood - 'EastEnders' executive producer

By
Bryan Kirkwood

© BBC

EastEnders has remained one of the most talked-about soaps in recent months with storyline peaks including Ronnie's dramatic baby swap confession, Whitney's ordeal with evil pimp Rob, Tanya's passionate encounter with Max on her wedding day and Janine's devastation at losing her grandmother Lydia. The show has also maintained popular and critical acclaim with triumphs for 'Best Soap' at the BAFTAs, RTS Programme Awards, National Television Awards and the British Soap Awards.

Now, as a string of new arrivals begin to descend on Albert Square, Digital Spy catches up with EastEnders' executive producer Bryan Kirkwood to hear what's in store for Walford over the summer and beyond.

After more than a year at EastEnders, how would you sum up your experience so far?
"It's been a rollercoaster! As much as I thought my previous experience at Corrie and Hollyoaks had prepared me for the job, I don't think anything can prepare you for being the executive producer of EastEnders. It's thrilling, satisfying and unpredictable - and it's been a brilliant ride so far."

Can you pick out a single episode that you're particularly proud of, or one that really sums up your vision for the show?
"There's been so many! As I've said in other interviews, I'm very proud of the baby-swap resolution and I thought all of the players came together in the best possible way. I was particularly pleased with the aftermath and Scott Maslen's performance as the newly-grieving father. I thought that Sam, Jessie, Shane and Scott all did their best work to date. I'm also very proud of Billie's death episode, which we won the BAFTA for. More recently, I have a soft spot for the episode where Lydia died in Janine's arms."

As Billie's death episode received particular acclaim, does it encourage the show to do more in terms of simple, understated drama, rather than the more overblown material?
"It's actually a balancing act and if you do too much of one or too much of the other, then you're always going to leave some people unsatisfied. For me, the really interesting thing about EastEnders is that every member of the audience expects it to be 'their' EastEnders, and quite rightly as the viewers pay for it out of their licence fee. We have tried to keep a curb on some of the bigger EastEnders clichés, such as scenes of gratuitous shouting. But we need to strike a balance between big, blockbuster drama and those quieter, domestic moments."

Ronnie tells Jack he deserves better and she is going to put everything right.
You've said in previous interviews that you like the way EastEnders can tell big, headline-grabbing stories. However, after the reaction to the baby swap plot, is there a temptation to play it safe for a while or is it business as usual?
"Well, the most frustrating thing for me that came from the baby swap scrutiny was the idea that we might have 'done it on purpose' or that we consciously seek to outrage the audience. That's just not true and it would be counter-productive - why would we seek to alienate our viewers? We're still the same show and we still aim to entertain the audience with exciting, blockbuster stories."

Viewers have noticed that character interaction is much improved on EastEnders since you've taken over, and characters no longer seem to be locked away in their own individual storylines. Has that been a particular aim of yours?
"I'm delighted that the audience have noticed that - I certainly did want to look at the way the Walford community interacted. All of these characters live on the same Square, so I enjoy it when you get scenes between unexpected characters, like Phil and Zainab for instance, who don't normally come across each other. I think it's always interesting to see scenes between characters who wouldn't normally interact."

Can you tell us what your future plans are for the Beale family and whether Lucy and Peter will return?
"Ian Beale is incredibly important to EastEnders. As I've said before, Adam Woodyatt is one of the most underrated actors on TV - he really can turn his hand to anything and he can have me in tears with the blink of an eye! We have a barnstorming story on the way for Ian that gives him an unexpected but brilliant new direction. And I can confirm that the Beale twins will be back at some point in the future. The Beale family is essential to EastEnders and they will regain their rightful place in Number 45."

EastEnders' stars John Partridge and Marc Elliott bag the Fatal Attraction prize as Christian and Syed.
What are your future plans for Christian and Syed?
"I'm a big fan of Johnny and Marc and I'm very much enjoying seeing them back in the limelight where they belong. We've got thrilling plans for Christian and Syed. I'm keen for them to stop being defined merely as our gay couple. It's a new experience for all of us to have a happy, successful and loving gay relationship in EastEnders - they're the first for a long, long time and perhaps we've focused too much on what makes them different. We're working hard to make sure that we treat them in the same way that we do every single other character."

There's been lots of new signings announced recently but they've mainly been relatives of existing characters. Would you consider bringing in an entirely new family any time soon?
"We've got an enormous cast and it's an embarrassment of riches, really. We have so many fantastic characters played by very talented actors, so there's not much room at the moment to bring in an entirely new family. I'm delighted with the expansion to the Moons and Tanya's family, as well as bringing in Dot's sister Rose. The new characters are excellent additions to a cast that's already very strong."

Many of the fans online have been really positive over what you've done with Janine in recent months…
"Janine is one of my favourite characters. For me, she is one of the best soap bitches and I reckon there's a lot of imitators on other shows based on Charlie's fantastic performance. The Lydia storyline was perfect for showing a richer colour to Janine's character - we saw a completely different side to her as Janine fell in love for the first time and saw what her life could have been like without Pat and Frank. After the tragic departure of Margaret Tyzack, Heather Chasen quickly made the part of Lydia her own - and it was bittersweet that we'd always planned that Lydia would die. That was the story we embarked on - we're following a very clear thread for Janine and it's going to get more interesting as time goes on."

Steve John Shepherd as Michael Moon
Viewers are also becoming more intrigued by Michael Moon. Will he be around for a while, or do you think he's a character with a natural shelf life?
"Michael is going to be here for a long time. I'm delighted with how Steve John Shepherd has made such an impact as Michael - he's got a very unique, spooky presence on Albert Square and he's capable of a lot of things. We've extended his family by bringing in his brothers Tyler and Anthony, so that character is going to dominate over the coming months and I'm excited to see how the audience reacts to his behaviour."

How will Mandy Salter slot back into Walford when she returns later this year?
"I love Nicola Stapleton, having worked with her elsewhere, and Mandy is going to be like a breath of fresh air when she arrives back. She's 20 years older, but she's just as outrageous and uncompromising as ever! Mandy is going to turn the life of one Walford resident upside down."

We've heard that Mandy will have a manipulative streak, but is it important that she won't just be another Janine?
"We have examined that thought - she mustn't be another Janine and I believe that Mandy is different. Janine is a damaged little girl who's never managed to grow up and takes it out on everyone around her. However, Mandy is very pragmatic and although she's the result of a life on the streets, she's a survivor and isn't down on her luck. Mandy knows what to do to get by, so I see very clear differences between the characters."

Many viewers have expressed disappointment that the characters of Vanessa and Greg have seemed underdeveloped. What are your thoughts?
"It's fair to say that Vanessa and Greg perhaps haven't been utilised to the best of their abilities. But we haven't seen anything yet with Vanessa - she's set to get a lot more screen time in the coming months. I hope that the audience who have felt disappointed so far are pleased with what they see."

Tanya insists it is just a fling and she is happy with her life.
There have been a lot of fans suggesting that we've seen too many infidelity storylines on EastEnders in recent times. Is the team aware of that feedback?
"There was a period towards the end of last year where we overplayed our hand with too many affairs and too much bed-hopping. We learned a lot from that period, and we've got better at balancing our stories. Max and Tanya's affair has been brewing for a long time and I defy anyone to ignore the amazing chemistry between Jake Wood and Jo Joyner. Max and Tanya are one of those all-time classic couples - they're Den and Angie, they're Kat and Alfie. They can't live with each other and they can't live without each other! I'm really enjoying their storyline."

Are storyline leaks a problem for the show?
"We have a big team that works very, very hard to create a show that's as good as it is, so when people leak it to the press, it's just disappointing. For us, and for the viewers who have their enjoyment curtailed. We manage what we do release to generate interest in the best possible way, so it's just unfortunate when leaks happen."

Some viewers have asked whether we need more 'classic' EastEnders storylines - dark and gritty ones. Do you think that's the case?
"It's an interesting question because, towards the beginning of the year, the one question I was constantly asked was when EastEnders was going to lighten up! We started the year with the baby swap and Whitney's sexual exploitation, so I don't think there's any truth in the accusation that EastEnders needs to be more gritty."

> For chat about Phil, Shirley, Denise, Patrick, Jean and more, read the second part of our interview with Bryan in Soap Scoop. Get the Inside Soap magazine on your iPhone or iPad

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