21 years of EastEnders: SECRETS OF WALFORD; EXCLUSIVE SCRIPTWRITER TONY JORDAN TELLS ALL.
AS Mr EastEnders, the power behind the top soap, Tony Jordan has created some of Walford's best-loved characters - only to kill them off at a later date.
He dreamt up the Slaters, Alfie Moon, and the ill-fated Ferreiras. He was the only man able to persuade Barbara Windsor, Ross Kemp and Steve McFadden to return as the Mitchells. He was the mastermind behind such gripping sagas as Who Shot Phil? and Sharongate.
Now, stepping into the spotlight for the first time, the EastEnders Series Consultant reveals the secrets behind his hits... and misses. And how Kat and Alfie's rows were stolen from arguments with his own wife.
When Tony first came to work on the soap as a young writer in 1989, Den Watts was fresh in his watery grave. Desperate to resurrect the character, he campaigned for years for his return.
"I was always a bit miffed that I'd never got to write for Den and Angie," says Tony, 48. "At story conferences I'd say, 'How do we know he's dead? They never found a body'.
"Eventually, just to shut me up, they made me write an episode where Den's body was found and identified by his ring."
When Tony finally got his own way, in September 2003, 17 million viewers tuned in to watch Dirty Den's return - greeting his daughter Sharon with the words: "Allo Princess".
But even major comebacks can go sour. Leslie Grantham, who played Den, dug his own grave for the second time after he was caught pleasuring himself on a webcam in his panto dressing room while dressed as Captain Hook.
"If that Captain Hook stuff hadn't come out I think it would have worked and he'd still be in the show," says Tony. "When I saw him on screen after those revelations came out, suddenly I couldn't believe in the character any more.
"I was starting to love the character and buying into all of it, but after that I saw him as Leslie Grantham - not Den Watts. He was older, and flawed in all the wrong ways. I think a lot of viewers felt the same, and the cast as well, probably."
Grantham's insulting comments about his co-stars - he branded Kim Medcalf (who played Sam Mitchell) "thick" and Jessie Wallace (Kat Moon) "a vile dog" - were just as damaging.
Tony says: "Being actors their reaction would have been, 'Well, I can forgive him for murdering someone, but then he said he didn't like me. Bastard'!"
As EastEnders celebrates its 21st birthday this week, Tony, the show's producer and a dozen core scriptwriters will be on one of their regular long-term story conferences. They will thrash out all the big storylines and the comings and goings they hope will keep viewers gripped for the next two years.
"Introducing a character is always scary because you know exactly who they are and what they are, and it's only your skill as a writer that means other people will get it," says Tony. "Getting rid of people is much easier. You just have a car speeding around a corner on two wheels. Oops! There goes another one!"
One of the show's biggest disasters was the Ferreira family, who even Tony admits were "the least successful characters I created - through no fault of their own."
The family arrived in Albert Square in what was expected to be a huge storyline. The father, Dan, played by Dalip Tahil, was an oppressive and violent bully - eventually his children were going to kill him.
It was all scripted - how they buried him in a shallow grave, how they dealt with it, and how it all exploded," says Tony. "And then Dalip got bloody deported.
"He was actually on the studio floor and they marched him off.
Broken legs, nervous breakdowns - we can deal with that. But when actors are physically taken away by the government and deported, there's not much you can do.
"Fifty scripts had to be reworked. And because all the episodes had been written around this big storyline, we had to keep the same amount of Ferreira material."
Why didn't they just recast, as they'd done with Danniella West-brook - the original Sam Mitchell? "We should've done really," he says. "But Danniella had been gone for a couple of years - we couldn't just have someone else turn up the next day. It would look really tacky.
"We couldn't go, 'Tonight, the part of Mr Ferreira will be played by Michael French with a suntan'. We were trying to do it with integrity.
Then somebody said, "What if Ronnie Ferreira's mate Tariq turns out to be his half-brother and we do the whole kidney transplant thing?'
"And, of course, it was like watching paint dry. 'Can I have your kidney?' 'No. Oh, go on then...'"
When EastEnders came under fire or its lacklustre plots and poor characters, Tony returned to the frontline to help revive things.
"When the show was in the doldrums we knew it," he says. "But EastEnders is a bit like an oil tanker. If you want to turn left at Rio de Janeiro you have to make up your mind somewhere around Southampton.
"It takes a long time - at least a year - to turn the show around because it's such a big machine.
"We'd lost a lot of viewers but we were moving in the right direction. I wanted those viewers who'd left to have another look, which is why we brought back Peggy, Grant and Phil Mitchell."
Not even some of the show's biggest successes were obvious to everyone at the time.
"I was totally against the idea of casting Shane Richie at first," says Tony. "Julia Crampsie, the BBC's casting executive, kept telling me I should see him. But I just had this image of the guy with the mullet from the Daz adverts. And if we had Shane where would it stop? Harry Hill? Les Dennis? Bradley Walsh? But Julia was insistent, so I went to a workshop where we'd see lots of actors and he was fantastic."
Shane's character, lovable rogue Alfie Moon, is particularly close to Tony's heart.
"Alfie is basically me - a Jack The Lad in jeans, cowboy boots and dodgy shirts who wears his heart on his sleeve," he says. "In fact, a lot of the rows he had with Kat were word-for-word arguments I'd had with my wife Tracy.
"We'd be watching EastEnders at home, then an Alfie and Kat scene would start and I'd think, 'Oh shit', because I'd know what was coming.
"And then we'd have another row about how I don't argue properly because when we do argue I'm just making mental notes for stuff to write the next day."
If it hadn't been for the webcam, Den would still be in the show
Ferreiras should have been huge., then the dad got bloody deported
Alfie is basically me.. rows with Kat are my spats with the wife
TOMORROW: TV CRITIC JIM SHELLEY'S VERDICT
WRITE STUFF: Tony Jordan
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Feb 16, 2006|
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