As David Essex’s Eddie Moon departs EastEnders in a frenzy of emotional fireworks that makes the conflagration at his curio emporium seem like a damp squib, we might ask: why so soon?
Admittedly, a demented Vanessa touching your knick-knacks might have even the hardiest soul eyeing escape, but Eddie has been ensconced in E20 for a mere six months. That’s less than the time between Ian Beale’s baths and longer than a couple of his marriages.
And such was the fanfare upon David Essex’s arrival – “a brilliant signing,” enthused executive producer Bryan Kirkwood in January when his casting was announced – surely there’s something fishy about his swift exit.
Short, sharp shock
Apparently not. EastEnders says that Essex’s Walford sojourn was always meant to be short. The singer/actor’s busy schedule wouldn’t allow anything else. (This schedule is also to blame for his previous abdication of an EastEnders role: in 2005, he’d signed up to play Honey’s dad, Jack, but had to withdraw when the role was expanded and clashed with his musical endeavours.)
Essex’s exodus is entirely expected, then, but usually when a soap and a high-profile signing split so swiftly, it’s down to what in the music industry are diplomatically called “creative differences” – which is to say one side or the other, or both, were unhappy with the situation.
There are many for whom soap stardom isn’t as comfortable a fit as they initially imagined. Best known as The Gentle Touch’s DI Maggie Forbes, Jill Gascoine was cast as EastEnders’ Glenda Mitchell in October 2009. However, when it came to filming later that year, the actress, who lives in LA with husband Alfred Molina, felt she couldn’t continue in the part.
“I was so looking forward to playing Glenda, but having spent the last 15 years working in the US – largely acting in single drama and writing fiction – I felt, on arrival, I lacked the right experience to film such a big continuing drama,” she said, with admirable honesty. And so Glenda was recast and Glynis Barber got the role.
Even when actors do work in soap for a not-insignificant time, they can still feel ill at ease. After Phil Daniels left EastEnders – long after the fading of the inevitable platitudes of an exit statement in which he talked of the “absolute pleasure” of working on the show – the Quadrophenia actor, who played Kevin Wicks for two years, decried the soap’s lack of laughs and called bosses “clueless”.
For whatever reason – and there are plenty, from the workload to a perceived lack of status – some actors find working on a soap so difficult that the wonders of a regular income can’t compensate. As well as being recognised wherever you go – having once walked down the street behind Marc Elliott (EastEnders’ Syed) and heard every other passerby call out his character name, it drove me mad, never mind him – there’s the press intrusion.
Undoubtedly, most major soap stars have had their phones hacked by the tabloids, at one time or another. And not just the stars. So convinced were two EastEnders publicists that their phones were being hacked that one left another a voicemail detailing June Brown’s decision to quit the soap.
Of course, Brown was going nowhere, but the story of Dot’s departure duly appeared in the News of the World, confirming the publicists’ suspicions. While Essex’s exit may have always been part of the EastEnders plan, sometimes producers do have to deal with curveballs. Well, why should characters be the only ones confounded by circumstance?
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 27 September.