It’s the quiet ones you have to watch, and no character who quietly goes about their business in Soapland is more watchable than EastEnders barmaid, Tracey. Technically the soap’s longest-serving female character, Tracey keeps her counsel in a way utterly alien to most characters in Walford. This may be why she’s known – and indeed has attracted a cult following on Facebook – as Silent Tracey.
Except, of course, Tracey hasn’t been entirely silent. “I’ve had lines since the beginning,” says Jane Slaughter, who plays her, in her Elstree dressing room between takes. “It’s just that those lines are few and far between.”
True, Tracey does break her silence occasionally. After she pronounced last year on the virtues of a Vic curry night, Roxy exclaimed, undoubtedly to viewers’ delight, “I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say.”
Though a woman of few words, Tracey at least says something. There are plenty enriching the fabric of soap who say nothing at all – extras, or supporting artists, who mutely accept change from shopkeepers or silently sup pints as raucous regulars rage mere feet away.
Tracey’s words are so rare and prized that a clip of her talking became a huge hit on YouTube.
Slaughter, clearly, has a character. “A small character, but a character nonetheless,” she says. “For a couple of hours Tracey was even a favourite at the bookie’s for Who Killed Archie!
“If I was slogging away in the background, I might feel differently, but as it is, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve always had enough to keep me interested, but it’s not all-consuming.”
Enthusiasm is evident in her voice (her voice!), for Slaughter still enjoys working on EastEnders despite the dramatic changes the show has undergone over the years – not least the speed at which it’s produced.
“In the early days, we had rehearsals, technical run-throughs and then run-throughs for the producer,” she says. “Doing four episodes a week now [up from the original two], that way of working simply isn’t possible.”
It would take a foolish producer to axe Tracey now, but what of Slaughter’s own road less travelled? Does she yearn for the limelight? After all, she was a successful child actress, appearing in the 1975 BBC version of Ballet Shoes as Petrova Fossil. (Slaughter went to the Elmhurst Ballet and Drama in Surrey, which Jenny Agutter and Hermione Norris also attended.)
“As a child, I was lucky and worked continually. Then I got in to my late teens and I lost my way. I wanted to play it safe, didn’t want to be brave, and never made that leap to adult actress.”
Even so, Slaughter remained on the radar of Julia Smith, EastEnders’ co-creator and its first, famously fierce, producer. “I had given up acting and moved to Devon when the EastEnders job came up.
“When I went to see Julia about it, she said, ‘I’m glad you’re here as I think this is going to run.’ I thought, ‘Good. I might get a year’s work out of it...’”
Twenty-seven years later, Slaughter even gets recognised in the street. “A staggering amount! I’m so bowled over by the affection people have for Tracey. My mother thinks it’s hilarious. She says, ‘Silent Tracey! If only people knew how much you talked!’”