If it hadn’t been for a small fib, Letitia Dean might never have been offered the part of Sharon Watts in EastEnders in 1985. “I did tell a little white lie,” admits the Hertfordshire-born actress. “The show’s creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland wanted real Cockneys, people who’d been born within the sound of Bow Bells. And I told a porkie – I think I said my parents were abroad and that I was staying with an auntie in Hackney. So it was all ‘Awight, Julia. Nice to meet you, gel’.”
And did she have an idea once she’d landed the role of just how popular EastEnders would quickly become? What are her memories of filming those early episodes? “When I first saw Wendy Richard, I nearly curtsied. Wendy was the only what you’d call ‘television name’ in the show at that time. It really was like meeting this wonderful queen and I miss her greatly. But as far as we were all concerned, it was just an eight-to ten-week drama, with only a possibility of it being extended. Then it just snowballed and everybody was taken by surprise.”
Over a quarter of a century later Dean is back as one of the soap’s most enduring characters after an absence of six years. In the past, Sharon has had to endure her father Den being killed (twice) and her second husband Dennis getting stabbed to death. Now she’s once again at the centre of events when she calls on help from Phil after jilting her fiancé on her wedding day, a move that leads to her son Dennis Jr being kidnapped. A traumatic return for Sharon, but is it a happy one for Letitia?
“I still got the first-day-at-school nerves, when you’re stomach’s flipping over and you feel sick. But it was just great seeing everyone and working with the lovely Steve McFadden. Being on the set is quite magical. I love filming outside there. Mind you, ask me that in January when it’s snowing and it might be a different story. I’ll be wishing I was in the caff.”
This week’s drama will unfold over seven episodes, which seems a far cry from Dean’s original stint when BBC1 broadcast just two editions a week. Presumably the pace behind-the-scenes is a notable difference too? “Yes, back then all the rehearsal rooms would be marked out upstairs and we’d have a technical run and a producer’s run. But things move on, don’t they? There is still time for a rehearsal if you get in there quick, you know.
“But I’m having such a lovely time, even getting up at 5.30am isn’t jarring yet. I’m certainly hoping for a year here. I’ve got my special eye cream. I mean, HD is so cruel, isn’t it? Who invented that? It must be a man.”
Dean is quick with praise for her co-stars, citing the amazing stuff being done by Adam Woodyatt, as Ian suffers his mental anguish and the non-stop laughs she’s having with both Diane Parish (Denise) and Tameka Empson (Kim). But is she equally protective of Sharon? “Well, I know her very well. Sometimes you have to go with things. But in real life, people do sometimes act out of character and say things you wouldn’t expect them to. So you have to keep a sense of openness about how things can develop and be different. Our executive producer Lorraine Newman is very good at character insight.”
The thrill for fans, of course, is that we get to revisit a character who we’ve known since she was a teenager. “I’ve always had a lovely response from the public. Sharon’s very strong, she can hold her own, but she’s always had a vulnerability. And people grew up with her. I feel very honoured to be here. One can never presume that they’ll want you back, so it was a very nice phone call to get.”