You have to wonder why Phil Mitchell is allowed inside moving vehicles. In 1999, he went into the Thames at high speed with Grant after going ballistic with a handgun. In 2007, he flipped a Range Rover on a male-bonding weekend with Ian. And now, the Walford hard man is to be left fighting for his life when the car he’s travelling in with Carl is involved in an epic smash up.
“Phil’s like the Black Knight from Monty Python who keeps soldiering on despite getting his arms and legs chopped off,” smiles Steve McFadden. “But this ordeal weakens him. Phil’s getting older and he’s definitely more vulnerable.”
But how much of what we see on screen will be McFadden hurtling through the car windscreen? “Well, my family are involved in the stunt business, so I would never put a stuntman out of a job. It’s their territory, just like they can’t act.
“People have been asking me whether it was amazing to film, but it was a case of lying on a bonnet with some blood on me. And then all my hospital scenes were shot in half a day. I’ve had a really easy time of it – for the last three weeks I’ve been out on my boat!”
So why does Phil decide to get inside a car with Carl? After all, this is a man who’s been vying to leapfrog the alpha males of Albert Square ever since his arrival. Is Phil a mug for joining forces with such an incendiary individual?
Phil hasn’t really got the measure of Carl. He sees him as a wannabe, really. A young pretender. He doesn’t scare him much at the moment, but there is obviously more to him than he realises.
“As for getting in the car – well, it’s the usual inducement: money. For Phil, committing crime makes him feel better about who he is in the same way as retail therapy does for other people. Crime therapy works for Phil.”
And how does McFadden feel about the prospect of Carl usurping Phil as Walford’s top dog? “I’m not holding on to some image of what Phil ought to be. He should be turned over so he gets a chance to fight back. You only truly know someone when they lose everything and fight to get back up.”
The crash itself – which is set to kick off a high-profile autumn that will see the return of both Samantha Womack and Barbara Windsor – certainly makes for spectacular viewing. And those in creative control will be hoping that the scenes give the soap the shot of adrenaline it needs following recent criticism about flagging ratings. But does such talk about EastEnders being in a vulnerable state worry McFadden?
“It’s not my problem, thank God. I wouldn’t want that responsibility,” he says. “I think acting is like dancing: you bring in your clogs, do your dance and then finish and forget about it. I take the show seriously and commit to it 100 per cent, but I don’t get drawn into all that. I like the clarity of coming in and doing my bit.”
McFadden has now been “doing his bit” for 23 years and will have completed his quarter century just as the soap celebrates its 30th anniversary. And while he can envisage a time when he sails off into the sunset to indulge his passion for boats, he does still relish the opportunity to add fresh shades to Phil’s character.
“Sometimes, the things that on the page have not seemed very ‘Phil’ have turned out to be the best stuff. In a way, you have to work harder to make it work and that’s what I was trained to do.”
And would he like to see Phil reunited with his brother Grant, as played by Ross Kemp? After all, the pair – who were originally brought into the show in 1990 – haven’t been seen together on screen since 2006:
“I do remember somebody telling me that there had been a writers’ meeting and it was tabled as to whether or not Phil could survive without Grant,” he reveals. “I was surprised that they were thinking about this because I believed he could. But that’s how much of a duo they were thought of. And while time has moved on and we’ve proved that Phil can survive on his own, I am up for Ross coming back. It would certainly be interesting.”