In the late afternoon of 19th February this year, Gillian Taylforth was sitting in the back of a taxi, wearing sunglasses and a large headscarf, muttering over and over to herself: “Don’t say, ‘Hello Steve’, don’t say,‘Hello, Steve’!”
She was preparing to appear in a live scene during the 30th birthday episode of EastEnders, the series in which she played Kathy Beale, a London mother with a life as tragic as Antigone’s or Medea’s. Having appeared in the soap from its very first episode, Kathy was written out in 1998 when Taylforth decided to quit. Her character returned to the screen briefly in the following years but was eventually killed off in a car crash abroad in 2006.
Taylforth’s appearance this year, then, was planned as a surprise. She had been allowed to tell her partner, but not her children, Jessica, 23, and Harrison, 16. She told them, though, to make sure to watch Thursday’s episode of her old show because she had heard something very funny was going to happen.
After completing the scene – and remembering to address co-star Steve McFadden not by his own name but that of his character, Phil Mitchell, Kathy’s ex-husband – she went back to the dressing room. “On my phone, there was a message from my daughter saying, ‘Oh God, Mum, is it true you were in it?’ And then my son texted me: ‘Thank you, Mother. Ninety-nine per cent of the population know you’re back in EastEnders and one per cent, your beloved son, doesn’t.’ I asked them why they hadn’t watched it and they said they were busy.”
Taylforth is telling this story on a muggy August day in Elstree because another secret she was keep- ing at the time was that the one-line greeting she filmed for the live episode was the beginning of a storyline marking her long-term return to Albert Square.
And so she will again be working 12-hour days at the soap opera’s four-studio lot in the Hertfordshire town of Elstree, where groups of the keenest view- ers stand at the gates all day, hoping to spot the cast as they drive in and out.
When we meet, Taylforth has been filming for a couple of weeks, although away from the main cast. “Lots and lots of location work – bits and pieces in the Arches and a pub and a park somewhere,” she says, in that familiar bark of a voice.
So can we conclude from that shooting schedule that her comeback begins with various characters glimpsing Kathy in the distance? Taylforth looks to her BBC minder, who optically advises silence.
This is Taylforth’s third return to the series since she first left, having reappeared for two stints at the turn of the millennium to tie up some storylines. Was it an easy decision to resume the role? “Well,” she says, “when they asked me this time, I didn’t even think it was to ask me back.”
She had been invited to the home of EastEnders showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins to discuss “doing something for the 30th anniversary”, but assumed it would be something like presenting a cake to Adam Woodyatt (who has played her on-screen son Ian Beale since the show’s inception) at the anniversary party.
“Dom told me that they wanted me to come back. And he got all emotional and cried. I was so shocked that I didn’t. But then I got into the car to go home and sobbed: ‘They want me back! They want me back!’”
But presumably you said, “Hang on a minute! Kathy died in a car crash in South Africa?”
“Yeah, I was wondering about that and he told me a little bit. Obviously, she was killed off- screen. And it’s funny because a lot of people have always said to me, ‘Why don’t you come back to EastEnders?’ And when I say, ‘I’m dead!’ they always respond, ‘Well, I never saw that!’”
In a world of conspiracy theories, where some people think Elvis Presley is still alive and rides Shergar every morning, Kath’s return should not challenge viewer credulity too much. The best guess must be that her death was either faked or misreported? Taylforth laughs and looks at the publicist, who shakes her head. “I can’t say,” says the actress. “The truth will out.”
Can she reassure us, though, that it won’t be like the notorious comeback of the dead Bobby Ewing to Dallas, where his fate was retroactively revealed as Bobby’s wife’s nightmare while he was in the shower? “It won’t be like that. It will be something feasible.” A growly giggle. “You don’t want to see me coming out of the shower!”