As soon as Max Branning says to Joey that he wants “a nice, normal, loving family Christmas”, it’s a given that it’ll end up being just the opposite. And sure enough, this festive season will see Max’s guilty secret come spilling out, complications where his wedding to Tanya is concerned and – as has been widely reported – the death of brother Derek. For actor Jake Wood, who took on the role of Max in 2006, excitement levels have surely got to be running high?
“Of course. I’m very honoured to be at the centre of Christmas again. A good EastEnders Christmas is part of British life, it’s a staple really. It was 2007 when we last had a big Branning Christmas and we all know what happened then. And now more fireworks are in store. They are fantastic episodes from Simon Ashdown, a real treat. He’s tied in so many strands and it all comes to a head in a great way.”
Memories of that 2007 episode, in which Max and Stacey’s clandestine affair was shockingly revealed to the family via DVD, do inevitably loom large. So does Wood have any worries that nothing will be able to match that particular cliffhanger?
“You’re never intimidated. There is more pressure around though because the Christmas episodes are often the most watched programme on British TV,” he says. “So you always want to do the best you can. I would put my neck out and say that we had the same feeling around these episodes as we did around the ones from 2007. Everyone ups their game really, the director and all the crew. We all want to make these episodes as brilliant as they can be. So hopefully, if we have all done our jobs properly, they will be up there.”
Of course, speculation is rife among viewers as regards the revelations that are in store, including the distinct possibility that Max could turn out to be Kat’s secret lover. The field has now narrowed to just three suspects, all of whom share the surname Branning. So when exactly will we learn the truth?
“At the moment, everyone wants to know who Kat’s lover is. That’s the week before Christmas and those episodes are, again, beautifully written and with great performances all round.”
And what of the long-running story of what exactly Max got up to in Manchester in late 2011? In recent months, we’ve seen Derek warning and threatening Max that further instalments of cash are needed to appease the outside forces that are piling on the pressure. So what was it like filming the scenes when the subterfuge was finally exposed?
“For most of the year, only a handful of us have known about Max’s secret. We have kept it quiet,” Wood admits. “When we came to film Christmas, the rest of the cast became privy to the news and jaws have been hitting the floor. If we’re getting that reaction within the cast, it’s going to be huge when it’s revealed to the viewers.”
One thing we do know for sure is that actor Jamie Foreman will be exiting EastEnders in December as Derek meets an untimely end. So could matters get so heated that Max ends up killing Derek?
“Well, Derek knows what Max’s weaknesses are. Derek knows Max’s secret, so who’s to say how far Max will go? We will have to wait and see. At the moment, Derek is pushing Max all the way and by Christmas, Max is a man cornered and under pressure. So we will have to see what he is capable of.”
So let’s just say – hypothetically – that Max turns murderous. Would Tanya stand by him?
“I don’t see why not,” says Wood, optimistically. “It depends in what way he was provoked or the circumstances leading up to it. So yeah, you will have to wait and see if that is the case.”
Of course, Tanya has her own priorities – top of the list being her wedding to Max that’s scheduled for Christmas Eve. So how does Max feel about marrying Tanya?
“Well, he’s stood by her throughout the cancer. At the moment, she has got the all clear – how long that will last we don’t know. That’s kind of looming in the background. So that’s certainly focused them and made them appreciate each other in new and different ways. They both see getting married as a fresh start.”
This being an EastEnders wedding though, nothing goes to plan. Following recriminations over her recent car crash with Joey, Lauren smashes the cake and rips the bride’s dress. All of which leads to Max having to covertly rearrange events:
“The wedding is postponed until Christmas Day,” reveals Wood. “And that’s when the drama will unfold. I will be sitting down with the rest of the country and watching on the edge of my seat.”
And what will the repercussions of these episodes be? Could the secrets tear Max and Tanya apart just at the moment when they should be celebrating?
“Max always thinks he can wheedle out of anything. But this will really put them to the test, I think. With Derek dying and then the circumstances surrounding both that and Max’s secret – it will have a huge knock-on effect.”
And if he could sum up the wedding day in three words, what would they be? “Dramatic, romantic and unexpected,” comes the answer. Which is surely just what every bride wants on her big day…
To read what Jo Joyner (Tanya) has to say about Christmas on EastEnders in 2012, click here.