As Liam Butcher’s affiliations to a local gang deepen, we catch up with Patsy Palmer – who plays screen mum Bianca – to talk about the storyline and the pressures facing teenagers and their parents in 21st century Britain:
What have you learned about the way gang culture operates?
Well, once you learn about these gangs, you realise that most of the kids are bullied at the beginning into getting involved. Especially if they’re quiet kids. And then once they’re in with the gang, the more scared they become and the more they have to do to prove themselves. It’s really horrible. If we get one viewer who decides to become a youth worker or feels brave enough to tell the police after watching this storyline, then it’ll have done some good.
I believe there was an encounter with a real-life gang while you were filming these episodes. Is that the case?
When we were on location in north London, there was actually a gang there. They chucked snowballs at the crew. At one point, a lit firework was thrown inside the corridor in which filming was taking place. It just goes to show that this culture is everywhere – just around the corner from where everyone lives.
When they saw me, they didn’t do too much because I had a face they recognised. I thought I could use this to my advantage and sit down and talk to them as I think one of them did say he wanted to be an actor. But that kid wouldn’t be allowed to have a sensible conversation with anyone in the EastEnders crew because he’s surrounded by all the other members of his gang. There’s a fear and a tension there that affects everybody and the energy isn’t very nice.
So does Bianca blame herself for what’s going on with Liam?
She does, yes. Mainly because she’s been in prison twice and then there’s Ricky being absent. She knows it isn’t her fault that Ricky left, but she realises it’s had a big effect on Liam [James Forde] because he was really close to his dad. But I, personally, think that Bianca’s a really good mum. From the beginning, they’ve always shown that her family is always quite happy despite not having any money and I think it’s important that we see that. It makes me think about my own life as I’m playing the scenes – I’ve had amazing opportunities and Bianca just hasn’t. It’s not easy for a lot of people.
Is Bianca scared when she confronts the gang in the Comic Relief episode?
I don’t think she is. You’ve got to remember, she’s been in prison twice and she sees this gang as little kids. Plus, if you see your child acting in a different way because they’re scared, it must hard for a parent not to act. Do you know what I mean? It makes you not want to ever let your kids outside.
And why do you think we have this gang culture at the moment?
I just think that kids haven’t got enough discipline. That’s what it all boils down to. They think they can do anything they want and no one’s going to tell them anything, not even the police or teachers. Society needs to find a balance – you haven’t got to start throwing a blackboard rubber across the room or anything like that. When we were kids, if the teacher had the hump, everyone would be ducking out of the way. I don’t think it should be like that, but I think there should be rules in place. Teachers have to be backed up, the police have to be backed up – they should be allowed to discipline young kids.
All children need boundaries, but you’ll hear kids saying that it’s their human rights being violated. Yet no one’s treating them like an animal, so why do they feel like they’re not thought of as a human being just because they’re being told “no”? It’s all gone mad.
As a parent, I think you need to be firm and stick to it. But I am married and that is a massive factor because I have the support of my husband. But I still find it hard even though I live in a nice place and I’ve got this really good job. So God help people in Bianca’s position who don’t have that support.
What Bianca does have though is Ray, who seems to be a very good influence on the lives of her children…
Yes, Ray’s [Chucky Venn] really lovely. Thank God she’s got him. He’s a great dad. Every time he steps into that house, he’s got that hero quality. I’ve said that it would be nice to have more of Ray around, but not for anything sexual or as a love interest. Usually, in soaps, if there’s a hunky bloke there it has to be about sex. Same if there’s a beautiful woman. But people have got lots of other qualities and I’m sure there are lots of guys who might look at him and think, ‘yeah, I could be like that and make a real difference’.
And where is Ricky [Sid Owen] in all of this?
Well, Sid’s been in LA with Adele! There hasn’t been mention of Ricky yet but I will put it to the writers that there should be because he is Liam’s dad. They’re not on bad terms and Liam has gone to stay with him at times. And I would like to see Sid come back – there’s a lot of comedy in Ricky and Bianca and it’s a shame when viewers don’t get to see that on-screen relationship. But Sid will probably turn up in some mad thing like Breaking Bad. He’ll never come back then!
Will your own kids be watching this storyline when it broadcasts?
I’m not sure I’m going to let them watch these episodes. My 12-year-old boy is quite sensitive so I think he’d be a bit scared. Actually, I think my two-year-old quite likes EastEnders – at the moment he plays this game where he points at the screen and says, “name?” And I say, “EastEnders name or real name?” The other day I brought him in to work and he pointed at Shane Richie and said, “Alfie!” So he’s working it all out. I must look quite scary to him when he sees me on the telly, what with all the shouting and the outfit and the earrings. Especially the earrings.
The EastEnders Comic Relief episode airs between 8.00 and 9.30pm on Friday 15 March on BBC1. See behind-the-scenes images of Patsy Palmer and James Forde filming on location here.