Where better for a Benidorm virgin to take the plunge than with saucy swingers Donald and Jacqueline Stewart? They were the first characters to spring from Derren Litten’s fertile imagination when he created the show and they’ve appeared in every single episode since 2007.
Always on the lookout for like-minded, sexually adventurous holiday-makers, the couple have broken several beds at the Solana hotel with their antics – even if they insisted they weren’t “really going at it” and that Jacqueline kept “one leg on the vanity unit”!
When I meet actors Kenny Ireland and Janine Duvitski on set in a sweltering hospitality tent, it’s quite disconcerting. They’re dressed in character and sound just like their TV alter egos, but they’re obviously very different people, a respectable pair, yes, and terrible gigglers. As Donald and Jacqueline, they get all sorts of outrageous lines of dialogue and deliver them with relish, but is there ever anything that makes them blush?
“Half the things I don’t understand,” says Kenny. “There was one episode where I had to say, ‘[Jacqueline prefers] the sausage in cider.’ I said, ‘What’s funny about that?’ and had to have it explained to me. I’ve always taken the line that they’re complete innocents. I mean they’re into swinging but quite innocently. I think if we did it with sleaze, it wouldn’t be attractive at all.”
“We try and take the edge off it a bit,” says Janine, who is evidently quite embarrassed by some of Jacqueline’s saucier moments. “If I’m honest, I actually have a bit of a wobbly about it every time I get a script, because I sort of forget. I know it sounds stupid because I’m in it, but I get a script and think, ‘Oh my God!’ What slightly drives me mad is even people like my family say, ‘Do you have to go that far?’ It’s not like we write it! I’m playing what’s written. I just think to myself, ‘Get on with it.’ ”
They both love coming back year after year to film Benidorm – a shoot that lasts several months. “It’s my holiday break, you see,” says Janine. Friends and family often stay with them. “It’s like a popularity pill, this job,” says Kenny. “Suddenly all your friends go, ‘Oh you’re going back out to Benidorm… I’m free that week. I could come out and see you.’ My grandchildren come out.”
Of course it’s work hard too – an intense 11-day fortnight often in broiling heat. Between scenes, Janine tries to read while Kenny plays backgammon with younger cast members. Wherever they go, crowds of fans gather to gawp, sometimes all day long on location. Generally they’re very well behaved.
“You have to take the attitude,” says Kenny, “that that’s why we come out here every year, because eight million are watching us [on ITV]. But some fans get a bit abusive.” Janine adds: “If you’re out in Benidorm, sometimes you do get people going, ‘Perverts!’ ” Kenny admits: “We avoid being out and about together.” Do they ever get any “broadminded” offers from real Benidorm swingers? Kenny laughs: “No!”
He immediately spotted Benidorm’s potential when he saw the first scripts. “I thought the writing was wonderful, although I nearly didn’t get the job because I said to the producer and Derren, ‘I hope it isn’t going to be like Eldorado…’”
Benidorm isn’t universally popular and can be a soft target for lofty critics, but both actors will defend the show against its detractors. Kenny reveals: “We’ve got friends who work in the theatre, at the National and all that, who say, ‘We don’t watch that!’ And I sort of despise them because it’s well written and it’s funny and people we meet here come up and say, ‘You’re wonderful. You’re the best thing. You lighten up my life.’ And I honestly don’t think that’s a bad thing to do.”
Janine is adamant that Benidorm never sneers at the people it portrays, “although we’ve been accused of it. People are having a really good cheap holiday here, having a good time and I don’t ever want it to look like we’re going, ‘These naff people…’” Kenny adds: “That’s the success, because we’ve never patronised these people.”
Between them, they have an impressive comedy pedigree. I first spotted Kenny Ireland in Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques (right) back in the 1980s – a timeless classic. “For me, it was a few days work a long time ago, but the people who watched it tend to be of a persuasion that they have showings of DVDs so they know all the lines. Usually it’s camp waiters in restaurants who come up to me and go, ‘Oooh, Miss Babs.’ They think I know the reply!”
I reel off Janine’s hit list: Citizen Smith, Waiting for God, One Foot in the Grave, The Worst Week of My Life, This Is Jinsy… She gulps as she realises, “I’ve done a sitcom every year for something like 20 or 30 years!” Her claim to fame goes right back to the Mike Leigh play, Abigail’s Party, in 1977.
She laughs when I ask what gormless Ange (left) from Abigail’s Party would make of Jacqueline’s antics. She reckons both women share “a sort of innocence”. Ange was “well-meaning but put her foot in it and said things without thinking. My idea of hell would be to meet these people on holiday, but [Jacqueline and Donald] don’t feel like that.”
Janine more or less created the part of Ange, through improvisation and development, in the Mike Leigh tradition. Has she ever seen the revivals of Abigail’s Party? “I don’t want to be rude…” she falters. “When I first saw it, quite soon afterwards, I thought I don’t want to be critical. Somebody else is doing it, that’s fine, but it made me realise what it must be like to be a writer when people say the lines, not wrongly, but differently.
“But I think everybody should just make it their own. It’s an insight into what a writer must feel when you’re wrecking their lines. They were very good, some of them. It gets done all over and I get a share of writer’s fees from when it’s done in Japan – and I wonder what they make of it.”
Janine loves working with her Abigail’s Party co-star Alison Steadman. “We’ve worked together a lot. We’re bad gigglers. We were at the Old Vic together and then we did Worst Week of My Life.” Kenny thinks they also shared the screen in Blue Remembered Hills (Dennis Potter, 1979). Janine puts him straight: “No, that was Helen Mirren – who hasn’t done much since! She was a giggler.”
Benidorm continues to attract big-name guest stars. Cilla Black, Kate O’Mara, erm, Bananarama… and this year Joan Collins. “She really likes the show,” says Janine, “but we didn’t have a scene with her.” “We weren’t allowed near her!” chuckles Kenny.
So what can we expect from Donald and Jacqueline this series? “More filth!” laughs Janine.
RT’s Patrick Mulkern and Benidorm’s Kenny Ireland realise they have a similar taste in shirts…
Benidorm series six starts Thursday 2 January, 9pm ITV