He’s the man who made Danny Dyer landlord of the Queen Vic, resurrected Kathy and killed Lucy – but now EastEnders boss Dominic Treadwell-Collins is putting the finishing touches to his biggest doof doofs yet: the death of Peggy Mitchell and his own exit from the BBC1 soap.
“Come and have a look at the Peggy trailer,” he says, infectious enthusiasm undimmed despite this being his final week in the job. I navigate yet-to-be-filled cardboard boxes in his Elstree office to watch a spectral Barbara Windsor taking in Albert Square for the last time.
“I burst into tears when Barbara told me she wanted Peggy to be killed off,” he admits after we watch the footage. “She rang me last summer and said that she wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. I did ask her to reconsider. Briefly. But you don’t get Barbara to change her mind.”
Windsor’s association with EastEnders dates back to 1994 and, despite having only made sporadic reappearances since 2010, she’s still considered by Treadwell-Collins to be “the guvnor” of Walford. “She’ll tell actors that they don’t realise how lucky they are and to stop complaining. She’s a leader. And she has no qualms about ringing up the executive producer and telling them exactly what she thinks. She’s phoned me throughout my tenure, giving notes on what’s working and what’s not. If I do an episode I’m proud of and I don’t hear from Barbara, then I get worried. Once I called to ask why she hadn’t been in touch and she said, ‘I’m on holiday! I’ll watch it when I get back!’”
Ross Kemp, Barbara Windsor and Steve McFadden in 1994
It was his closeness to his leading lady combined with a desire to give her a fitting finale that’s kept him from leaving until now: “Maybe it sounds a bit arrogant, but I know what I’m doing with this. We’re not doing it because I’m going or to be sensationalist or to get viewers. I love and respect Barbara and I want to give Peggy Mitchell the exit she deserves. Because she’s one of the best TV matriarchs of all time.”
So could he have gone earlier? “If I hadn’t cared. But I also wanted to make sure that the BBC found the right successor. Occasionally, executive producers have left a banana skin as they’ve gone out the door. Egos get in the way and they don’t want EastEnders to do as well without them. But I want it to be great after I’ve gone. So, Sean [O’Connor, who is moving over from editing The Archers] will find that the cupboard is full. Where he decides to take things is up to him but he’ll be amazing.”
When Treadwell-Collins took over in August 2013, the soap was in dire (perhaps Dyer?) need of rejuvenation. Deadwood characters were in need of culling, while plots had become repetitive. Three years on, fans have had their faith restored thanks to a re-injection of authenticity and water-cooler cliffhangers. But it’s not been without stress for the 38-year-old running the gaff.
“I read scripts and storyline documents every night and every weekend. Now I need to get my life back a bit. I still adore EastEnders but, weirdly, I’d stopped living. And you can’t tell a show about life if you’re not living a life of your own. I’ve been single for the entire time I’ve been here, but it’s no coincidence that since I’ve eased off, I’ve finally got a boyfriend.”
Danny Dyer as Mick Carter
That workaholic mentality has resulted in critical plaudits for such dramatic highlights as Shabnam’s stillbirth and the live whodunnit reveal over the soap’s 30th anniversary. Despite the spotlight being shone again on EastEnders, he believes his show is still taken for granted by television bosses.
Pursing his lips, he says, “There’s a real snobbery towards soaps, which is sad. Not from audiences, but from the people who make telly. Everyone knows that soaps prop up the schedules and that new dramas are shown off the back of them, on both the BBC and ITV. But there’s still this attitude of ‘Oh, it’s just EastEnders’. And we’ve had some of the best writers on telly working here. Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham, Sarah Phelps [back this week to pen Peggy’s exit].”
Talk of viewers leads me to ask about shrinking TV audiences in the face of increased competition from streaming platforms, on-demand and multichannel services. EastEnders has lost around half a million viewers over two years. Peggy’s death is sure to be billed as must-see TV uniting fans on their sofas and social media, but will we still be watching the series the same way in ten years’ time? “With so much choice, people do dip in and out, but I think they still like a shared experience. They want to tune in to witness these events and see big characters like Peggy, Grant and Sharon ageing as we’re ageing. So I don’t think that soaps are dying yet. Though I do feel that they need to stick together and not fight each other. We’re all on the same side.”
By fighting, I wonder whether he means the tendency at ITV in 2015 to schedule hour-long episodes of Emmerdale against EastEnders, a tactic that dented the viewing figures of both shows? “It made me so angry,” he says. “It’s not good sportsmanship and it’s the audience that loses out. It’s not the right thing to do. As Netflix and Amazon get bigger, the BBC and ITV need to stop trying to blow each other out of the pool. Because they’re both endangered species.”
And how does he feel when reports emerge about the Government being in favour of cutting back on the BBC’s entertainment content, rumours that usually lead to speculation about EastEnders’ future on BBC1? “EastEnders fulfils all the things the corporation is made for,” he says defiantly. “Raising awareness is key to everything we do. We’re such a diverse show, without being patronising – which is what could happen with programmes like this. So I don’t think you need to justify EastEnders being on the BBC.”
As for Treadwell-Collins’s last hurrah, I point out that there must be a certain amount of wish fulfilment in getting all the main players in the Mitchell clan to share the screen once more. He gets close to giddy, immediately dismissing any idea that it’s a gamble to have Ross Kemp return to acting following a decade’s absence. “No! It’s Ross! And you know that as soon as he puts on the leather jacket he’s Grant again. And anyway, a bit of nerves is good for the actors – you’ve got to keep them on their toes. But you’ll see – Barbara, Steve [McFadden] and Ross all have such a shorthand with each other. It’s strangely comfortable seeing them in scenes together. And when you have Kathy and Sharon in the mix, too – well, that’s magic.”
And is there anything he’s failed to achieve as puppetmaster-in-chief? “There is one character I wanted to get back but couldn’t,” he says, raising his eyebrows and leaving a pause that I mentally fill with some EastEnders drumbeats. “That was Michelle. I really wanted Michelle. And I did try – Sue Tully and I emailed back and forth, but she’s a director now. I briefly considered a recast but it just didn’t sit right. I’d have liked to bring the character back because Michelle carries that big unexploded secret…”
“Grant’s secret son?” I speculate. He nods, laughs and replies: “But there are ways around that… I also thought about the idea of some stunt casting for my final week. Ben Cumberbatch [friends with Treadwell-Collins since their days at Harrow] has said that he seriously wanted to do EastEnders if he had the time. So I toyed with him for a while. But it would have been too unreal and flashy. I’ve got to think about the show going on. That week isn’t the end, it’s the start of other stories, whichever way Sean wants to take them.”
Treadwell-Collins (right) with EastEnders star Adam Woodyatt
As for his own future, Treadwell-Collins confesses that he’s not going to be a regular viewer for a while (“I might stop watching until Christmas”), explaining that it’ll be too painful to see events play out without him. He has a new job lined up but can’t yet reveal what it is. He is, though, staying in the UK and not heading overseas: “My USP is very British. And I think British drama is fantastic and can be even better. So that’s where I’m sticking. I feel that it’s what we British telly people should do.”
And how would he like his years in E20 to be remembered? “The Carters will be my legacy. If you look back at some of the articles, a lot of people were doubtful about Danny Dyer coming in, as they were about Barbara, funnily enough. But we proved everybody wrong.
“I also hope my regime will be seen as one that was important to EastEnders in this decade. I wanted EastEnders to be talked about and for it to feel relevant. When I began, it wasn’t loved by the audience and I hope now that it is.”
EastEnders is on BBC1 tonight (Monday 16th May) at 8.00pm, Tuesday at 7.25pm, Thursday at 7.30pm and Friday at 8.00pm