For EastEnders actor Steve McFadden, it’s been an emotional year. Back in May, he was sharing scenes once again with his beloved screen mum Barbara Windsor. But for him, it was a sorrowful experience.”I wanted her to come back and stay. Not come back and then go again. So I was quite melancholy about it,” he admits. “Everyone else was celebrating because Barbara was back, but I felt that it was a bittersweet return. It was the end of an era. I was proud but sad because I wouldn’t be working with Barbara anymore.”
Windsor’s character – Mitchell matriarch Peggy – was, of course, killed off in a critically lauded episode that ended her two-decade-long association with the show. But for many, it was McFadden’s performance as Peggy’s tortured son Phil which hit that week’s emotional high note, particularly in a scene where he was seen in despair on a bench in the Square as he read a final letter from his mother.
“It’s one of those moments that people still stop me in the street to talk about,” McFadden reveals. “I’m very proud of that scene because it encapsulated what the relationship between Peggy and Phil was all about. We did it in one take and that guttural cry was completely unrehearsed. I could hear Barbara reading the words, so I was very much in touch with her voice. I felt totally connected to Phil, to Barbara, to Peggy – to everything.”
Listening to McFadden be so expansive about his feelings is a stark reminder that the man is most definitely not Phil Mitchell. Rada-trained and more softly spoken than his character, McFadden is an actor who remains passionate about his craft and what he wants to achieve at EastEnders.
“I try and do a good job every day, even if it’s just the smallest scene,” he says. “I’ve never understood it when actors say that it’s just a simple, boring scene. Scenes are as complicated as you make them. You can find levels in the simplest things.”
Not that he’s been given much in the way of low-key scenes this last year, what with Phil reeling from crisis to catastrophe following a diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Viewers have seen him smash up the car lot with a digger, cough up blood during a drunken showdown at the Vic and be hospitalised following a cliffhanger collapse.
It’s a performance that has earned McFadden the Best Actor prize at the Inside Soap Awards and an outstanding achievement gong earlier in 2016 at the British Soap Awards. Not that the 57-year-old can explain the secrets of great drunk acting: “There’s no explanation. You can’t just will it. Acting’s like a slippery snake – you think you’ve got hold of it and suddenly it’s out of your grip again. You can temporarily nail it, but you can never own it.”
But come on, he must surely know how he managed to turn the pallor of his face from purple to green to grey during one memorable fight scene with the recently returned Grant (Ross Kemp)? In that one stark moment, it really did seem as though Phil was expiring before our eyes. “It was just one of those magic moments. The make-up department didn’t have anything to do with it, but they did mention that I’d gone a strange colour. I wasn’t aware of it at all.
“All I can say is that if I’m supposed to be drunk, for example, then I just believe I’m drunk. I never really draw on experiences or anything like that – I just believe in the whole thing. Grant isn’t Ross and Peggy isn’t Barbara – it’s just Grant and Peggy. Being in a soap is quite methody. You’re there so often that the cameras just dissolve and it becomes part of your life. The walls just evaporate and this pretend space becomes a reality. It really does.”
As for the future, Phil must next face a liver transplant – with his own son Ben being a live donor. Of course, there’s always the possibility of alcoholic Phil falling off the wagon again, but McFadden is hopeful that his character is now on the road to sobriety. “I hope so, because otherwise I’ll be in trouble. It’ll be the end of the road,” he laughs.
I point out that, in the past, he’s said that he’ll take whatever storylines are thrown at him and that it’s his job to just make it work on the studio floor. But he openly admits now that he’s nowhere near ready to call time on the role he’s inhabited since 1990. “I do know that actors get concerned about the future and want to know what’s happening six months in advance. So there is the temptation to want certain types of storylines. But I’ve always opened my arms to the nature of soaps – you don’t know the end until you get to the end.
“Having said that, I’m hoping it’s not the end for Phil. I’m hoping he’s going to stay sober and that all goes well. Although, of course, happy endings are only ever temporary in soaps.”
As for who could aid Phil in his recuperation, he won’t be drawn on whether it will be wife Sharon or the newly single Shirley. “I think he should have a harem!” That laugh again, a sound so rarely heard from the often monosyllabic Phil. “Isn’t it interesting though that Phil’s exes – Kathy, Sharon and Shirley – have all stayed in the area? The three loves of his life are still on the Square.”
As we wrap up, a hint of that melancholy he mentioned at the outset of the conversation returns when I ask him about whether he’d like to see Ross Kemp return for further appearances as Phil’s brother Grant. “Yes, I would love that. But time goes on and the show changes. I’ve lost Barbara, Ross has come and gone and I’ve soldiered on,” he says, a touch of wistfulness in his voice.
And when, I wonder, does he feel that EastEnders is at its best? A pause and then comes a typically well-considered response: “Whenever the audience cares and is invested in a character. It could be breast cancer, it might be someone suffering with alcoholism or a story about domestic abuse. For me, it’s when you’re watching the show and the characters feel like they’re reaching out to you and you to them. It’s about making a connection with the viewers. And it’s just nice to know that I’m still appreciated. It’s really lovely.”
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