EastEnders fans got a big surprise at Christmas thanks to the return of Michelle Fowler – but with a brand-new face. So why did executive producer Sean O’Connor decide to re-introduce such an iconic character? And what are his plans for the soap? Read on to find out more:
When and why did you decide to bring back Michelle Fowler?
Even when I was last at EastEnders in 2001, there was speculation about bringing Michelle back. She’s one of the iconic characters from the original cast back in 1985. It will be no surprise to the audience that one of the things we’re trying to do at the moment is to re-engage with the DNA of the show and therefore it seemed an obvious thing to do. One particular reason for bringing her back now is that one of the key relationships in the show is that between Michelle and Sharon. We knew them as young tearaways in the mid ‘80s. So I was very interested in the idea of what they’re like as they approach their 50s; about the strength and depth of female friendship. That seemed a really rich area to investigate.
Did you speak to Susan Tully about returning to play Michelle Fowler and what did she say?
Of course if you’re considering bringing back Michelle Fowler you’d have to consider talking to Susan Tully about it. But she is now a very well respected, hugely experienced TV director. Her acting career is part of her past, it is really a closed door for her. But of course I contacted her immediately before I thought about bringing the character back. I wanted to ask her if there was anything she could share with me and Jenna, and the writing team, about Julia Smith and Tony Holland’s [the original producer and script editor] original ideas for Michelle. It was important to me to make sure she gave the idea her blessing, and it was really delightful when she did.
Is there an added sense of responsibility bringing back such an iconic role, as opposed to introducing a new cast member?
There’s always a great sense of responsibility whoever the character is, whether they’re new or former characters returning to Walford. One of the things that made me convinced to recast the role was that the recasting of Martin Fowler (James Bye) had been really successful. He joined the show, and after a very short space of time, the audience bought him as Martin, and so, as a viewer, did I. I thought it’d make the journey to bring his sister back that much easier, because you have two new actors coming to create this crucial relationship of brother and sister in one of the main families in the show.
What needs to be taken into consideration when bringing back a character after such a long time?
It’s interesting bringing in a character who hasn’t been in the show for 20 years because most of the audience won’t have any relationship with her, apart from being a distant relation who has been off screen for so long. Many people aged 40 plus will remember Michelle Fowler, but many of the audience won’t. So in a way you’re presenting a character that some people know the characteristics of, but also many people who won’t know her at all. You have to satisfy both audiences, so it’s quite a nifty sleight of hand you need to pull off.
Did you have Jenna in mind to play the role?
I worked with Jenna quite a few years ago now when I produced a new version of Minder, also starring Shane Richie and Lex Shrapnel, for Channel 5. Jenna is a very powerful performer, but with real heart, warmth and humour as well. She is wonderful to work with, and when you have such an iconic role you want to give it to somebody you really, really trust. I went into the meeting with Jenna accompanied by Julia Crampsie, our casting director, with nobody else in mind. I basically said ‘you have to do it’. There was a list of one for the role and that was Jenna. That’s partly to do with her own history with the show because it goes back a long way. Julia Smith wanted her in the show’s original cast – she was to play punk Mary Smith, so there is something very special about Jenna’s relationship with the programme. It’s as if there was a certain inevitability that Jenna would one day return to Walford.
There is also the fact that you want to entrust this pivotal character with someone that you know can do it; that they will respect the character’s history with the show, but will also be brave enough to do it their own way. When Jenna asked, ‘how do I play it?’, I said that it’s a bit like if you take on Hedda Garbler or Lady Macbeth – you do it your own way. The text gives you all of the clues for how to play the character. You must inhabit the character’s thoughts and feelings and play it your own unique way.
How did you decide what Michelle’s returning scenes would be?
It’s always brilliant to have a ‘return of the native’ story, when somebody comes back for Christmas. Christmas is the perfect time to have returns because that’s what millions of us up and down the country will be doing. So it’s a great opportunity to reflect how ordinary people are going home at Christmas time, by bringing Michelle back at this particular time of year.
What lengths have been gone to in order to keep Michelle’s return a secret?
We have gone to extreme lengths to keep the secret. I think Jenna has been bursting to tell people. In meetings and in the office we still only call her ‘Tammy’, and we all know it’s a code word. We’ve written that in all the scripts and in all the schedules, so we’ve had a complete blanket ban on her real name. Everybody has wanted it to be a big surprise for the audience. It’s our Christmas present to our viewers. So you get a magical Christmas moment with this iconic character coming home, and she’s dropped into a really big situation as soon as she arrives. We really wanted it to be a surprise. We know that our audience wants to enjoy the stories as they unfold – that’s part of the pleasure of watching the show. There’s nothing to be gained by ruining the audiences’ pleasure with spoilers – I think it’s very sad that some people insist on trying to ruin things for the viewers; nobody gains anything apart from a few click baits online.
How did the other cast react when you told them Michelle Fowler was returning (especially Letitia Dean and Adam Woodyatt)?
I told Letitia Dean and she was absolutely thrilled, because she and Jenna were in the same year at drama school together as children. So we’re articulating a 30 year old relationship between these two women, and that’s something that they already have. As soon as they started working together they had this shorthand, because they’ve known each other for such a long time. That’s something very special that you just don’t get with two actors who are new to each other. Relationships take time to grow. We didn’t have to create a shorthand between them because they’ve already had it for 30 odd years. The same is true with Adam – there’s a great moment when Michelle comes down the stairs on Christmas day, and Ian comes to see her and affectionately says ‘what are you doing here?’. There’s a genuine affectionate recognition in that from Adam for Jenna because they’ve known each other for such a long time. Again, it shows, I think that for Jenna, being part of EastEnders has been the destiny of her career.
What words of advice/direction did you give Jenna about playing the role?
I said that she should make it her own, and do what she always does, go for the truth of the character. Jenna is a hugely experienced screen and stage actress with a string of accolades from the West End and Broadway. I advised her to approach Michelle Fowler as she would any character, go by what’s in the script and then make your own interpretation of her. She has such licence because Michelle has been off screen for a long time. We were also very keen when the character came back not to make it all about Lofty, or Arthur, or Pauline, or the past. We wanted to realise Michelle for 2017. That’s why the story that we’ve evolved for her comes so left of field.
What can viewers expect from Michelle, why has she come back?
Michelle has been away for 20 years and she has changed, in the same way that Sharon has changed, but Sharon has changed on screen. We wanted the woman that came back into the show to be changed by life and be changed by her circumstances. We wanted her to be recognisably the Michelle we knew, Pauline and Arthur’s daughter, but also somebody who has grown up and moved on and is a bit different. She’s been in America for 20 years so of course she’s going to be in some way changed and different than she was when she left.
As we know from her youth, Michelle was always a very complicated girl. She was a troubled, complicated, young woman, and now she’s hitting mid-late 40s she’s an even more complex character. A lot has happened off screen to her, as well as on-screen complications that we already know. The audience can expect her to be as explosive on her return as she was in the mid ‘80s, when she had Den’s child. She is not the sort of woman who would enter or leave Walford quietly.
What did you think when you first saw Michelle’s scenes on screen?
I was a bit teary, because I thought it was very beautiful; the meeting of two best friends. There is an authenticity, a sincerity in that first moment between the two actresses that money can’t buy, and even intense rehearsals couldn’t get you. It’s about all coming home and that’s just what Jenna’s done. She’s come to a place that should have been her home thirty years ago, and now it is. And that’s extraordinarily powerful.
What do you think the response will be from the viewers?
I think they will be very excited, and that they’re going to love the journey they’re on. They’re not going to know what to expect next from this character.
What can viewers look out for in the next few months?
Michelle has come back to Walford with a big secret that she feels she can’t share. Somehow or other there’s a reason she wants to be there with her best friend, Sharon, because she’s got something to say and is terrified about saying it.
And any other storylines you can tease?
After the extraordinary baroque departure of the Mitchell sisters, there’s loads to look forward to in early 2017; the show races into the new year with some fantastic stories. The audience can expect a few shocks, some laughs, some tears. 2017 is going to be EastEnders at its best with new characters round the corner and some big challenges for the ones we already know and love. Watch this space…
You can watch a 60-second rundown of New Year on EastEnders below.
And visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.