Being at the helm of one of the BBC’s flagship shows takes its toll. Just ask Dominic Treadwell-Collins, the Harrow-educated executive producer who, in 2013, rejuvenated an ailing EastEnders by bringing in such characters as Mick and Linda Carter (Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright) and sparked a 12-month whodunnit when he killed off Lucy Beale. But after nearly three years in charge, he was in need of a change.
“By the end, I was broken,” Treadwell-Collins, now 39, admits. “Ireland was the one thing that kept me sane while I was at EastEnders. My family came from Skibbereen in West Cork – my dad moved over to London when he was 16 but the family farm is still there. It’s where I’ve spent every Easter and summer all my life. And I used to go back regularly with my scripts and just read and breathe and walk. But as time went on, the Ireland weekends became fewer and fewer because I was working so hard that I wasn’t living a life.”
Walking away from such an all-consuming show must have been incredibly hard? “It was one of the most amazing things in my life. What I miss is having an idea and it being on the telly three months later and reaching all those people. But I’m glad I left while the party was at its peak. And my boyfriend saw me at the tail end and I don’t think he’d let me go back there anytime soon. I was single for most of the time I was there and EastEnders became my wife.”
His new drama, Kat & Alfie: Redwater, serves as both a love letter to his homeland and a final farewell to the world of EastEnders. But it is a gamble. EastEnders in Ireland are three words that instantly conjure up awful memories of one of the soap’s darkest hours. A triple bill – broadcast in September 1997 – that saw the Fowlers and Beales travel from London to County Dublin to find their long-lost relatives. The result? Complaints made by the Irish embassy and outrage from the likes of comic Brendan O’Carroll that led to the BBC having to make an apology.
“Yes, it’s 20 years since EastEnders went to Ireland and donkeys walked on the streets, while the locals riverdanced around and juggled potatoes,” says the man who – two decades on – is taking former Walford regulars Kat (Jessie Wallace) and Alfie (Shane Richie) over to Ireland for their own long-lost relative hunt.
Thankfully, the result couldn’t be further removed from those embarrassing stereotypes. “I wanted to right those wrongs,” he says. Mercifully, Redwater manages to exorcise the demons while also being a world away from the cheap soap spin-offs of past years.
“It’s Shane and Jessie giving their best Broadchurch,” Treadwell-Collins explains. “We didn’t want scenes of them screaming at each other in a pub. I’ve seen that a lot already. And it would have made them feel cartoony compared to everyone else.”
In a deliberate move, life on EastEnders isn’t referenced (“it shouldn’t matter if you’ve never seen it”), so don’t go expecting any “You ain’t my mother!” callbacks should Kat locate the offspring she goes in search of: “We wanted a show that had its legs in EastEnders but also stood apart. It’s a whole new environment to play in. And you can be a bit more lyrical and have more dramatic licence because it’s not kitchen sink.”
EastEnders, of course, goes on – now run by Sean O’Connor, the former editor of The Archers, who has made his own mark by controversially recasting Michelle Fowler and killing off the Mitchell sisters.
“The death of Ronnie and Roxy made me really sad,” admits Treadwell-Collins, when I ask about the current state of the show. “They were my inventions when I was story producer and I loved them. But when you leave, it’s like putting your children up for adoption and watching somebody else bring them up. You’re never going to agree with everything someone does and there were probably decisions I made that previous producers were sad about. You can’t get over-emotional about these things because every producer has to make the show their own. You’ve got to support them and stand back.”
I can’t help but wonder, though, about his reaction to New Michelle, seeing as he said in his exit interview last year that he’d been unable to tempt back Susan Tully, the original actress to have played the role. Would he have ever attempted a recast? “I considered it when I first arrived and then decided against it at the last minute. I wanted Susan Tully and she wouldn’t do it because she’s a director now. But she said that one day, she might sit in the corner like Lou Beale. So I thought, ‘no, I’m just going to leave this alone’. But I understand why they’ve done it because Michelle has that rich history.”
As regards the timing of Redwater, I point out that it’ll be airing on Thursdays at 8pm, the plan being to inherit that night’s EastEnders audience and – presumably – steal viewers away from ITV’s Emmerdale. As someone who, in that same chat, spoke out against competitive scheduling (“it’s not good sportsmanship. The BBC and ITV need to stop trying to blow each other out of the pool” being his words), isn’t he now guilty of doing just that?
“I know! I did say that,” he says with a sheepish smile, “but Redwater isn’t a soap. And besides, Emmerdale’s doing so well that it could face some healthy competition. It’s not like the old days when Emmerdale was number three. It’s brilliant at the moment.”
As it turns out, the election leadership debates are playing havoc with the schedules so Redwater won’t be going head to head with Emmerdale until next week.
As for future projects, there’ll be a three-part BBC1 drama, written by Russell T Davies and directed by Stephen Frears, telling the story of the sex scandal that ended the career of then-Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. “Russell and I became pen pals when I was at EastEnders. He used to send me little email critiques of the episodes, which was lovely.
“So when I started at Blueprint [the company where Treadwell-Collins now works as Head of Television], I sent him John Preston’s book A Very English Scandal, on which we’re basing the drama. He said he was very busy but I asked him to leave it on his desk and try it if he got a moment. A few days later, he called and said, ‘Damn you, I’m half-way through, I’m going to do it’. So it’s very exciting – it’s a story about powerful men and what they think they can get away with. So it still feels very pertinent when looked at with today’s eyes.”
And then there’s a crime series based on Graham Norton’s debut novel Holding, that takes him back to one of his original loves: the murder mystery. His first job on TV was devising ingenious methods of slaughter on Midsomer Murders and it’s obvious that he relishes the prospect of revisiting the genre.
“I love a whodunnit,” he says, “and this is like Midsomer Murders in contemporary Ireland, with Graham’s human observation in there too, which is key. For me, it’s all about going back to my schooldays when I formed The Agatha Christie club with my friends. We were so not cool. We sat around talking about Agatha Christie while everyone else was playing football.
“When I was at Harrow, I was bullied mercilessly for being arty, a bookworm and a little bit fey. And I remember – when I was this tubby, awkward little 11-year-old – my English teacher made me stand on a chair in front of the rest of the class and he said, ‘You’re never going to amount to anything if all you do is read Agatha Christie books’. I saw him again at a wedding when I was 22 and he asked me how I was doing, so I said, ‘I read English at Oxford and I’m working on Midsomer Murders, so I think the Agatha Christie books stood me in good stead, don’t you?’”
Kat and Alfie: Redwater begins on BBC1 tonight at 8:00pm