The funeral of EastEnders legend Dr Legg (Leonard Fenton) would be a momentous occasion on its own, but it becomes a full-on special soap event by bringing back two other icons from the show’s early days who were last on screen more than 30 years ago – George ‘Lofty’ Holloway (Tom Watt) and Mary ‘the punk’ Smith (Linda Davidson).
In a nod to EastEnders’ beginnings on Tuesday 19 February – the programme’s 34th anniversary – Walford bids a final goodbye to the late GP and lovable loser Lofty and hard-faced single mum Mary are among the mourners. For both actors, there was surprisingly little hesitation in agreeing to reprise their roles.
“I was 90 seconds into a conversation about it with (executive consultant) John Yorke and thought it sounded great,” Watt tells RadioTimes.com about getting the phone call. “He kept trying to convince me to do it and I said ‘You know I did say yes about five minutes ago!’ It sounded like a nice story, and a fun thing to do.”
“I said no at first because I always do!” admits Davidson. “I had lunch with John, who’s been a mate for years. They told me about Len’s storyline and asked me to be in the congregation when Dr Legg dies and I said yes. Then John said they’d given Mary a few lines and it went from there.”
Being on set the famous set again was an understandably surreal experience. “It had been 30 years and was a little overwhelming,” says Davidson. “I walked past No.23 which was where Mary lived. We came in to do a photo shoot first and then just got on with it. But we did have a laugh.”
“There aren’t all that many of the old bunch around,” says Watt. “Adam (Woodyatt, aka Ian Beale, the only surviving character from day one who has never left) was doing panto so wasn’t there. But there was Letitia Dean (Sharon), June Brown (Dot), Gill Taylforth (Kathy), everyone there were people we got on with in the first place.” “I shared a dressing room with Gill in the old days!” grins Davidson. “Some of the props guys, make-up team and security people are still the same.”
Long-time fans will be wondering what Lofty and Mary have been up to since we last saw them in 1988, and Watt confirms the episode fills in some blanks. “Lofty’s got his own pub and is doing alright for himself. Whether he’s got a family or not doesn’t come up but in my head, he’s concentrating on work.”
Life is looking up for Mary too, who endured drug addiction and prostitution among other indignities back in the day: “I’ve based Mary’s backstory on an inspirational woman I know called Dr Sue Black, a self-educated, very eminent woman who came from a tough background and works in technology,” reveals Smith. “Mary is very successful and that translates into the script. She comes back with her daughter Annie, who is now 34.”
What have the actors who played Lofty and Mary done since leaving EastEnders?
Off screen both actors working lives took interesting paths that veered away from performing, and Watt’s successful career as a sports broadcaster even took him back to EastEnders – after a fashion. “I used to do football on BBC London and for the 2006 World Cup I recorded a fake match commentary that was played in an episode while characters watched it. We recorded it in the Vic, just me and a sound man, so I was back in it, just not as Lofty!”
Davidson now works in digital media, having help launch some of the BBC’s fledgling websites in the 1990s, and is currently in charge of all things technology across super star chef Jamie Oliver’s brand. “My title is digital technology and information, looking after the website and all the technology that sits underneath it, plus asset management, video production systems, food technology, the data – it’s really exciting.”
Following their one-off return, both are now back to the day jobs but share interesting insights as to why their respective alter egos left such an impression on audiences – news of their reappearance was greeted with nostalgic glee when it was announced in December. “For me, Mary endured because she highlighted an alternative lifestyle to Thatcher’s Britain,” considers Smith. “The character politicised me in a way. She epitomised the massive disadvantage of poverty among all the affluence.
“Tony Holland told me he based her on this young woman he saw walking down the street with all the punk make-up on, like camouflage, wearing a mohawk haircut and a short skirt wheeling a pram with a tiny baby. It was such a powerful image, her look covered the vulnerability of a young woman – I was quite vulnerable, I had been in care as a child, so I could completely relate to that spikiness and determination she had.”
“Lofty was some part,” smiles Watt. “It was really well written, really funny. He wasn’t just a poor sap or comic relief, there were some really big stories. When he was jilted by Michelle Fowler in 1986, 25 million people watched it – but you realise it’s got nothing to do with you personally, it’s the character they’re interested in. A thousand other actors could do what you do.
“Those first three years were huge, Tony and Julia Smith created something really different, it came at the right time and became popular so quickly. We were lucky to be part of something special.”
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