Glancing at the very first Beale family photo commissioned by Radio Times for EastEnders’ debut week 30 years ago, Adam Woodyatt – who still plays Ian Beale – says, “Some of those clothes were actually mine. That’s my old school coat. I was wearing Pirelli trainers that I’d ordered from a catalogue – they had tyre treads on the bottom. And I was eating an apple just before that was taken. In some of the shots that day, my cheek is sticking out like a chipmunk’s.”
Woodyatt has a remarkable memory and, having been on the show since the beginning, could be its chief archivist were he not so busy playing Ian. Even 30 years and hundreds of photoshoots later, on this miserable autumn afternoon, with the rain bouncing off the market-stall awnings on the EastEnders set at Elstree, and a team from RT fastidiously trying to re-create, as near as possible, the cover shot that unveiled Walford to the world.
The soap’s 30th-anniversary year has been particularly fraught for Woodyatt’s character: Ian’s mum Kathy (Gillian Taylforth) was miraculously resurrected after he’d believed her dead for a decade, his son Bobby (Eliot Carrington) turned out to have killed his daughter Lucy, and his wife Jane (Laurie Brett) admitted to covering up the crime.
So what better time to gather the modern-day Beales together to echo that cast shot of a generation ago? Back in 1985, of course, Woodyatt and Taylforth were joined in the family quartet by Peter Dean, playing Ian’s father Pete (who left the show in 1993 and from Friday will be in panto in Harpenden, Hertfordshire), and Anna Wing, who died in 2013, as gran Lou.
So did Woodyatt or Taylforth have any idea then of what lay ahead and how they would be welcomed into the nation’s living rooms? “No way,” says Woodyatt. “I was working in a butcher’s shop before I came here. I was thinking that if EastEnders didn’t work out, then at least I could go back to cutting meat. I just wanted to earn money, which does sound very Ian Beale, doesn’t it?”
“And I was more worried about losing my typing speed,” adds Taylforth, who’d been used to combining short-stint acting jobs with secretarial work.
So did they find the prospect of being front-and-centre in RT daunting? “It was quite an honour. I remember thinking, ‘Phwoar, my God! To think, I’m going to be on the cover,” laughs Taylforth. “Since then, I’ve done Radio Times shoots with Lord Lichfield, Lord Snowdon. I’ve been very lucky, I have to say.”
For the original cast portraits, the co-creator of EastEnders, Julia Smith, specifically requested the services of then RT staff photographer Don Smith, who has braved the foul weather for our reunion photoshoot with the Beales. His meticulously kept diary from the time (one day he’d be on the set of Doctor Who, the next with Victoria Wood, the one after with Lenny Henry and the Two Ronnies) reveals that we couldn’t have timed it better. By sheer coincidence, it’s almost 31 years to the day since he did his first work on the EastEnders set.
“It was very flattering to be asked,” he recollects. “Julia always respected my work, so when she knew that EastEnders was going to be on the cover, she said that she’d like me to take the photographs. And I have to say that Albert Square still looks identical. I remember the Queen Vic, Bridge Street where we did the shoot and Roly the poodle [who would “board” with Smith].”
Don Smith’s association with EastEnders would continue beyond that initial assignment – one of his clearest memories being when Julia Smith asked him to cover Sharon’s wedding to Grant Mitchell in 1991. “It was all very hush-hush and I spent most of the day with Letitia Dean [who plays Sharon] in this very small van with blacked-out windows being driven to a secret location. She didn’t know where we were going and neither did I. Turns out they were shooting the service in the chapel of what was then called Shenley Mental Hospital. But, in the end, one of the extras took an illicit picture through the window and sold it to the tabloids. So nothing really changes, does it?”
Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century and it’s hard not to think of Julia Smith now: apparently she loved the rain during filming, believing it made the set look more “real”. Today it’s looking particularly careworn – which isn’t really surprising given it was designed to last 15 years rather than the 30 it has now clocked up.
“It’s a miracle it’s still standing,” says Woodyatt. “If the wind gets up over a certain speed, we have to stop filming. On one occasion, I remember walking out onto the lot and a bit of the bridge on George Street blew off!”
“ ’Elf and safety issues,” says Taylforth, playing up the East End accent, although she remembers with real affection the first time she saw the set. “It just felt awesome. I was tapping all the brickwork. And they’d even put weeds in the cracks of the paving slabs. I thought it was amazing.”
The soap is to get a brand-new exterior lot in the coming years, with the present Albert Square due to be demolished. But when I suggest to Woodyatt he must feel a pang at the thought of it going, he says quizzically, “It’s just a set.” Indeed, for a man who’s now spent 31 of his 47 years in Walford, Woodyatt is surprisingly free of sentimentality. When I ask whether he accepts the role of EastEnders figurehead, he almost cringes.
“I reluctantly accept it,” he says with resignation. “But it’s not something I’m comfortable with. It’s a job. It’s an ensemble. And that’s how it should be. Any one of us could go at any time. You’ll get the fans saying, ‘Oh no, so and so could never go’. But give it three weeks and they’ll have forgotten them and started watching the next family. No one is indispensable.”
And then he adds with a gesture towards Julia Smith’s creation, “The Square is the true star of the show.”
EastEnders continues Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights on BBC1