Ross Kemp on returning to EastEnders, Barbara Windsor’s final scenes and whether Grant’s changed

The actor on nostalgic times with Tiffany, Grant's frustrations - and saying goodbye to the iconic Peggy - and the woman who plays her

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As Ross Kemp returns to Albert Square, David Brown catches up with the man behind the very unpredictable Grant Mitchell…

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You’re back in EastEnders for the first time in a decade – any terrifying flashbacks?
Having spent ten years doing something that couldn’t be further removed from EastEnders, I sat in my dressing room, thinking, “I’ve finally flipped.” It was surreal. Being the age I am (51), I fell asleep one lunchtime, woke up and thought, “Where am I?” It was like one of those dreadful American soaps: “It’s all been a dream! You weren’t really in Afghanistan making documentaries – you were in Borehamwood the whole time.”

Was it a nostalgic experience?

It was a bucket-load of mixed emotions. There was a lot of warmth there. But it does bring back memories of dreadful times in your personal life, too. My grandparents died when I was on that set. I got to go to the funerals, but I should have been with them when they were in hospital and I wasn’t.

So is Grant a changed man?

No – and I don’t think he should be. He’s still confused, immature, slamming doors, crying one minute and punching people the next. And that’s how he should be – a frustrated ball of emotion.

Is there a muscle memory when it comes to playing Grant?

Well, if there is, I’ve lost it. I’ve been too busy dodging bullets in real life. So, to start with, learning lines was like pouring treacle into my head. I’m going back for another three weeks, so God knows what I’ll do then.

Tell us about Barbara Windsor’s final scenes…

We’re very close. Both Steve and I love her, so it was emotional. She’s saying goodbye to Peggy, who – apart from her roles in the Carry Ons – will be the definitive character that she plays in her lifetime. So, ultimately, it’s about paying tribute to Barbara, who’s an iconic human being, both on and off screen.

When is EastEnders at its best?

In my experience, the biggest storylines were never the crashes. It was always the stuff that got an emotional reaction. I’ll never forget going to see Los Lobos at the Royal Albert Hall just after Tiffany [his screen wife played by Martine McCutcheon] had died on screen, so it was a high-profile time for EastEnders.

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The band’s manager asked if I could present them with a gold disc – and the whole Albert Hall booed me! Because there was this whole debate about whether Tiffany fell or was pushed by Grant! Los Lobos were baffled – they didn’t know why this poor man was being booed. But it made me realise that the drama works when you have an emotional connection with the viewers. It’s more important than the smash-and-grab stuff.