When Jessie Wallace was in talks about returning to EastEnders, she had one request: “Can she be full-whack Kat?”
When Wallace had last played the character, in 2017’s ill-fated spin-off Redwater, Kat’s wardrobe was softer and more bohemian, but it wasn’t a look that went down well with her. “It was diluted down to the point where Kat was quite unrecognisable. I missed the heels, the red lips and the leopard print.”
As can be seen from our photoshoot, Wallace got her wish. When the Slaters land back in Walford, what we’ll see is the brazen Kat of old: “The louder and more brash the character, the better it is,” says the actor who has played her since September 2000.
This being EastEnders, Kat’s comeback isn’t without its cliffhangers. In fact, for most of this week’s episodes, the word is that Kat is dead, thanks to bombshell news dropped by Big Mo. No stranger to a dodgy scam, Mo does, of course, have some less-than-legit reasons for claiming Kat’s a goner.
“Dear old Mo, she’s in a lot of trouble,” says Laila Morse, who plays her. “She’s such a piece of work. Mo doesn’t give a monkey’s what she’s doing as long as she’s earning a few quid. She’s a very evil lady – if she was one of my relatives, I think I might do her in!”
Needless to say, the truth will out, with the result that Kat, Big Mo, Stacey and Jean are all reunited under the roof of number 31 Albert Square. “We’re really going back to the roots of the Slaters,” says Wallace. “Them being scallywags. The hustle and bustle of the household. All the banter, the comedy and the one-liners.”
Back to the days of Kat turning up drunk at dawn on the back of a milk float? “Who knows? Maybe. Just as long as I don’t end up driving one.”
There are, though, some absences; the most notable being Alfie (Shane Richie), whose double act with Kat fuelled so much relationship angst for so long. “It did feel weird coming back without Shane,” admits Wallace. “I’m sure he’s busy doing other stuff. I’m not sure what the writers have in store. What I’d like, though, is for Kat to be single for a while and for her to spend more time with the family.”
Then there’s patriarch Charlie Slater, whose years of struggling to keep his brood under control took their toll, in the form of a fatal heart attack in 2016.
“We keep trying to think of ways for Derek [Martin, the actor who played Charlie] to come back,” says Lacey Turner (Stacey). “We really miss him. It’s such a shame that he’s not there. But what can you do?”
Morse is also of the opinion that Charlie shouldn’t have been killed off: “He should never have gone. But I think Derek could always come back as Charlie’s twin brother. Dark hair, a little bit of growth on his face. We’d all welcome that.”
But if there’s one character Wallace really wants to see resurface, it’s her screen daughter Zoe. And that’s no surprise: for a generation of soap fans, the 2001 revelation that Kat was her mum and not, as Zoe had believed, her sister defined the original Slater era of EastEnders.
“It would be great if Michelle Ryan came back. I think that would make for a brilliant storyline,” says Wallace. “I still get people yelling at me in the street, ‘You ain’t my mother’ and asking me to say, ‘Yes, I am,’ which is tough when you’re having a really bad day. At the time, it said in the script that I just had to say the line. But I was like, ‘No, Kat’s held this secret for 18 years, I’m going to scream it out.’”
With the Slaters having been pivotal to this and many other well-remembered Walford moments (think Stacey’s bipolar disorder, Kat’s suicide attempt, Little Mo’s domestic abuse and revenge with an iron), the actors have become the continuity keepers of their characters.
Gillian Wright, for instance, is adamant that the scripts don’t just concentrate on the ditzy side to her character’s personality: “I’m very keen to keep the writers in check to ensure the dark side of Jean is still present. It’s really important. She was vicious to Stacey [her screen daughter] in her early episodes.
“I know that one of the main criticisms of EastEnders is that it’s miserable. And while I don’t want it to be deeply depressing, I do want to join up the dots from the early Jean that we saw. I want some of that darkness and nastiness to come through, so she remains fully rounded.”
On the subject of nastiness, just what are we to make of newcomer Hayley, recently revealed to be a secret Slater cousin, who is scheming to lure poor Martin Fowler into a honey trap? “Deep down, she’s not all evil,” says Katie Jarvis, who plays her. “She’s just a typical Slater – hard on the surface, but once you get to know her, you’ll see most of her intentions are good. But, I have to say, I do love coming to work and getting to be a little bit naughty.”
What public reaction has Jarvis had since her scenes started to air last month? “My Twitter went absolutely mad. At first it was all, ‘Homewrecker!’ and ‘Leave Martin alone!’ But as soon as they discovered I’m a Slater, it all changed. I’ve had a lot of support.”
All new cast members are assigned a mentor when they start work at BBC Elstree and Jarvis has been paired with Lacey Turner – who is all too happy to have another member of her soap family on board.
“I don’t think Katie knows how brilliant she is,” she says. “It’s so lovely to have another raw Slater – a strong woman with a big mouth who’s come to cause trouble.”
Think of the Slaters and “gobby” and “trouble” do seem to be the watchwords: but, underneath it all, they’re also very loyal. Does Turner agree that these qualities encapsulate the clan? “They do come out with all the things you’d never say in real life,” she says. “They just go about their business however they want. It’s quite fun to play because you can do all the things you’d never dare to.”
As for Wallace, she openly admits that there were elements to her own personality that were very much like Kat’s when the Slaters arrived nearly 20 years ago. What advice would she have given her younger self? She laughs out loud: “Behave. Go to bed early. Don’t be such an idiot.”
And would she have listened? “No! But I’m completely different now. I behave myself and I’m much more focused. I’ve grown up a lot since then.” And is she prepared for the fan reaction to the Slaters’ big return? “I think I am. I’m hoping it’ll be good – I don’t want to walk through Sainsbury’s and get a fish slung in my face.
“The scripts are great. [Show boss] John Yorke has a lot of love for the Slaters because they’re his creation. Every day, someone will ask me, ‘When are you coming back?’ So now that it’s actually happening, the excitement is overwhelming. I certainly haven’t stopped smiling since I started filming. It really does feel like coming home.”
EastEnders is on Mon 8.00pm, Tue 7.30pm, Thu 7.30pm, 9.00pm BBC1
Watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s drama on EastEnders below. Beneath that, there’s our Week in Walford review show
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