As Jean Slater (played by Gillian Wright) prepares for her first chemotherapy session in EastEnders on Tuesday 2 April, she’s encouraged by her friends and family to write down a wish list of things she still wants to achieve in life.
On Thursday 4 April, Jean’s bucket list will see her attempt to overcome her fear of heights… by climbing across the roof of the 02 arena in London!
EastEnders star Gillian Wright tells RadioTimes.com more about Jean’s wish list and the challenges of her character’s devastating diagnosis with ovarian cancer.
How did you feel when you were told about Jean’s storyline?
“It was very much a discussion with our executive producer Kate Oates. I felt hugely chuffed they thought I was good enough to be able to carry a storyline like this because it’s a massive responsibility. There are so many people affected by cancer in some shape or form who watch the show, I know it’s a huge responsibility. Even though everyone’s cancer story is different, it’s still got to be true.”
Tell us about Jean’s bucket list?
“Kate asked me various questions such as “what would be on Jean’s wish list” and that’s when I said Jean would want to find her son Sean.”
(* Sean Slater was played by Rob Kazinsky and last seen on screen in January 2009)
Have you done any research for the cancer storyline?
“Yes I’ve done a lot. When I first started on EastEnders and was told my character was diagnosed with bi-polar, I did an enormous amount of research and the team at EastEnders put me in touch with someone who I could phone when I needed advice. That’s what I have with the bi-polar storyline, I have somebody I can phone up and ask questions.
I don’t think I could possibly do this storyline without doing as much homework as possible. You can do a certain amount on the internet but after a while you realise working out what’s fact and fiction can be difficult. And then you start to get frustrated because you’re not getting the information you need.”
Why has Jean chosen to move in with the Carters at the Vic?
“Jean sees what this is all doing to her daughter Stacey. Stacey has enough on her plate and Jean doesn’t want to trigger a bi-polar episode for Stacey. The guilt Jean has in terms of Stacey inheriting bi-polar – and most of Stacey’s childhood was dealing with Jean’s bi-polar – I don’t think Jean wants the responsibility of being a trigger to another episode. It may seem very selfish and no one understands it but that’s Jean not being able to explain it very well. But she’s trying to take her troubles somewhere else.”
Can you talk us through Jean wanting to climb the O2?
“I think it’s a deflection. I don’t think Jean knows that at the time because that’s not how it works. I think we all do it in some shape or form, it’s the day before her chemotherapy starts and she decides to book something really scary for her and Shirley to do. I think it’s a really massive achievement and she feels like she can do anything then. But actually she’s the first to admit it was just a distraction, she still has the chemotherapy the next day and she still has cancer.”
How was it filming those scenes? Were you nervous?
“I was (laughs)! I’m not actually very good with heights, but it wasn’t that bad at all. The skyscrapers dwarf it so once you’ve struggled to get up there you go “oh there’s taller buildings”. And because there’s no steep drop, you don’t get that really high-up feeling. But actually, climbing it is harder than you think, it’s a bouncy, stretchy surface and you’re hooked on to a cable that you have to hang on to so it’s hard work.”
How would you describe Jean and Shirley’s relationship?
“I think it’s a very special relationship. I can’t speak for Linda [Henry] but it feels like they’re very dear to each other and they care about each other a lot. Even though they can be very brusk with each other and bitchy about each other, I think they really care for each other. All of the stuff at the hen party when Jean has the pram, it’s Shirley’s way of trying to cheer her up and it’s not totally appropriate but she doesn’t blame Shirley, she’s just struggling with her own bits of information that she doesn’t have time to deal with.”
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What advice would you give to Jean?
“To take it one step at a time. I think once you get in there and you see other people going through something similar, you realise you’re not alone.”
What do you hope this storyline can achieve?
“I hope it raises more awareness of the signs of ovarian cancer. I would also like for those who have been through it and come out the other side to have some sense of catharsis. For those who are going through it, or living with somebody who is going through it, I hope they feel less alone. That because it’s being highlighted on a soap, I hope there’s a degree of reality that they don’t feel alone.
I don’t know how long this storyline is going to go on for, we’re only in the first few chapters, but I hope it will go some way in extending a hand through the TV as it were, to those sitting at home watching it.”
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