There's a long-awaited homecoming in EastEnders this week when Walford welcomes back Ben Mitchell as Max Bowden becomes the sixth actor to play the son of Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) and Kathy Beale (Gillian Taylfoth), making his debut on Monday 1 April - but he doesn't return alone as Lola Pearce and their daughter Lexi are also in tow, with Danielle Harold reprising the role of Ben's baby mama four years after she was written out.
Phil is up to his neck in a murky money-laundering scam masterminded by new baddie on the block Danny Hardcastle (Paul Usher) which has aroused Kathy's suspicions to the point where she's called Ben urging him to get back to the Square to find out what his father is up to - so the Mitchell patriarch gets quite a shock when his surprise guests arrive.
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"Ben has been away in Portugal since he left last year but has also gone back and forth to Newcastle reconnecting with Lola and Lexi," explains Bowden, who formerly starred in axed BBC school drama Waterloo Road. "There is a reason they are coming back as a unit, let's just say we've arrived with a little trouble! Ben has built himself a life in Portugal and working on some dodgy deals, which has spurred him on to want to help the Mitchells again. He wants that element of family back in his life."
"Lola and Ben have teamed up together since he's started visiting her and Lexi," picks up Harold. "Ben never really had any interest in his daughter before so it's nice there is finally a family relationship with them to play. There is a great dynamic between them all, and Lexi is six now, she's nearly taller than me!"
Phil is cautious at his estranged offspring being back just as he's desperately trying to keep his clan safe from gruesome gangsters, with daughter Louise (Tilly Keeper) already threatened by Danny's thugs, but efforts to keep Ben out of it prove fruitless when the prodigal son interrupts a meeting between his dad and sidekick Keanu Taylor (Danny Walters) and discovers the truth about Danny as the scouse scoundrel shows up demanding his money. Will Ben be a help or a hindrance to Phil?
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"He certainly doesn't want to see his dad failing," says Bowden. "I think he'll want to support him anyway he can. Ben is definitely an ally in terms of building Phil up, and wants to prove he can be an asset to him as well, potentially as he wants some status among the Mitchells."
What is the history between Ben, Lola and Phil?
Soon Phil has Ben, Lola and Lexi back under his roof, but Harold acknowledges the history between Lola and Phil could prove tricky to move past. "Phil took her baby away and accused Lola of being a bad mum before which is a massive deal for her, and I think they just started to build their relationship again before she left. She is wary of Phil since that happened and doesn't fully trust him, so it will be interesting to see where it goes next."
Lola certainly seems more agitated at their return, compared to Ben quickly becoming cock of the walk as he flexes his muscles with a newfound confidence and darker edge, glimpsed in the recent spring trailer showing a scene where he encourages him and Phil to make the Mitchell name great again. What has he got in mind?
On Friday 5 April, Lola is bonding with her beloved 'Pops', aka granddad Billy Mitchell (Perry Fenwick, who Harold is delighted to be working with again: "They have such a strong relationship and she has his back like she always does!"), but there's a flash of guilt as she tries to talk to Ben alone - what the pair's true agenda is for being back is yet to be revealed, though it seems Ben is firmly in control…
"Ben is more content with who he is and Phil has started to accept his son being gay and not being what he expected him to be, which has helped them to be more open with each other," muses Bowden.
"He is certainly darker and idolising Phil a bit more. There could be parallels between the two as Ben wants to be the best at everything, and be at the top in whatever way. Ben has a slightly broodier sense of self than before, and is more aware of who he is - but he still wants more…"
New producer Kate Oates has talked of a more menacing Ben, hence the decision to recast Harry Reid after he chose to leave just over a year ago, and Bowden admits he has been thrown in at the deep end to establish himself. "My first scene was with all the Mitchells in the house, it was daunting but nice to be with everyone on the first day. Danielle was great letting me know where the toilets are and all that! The whole team have helped me settle in."
"This is home," smiles Harold, clearly happy to be back. "EastEnders was my first acting job so to leave and do other bits was amazing, but to get the call to come back was brilliant - especially from Kate who I love. I was nervous because it's been so long and you worry if people will remember the character, but the reaction so far has been lovely and supportive."
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