Killer, drug addict, sex worker, extortionist – Janine Butcher’s CV is a colourful collection of despicable deeds and outrageous antics that have made her an EastEnders icon, beloved by the audience and hated by the residents of Albert Square in equal measure.
The character makes a much-anticipated return tonight (Monday 6th September) after seven years away, and promises to rile up the Walford locals. We’d expect nothing less from one of soap’s most infamous villains. Reprising the role in what will be her fifth stint in the part she first played over 22 years ago is Charlie Brooks, who admits to being as shocked by her alter ego’s audacity as everyone else – which is precisely what lured her back.
“You never know what you’re going to get with Janine and you can go anywhere with her, nothing feels too much,” enthuses the actress, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com. “That’s exciting to play. I enjoy her ability to charm and the fact she finds herself so amusing, I wish I was as quick or as brave as her. She does whatever she wants without thinking and can be quite awful, hopefully in a comedic way too, but is also desperately sad and very layered.”
Soaps need their antagonists, and Brooks agrees that’s the primary narrative function of black widow Ms Butcher, who’s seen off three husbands and tried to poison a fourth. “Janine can stir the pot and knows how to wind people up. I don’t think there’s much she wouldn’t contemplate doing to get what she wants and ensure her survival. There’s a beautiful recklessness about her, which is also not so beautiful sometimes!”
Despite the decades of dodgy deeds, long-time fans who recall the tragic backstory that shaped the character still sympathise with her, regardless of how terribly she behaves.
We first met Janine in 1989 (Brooks was the third actress to play her) as a troubled six-year-old reeling from the tragic death of her mother, forced to move with her disinterested dad – the legendary Frank Butcher – and two of her three much older siblings to live with her spiky new step-mother Pat.
Throughout her difficult childhood she was ignored and abandoned by her feckless father, and made to feel she was always in the way. Behind that super-b***h exterior, Janine is still that vulnerable little girl who misses her mummy…
“I don’t think she ever dealt with her mum dying,” says Brooks. “It’s deep-rooted within her soul but we’ve not explored it. Her father was present occasionally but never put her first. Frank is still the most defining relationship she’s had, for better or for worse. Janine is always seeking him in some way in her other relationships, she’s had a lot of older men as partners and there are clearly daddy issues! She loved Frank more than anything but ultimately he was selfish, and chose her step-mum Pat over her many times.
“I sympathise with her and she can be misunderstood. We’ve seen her start to thaw sometimes in moments of reflection, only for the barriers to suddenly go up and we’re back to tough-as-nails Janine.
“To me it’s important to explore Janine’s ‘Why?’ to move her forward. There are repetitive behaviour patterns from her childhood that mean she doesn’t know how to love or how to be a mum herself.”
Janine returns to fight for custody of her nine-year-old daughter, Scarlett. Unsurprisingly, considering her parental role model, the youngster has ended up in care after being abandoned, and reached out to her cousin (actually her half-brother, but that’s another story) Tommy Moon, who’s begged his mum Kat Slater if she can live with them. Kat is one of the numerous people Janine has crossed swords with in the past, so the scene is set for a shouty showdown between the women over Scarlett’s welfare.
Exploring Janine as a parent was another attractive element to recreating the character for Brooks, a mother in real life to teenager daughter Kiki. “Fear of failure is a driver for Janine. She desperately wants to be a good mother, but deep down feels like she’s failing at it – though she’d never admit that!”
In a stroke of genius, Scarlett has grown up to become a sensible goodie-goodie, pitched as the polar opposite to her mum: the exasperated Saffy to Janine’s flighty Edina. “Yes, there’s a bit of a fun Ab Fab dynamic between them,” laughs Brooks. “Janine can’t understand how she’s ended up with a daughter like her – she’s not the mini-me she wanted! Poor Scarlett has been passed from pillar to post, as Janine was, but finding some family roots in the Square is an important discovery.”
Brooks reflects on her own roots in the show, recalling how she won the part in 1999 at the age of 17 and was instantly thrust into the limelight working alongside veteran performers such as Mike Reid, Barbara Windsor and Pam St Clement.
“It was terrifying. We were avid EastEnders fans in my household when I was growing up, to even go into the building and see an audition script was huge. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. I’d moved from a very small town in north Wales and it was an amazing step, I was thrilled.
“My first day was scary but I thought I knew it all, I was a bit older than my years. It was intimidating looking back but there were words of advice from the likes of Barbara and Mike that were invaluable and put me at ease. You feel the pressure to do a good job and bring something to the character, and slowly you become part of the team.
“The person I learnt the most from at the start was Lucy Speed, who played Natalie Evans. I really admired her as an actress and how she handled the fame side of things, she kept herself to herself. We’ve remained good friends. I learnt different things from different people along the way about what to do – and what not to do!”
With so many memorable on-screen sparring partners, which one would Brooks bring back from those early days for a rematch? “It has to be Pat. Janine hated her at first but she eventually became a mother figure. I saw the clip of her deathbed scene the other day where Janine curls up next to her, it was so sweet. Would she be nice to her if she saw her again, though? She might revert to being horrible! It would be eventful if they were to be reunited, that’s for sure.” St Clement has already resurrected Pat as a ghost for Peggy’s final episodes in 2016, so it’s not out of the question…
For now it’s all about the future and what Janine’s getting up to in 2021. What can Brooks tease on what’s in store? “Janine comes back in full force and I hope people aren’t disappointed.” Not much chance of that: her first week back sees her clash with Kat, be accused of kidnapping and leave Phil Mitchell for dead in a fire that’s arguably her fault (“It’s an accident!” insists Brooks).
“We’ll see a lot of Kat and Janine who are a fiery pairing. It’s brilliant working with Jessie Wallace. Luckily for me there’s some new eye candy on the Square, and Janine doesn’t take long to get her claws into someone… there’s a little bit of sexy action coming up! It’s lust at first but who knows where it might go?
“There’s a period of familiarising herself and figuring out who is useful to her and who is disposable. I did a great character session with the producers and writers on who Janine is now and who she might come up against, who she’d enjoy a night out with and how she’d respond in certain situations. In doing that I was reminded of the trouble she’s caused for other characters, and there are quite a few I hadn’t even remembered! There is so much scope but we can’t have all these explosions at once so it’ll be a slow burn with revisiting some grudges, like Stacey for instance. But there are definitely fireworks ahead.”
Outside of EastEnders Brooks has notched up a broad range of credits: period dramas, numerous theatre roles and earning the Queen of the Jungle title in the 2012 run of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Earlier this year she starred in Channel 5’s Australian drama co-production Lie With Me, but now she’s back in Walford where many fans feel she belongs. After all this time, are there any untapped aspects of mean Janine left she’d like to delve into?
“Personally I’d love to explore her softer side,” she confides. “I like it when she falls for someone, opens her heart and lets them in, like she did with third husband, Ryan – only he cheated on her so it didn’t last. Most of the time Janine is a scowling hard b***h, so it’s nice when I get to smile!”
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