EastEnders boss Kate Oates has revealed that the character of Callum Highway was never originally envisioned as a love interest for Ben Mitchell. In recent weeks, the duo's chemistry has galvanised fans, who have now given them the hashtag #Ballum on social media. But prior to Oates joining the BBC as its head of continuing drama, the plan for Callum was entirely different.
"Before I arrived, it was never on the cards to have Callum struggling with his sexuality," she said to RadioTimes.com and other journalists at a recent press event. "The struggle was going to be Halfway and Whitney trying for a baby, but I just didn't believe it as much as I might have done because the dynamic of the relationship felt really strange."
Asked what it was about the pairing that hadn't been convincing, Oates replied: "It was nothing to do with the actors, who are fantastic. But because the relationship between Callum and Whitney was so new, I didn't really know why they would want to drive their lives in that direction. And there were lots of unanswered questions about Callum, who I felt was such a blank canvas."
What followed was a conversation between Oates and actor Tony Clay, during which it was decided that one particular facet of Callum's personality needed to be explored. "I said to Tony that I wasn't entirely sure about who Callum was in terms of his sexuality. And, to be honest, I thought that he and Ben might make for an interesting couple. And Tony went with it straight away and said he thought it'd be really interesting. So it came as a relief to hear that Tony would be up for playing that kind of dynamic."
In order for a potential partnership between the two men to work, Oates also felt that Ben had to return as a more confident character than the one who'd exited in 2018. "Once we knew we were bringing a different Ben back, we wanted to find a new relationship for him. What we also wanted was for Ben to be someone who was now really comfortable with his sexuality and for the relationship to challenge him. So being with someone completely different to him would do that. So that was the genesis of Ben and Callum."
And yet despite the characters' surface differences, the actors at the centre of the drama believe that there is a certain similarity that goes some way to explain their chemistry. Asked about the public reaction to #Ballum, Max Bowden – who plays the latest incarnation Ben – and Tony Clay cited the pair's fractious relationships with their respective screen fathers as a reason why they're well-matched:
"I don't think either of us expected the reaction to be as immediate and brilliant as it has been. And it's such an interesting dynamic for us to play because, as different as they are, Ben and Callum have a lot of similarities. They both come from really dysfunctional backgrounds, surrounded by examples of toxic masculinity."
Added Clay: "They've both taken very different paths in life, but they've now met at the right sort of age and moment in their lives. And while they're worlds apart on so many things, there's this same issue with the father figures in their lives. It's such an interesting thing to see."
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