EastEnders' Danielle Harold on Lola's greatest fear as her tragic story nears its end
The star tells Johnathon Hughes about her brave character’s next battle, and why Jamie Oliver is responsible for her soap success.
Soap weddings are always an emotional occasion, and when Lola Pearce married childhood sweetheart Jay Brown back in January, the tears from EastEnders fans properly flowed as they were all too aware of the tragedy hanging over the cursed couple.
Since being diagnosed with terminal cancer six months ago, the show hasn’t flinched in confronting Lola’s devastating reality, sparking a wave of affection for an already much-loved character and elevating Danielle Harold, who plays the plucky mum, to the leading lady status she deserves.
This week, the romance we all rooted for hits the rocks already when Lola thinks her other half has been unfaithful. Hasn’t the poor girl suffered enough?
“Jay cheating on Lola is definitely her greatest fear,” says Harold, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com. “Throughout this journey she’s not wanted to hold Jay back and doesn’t want him to be with her out of pity. She feels this was bound to happen at some point and turns to her mum for support, before even hearing what Jay has to say to explain himself.”
Thankfully, Jay hasn’t actually strayed (the nation would never have forgiven him) and the whole thing is a misunderstanding manipulated by Lola’s long-lost mother, Emma Harding, who gets the wrong end of the stick when she sees Jay chatting to a mystery woman at a bar and instantly reports back to Lola he’s done the dirty – in actual fact, he was telling the girl in question how much he loved his wife. Her greatest insecurity seemingly realised, Lola chooses to believe Emma over her husband.
Having abandoned her daughter when she was just three years old, Emma recently re-entered Lola’s life desperate to build a relationship – so desperate she’s going out of her way to meddle in her marriage so she can have Lo all to herself.
“Emma has become very protective very quickly,” notes Harold. “Lola is naturally guarded and it’s in her nature to be suspicious of people. Emma is basically a stranger. Lola is still sussing her out and their relationship has been up and down, but she definitely preys on Lola’s vulnerability that Jay is with her out of pity. Emma wants to be involved in Lola’s life where she’s missed so much of it, which is coming across as obsessive.”
Even though she’s causing chaos and has the distinct air of someone not to be trusted, Harold is happy EastEnders has introduced Emma to fill in Lola’s backstory. Billy Mitchell discovered the gobby teenage granddaughter he never knew he had in a children’s home back in 2011, having been placed in care following the death of her alcoholic single dad Dan. Lola was taken in by the Mitchells but the absence of a mother figure was always the missing piece of the puzzle.
“Meeting her mum has had a huge impact on Lola’s life. Digging into her past has taught her things she didn’t know about her dad, and forced her and Pops (Lola’s affectionate nickname for Billy) to have conversations they’ve never had. It’s been lovely to tap into that history and explore those layers.”
EastEnders pulled off a casting coup by securing Patsy Kensit to play edgy Emma, familiar to continuing drama fans as Emmerdale’s sly Sadie King and Holby City’s enigmatic Faye Morton. “It’s such an honour,” she beams. “I love Patsy to bits and we’ve had the best time. I always wanted to meet Lola’s mum and no one could’ve done it better.”
Lola’s abandonment issues covered her big heart with a thick, defensive skin that was apparent from her memorable first scene where Billy found her beating up a fellow care home kid. It was quite an entrance, and Harold still shudders at the thought of her first day – and not just because of the expected nerves at joining a high-profile soap.
“I turned up on my first day to find I’d learnt all the wrong scenes!” she laughs. “I’d sat up 'til three in the morning the night before, reading the script over and over, and when I got to set I said to Perry (Fenwick, who plays Billy), ‘I think I’ve made a mistake...’ I didn’t realise it’s filmed in the wrong order, it was all so new to me and I was very nervous. Perry sat with me through lunch and between scenes learning the lines. He said to me at the end of the day, ‘Now you’ve done that, there’s nothing you can’t do!’”
Naturally gifted Harold was a genuine star discovery and quickly established herself as a fan favourite. EastEnders was her first acting job but not her first time on TV, as she had been propelled to the public’s attention a few months earlier through participating in one of Jamie Oliver’s philanthropical ventures.
After Jamie’s School Dinners, in which the socially-conscious chef revolutionised the daily diets offered to children in educational establishments, came follow-up documentary series Jamie’s Dream School where teenagers who had struggled with their GCSEs, for various reasons, were given the chance to re-sit subjects taught by celebrity experts. Harold had missed a significant chunk of school due to illness and Oliver’s scheme saw her academically excel. Professor David Starkey suggested she continue her studies at Cambridge University, but Harold already had a career path in mind.
“I always wanted to act but knew absolutely nothing about how to get into it, I was clueless. I applied for Dream School thinking it might be an opportunity to explore acting a bit more but didn’t expect to get onto it in a million years, or how big it was going to be. I’m so lucky to have done it and had the best time, and Jamie was great to me.
“When I got the part of Lola he sent me a bunch of flowers. And I bumped into him a few years ago at the National TV Awards and introduced him to the EastEnders guys. It was a lovely full circle moment. I have a lot to thank him for – if I see a Jamie Oliver restaurant, I always have to pop in!”
Lola’s first stint (Harold had a break between 2015 and 2019) had Harold hit the ground running with a teenage pregnancy storyline that saw her giving birth to daughter Lexi on the floor of McKlunky's during an historic live sequence. Remember when Billy famously carried the Olympic torch through Albert Square in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics?
“Literally from when they called ‘action’ and we went live, I just don’t remember a thing,” she recalls. “Suddenly I looked up and saw everyone and realised it was the end. My last line to Pops was, ‘We did it!’, and I said it twice. I wasn’t meant to but in that live moment I repeated it. The first time was Lola’s actual line, the second time was a moment between me and Perry that we’d got through it!”
Mouthy, aggressive but lovable Lola captured our hearts, and as we watched her grow from teenage tearaway to fiercely loyal tiger mum she formed unlikely friendships with fellow residents, reflecting Harold’s personal experience of how the EastEnders ensemble took her under their collective wing.
“When you start here everyone scoops you up and carries you along until you find your own little way. Diane Parish (Denise Fox) and Tameka Empson (Kim Fox) have always looked after me, I love Rudolph Walker (Patrick Trueman) and the sweet, unexpected relationship Patrick and Lola have. I really admire Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) and have tried to learn from him over the years. Lola was this crazy kid everybody looked after – they say it takes a village to raise a child, in Lola’s case it took a Square!”
Lola’s heartbreaking cancer battle is undoubtedly Harold’s chance to shine, but it’s bittersweet as the character’s terminal condition inevitably means her time on the show is drawing to an end. Harold clearly adores her job, referring to EastEnders as “my home”, but is philosophical that her biggest storyline is also her last, and wanting to do the emotive subject justice has taken on the utmost importance.
“This is such an awful disease and the people going through it in real life deserve as much awareness as we can possibly get,” she shares. “I’m so conscious of making sure I tell it as truthfully as I can. We have amazing medical advisers, I’ve done as much research as I could and am grateful to have met incredible people at different stages of the illness, and their families, who have helped us do it properly. It’s been a long journey and I’ve been taking it bit by bit.”
While not dwelling on the eventual outcome for Lola (there’s still a way to go, so keep the tissues handy), Harold is starting to look to the future and considering the kind of role she’d like to tackle next.
“Yes I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve played Lola for nearly 15 years so it would be good to do something completely different. Maybe a villain, the total opposite to her, on a period drama. I don’t know if I’d do another soap as I’m Team EastEnders – that’s a weird one to consider at this point. I’d definitely like to do a drama with a beginning, middle and an end and not open-ended, which is what I’ve been used to.”
As for Lola’s legacy, Harold is confident she can rely on co-star Isabella Brown, the talented young actor who plays Lexi, to keep her character’s memory alive.
“I can’t wait to see Izzie grow up on screen,” she grins. “She’s such a special girl, so sensitive to the difficult stuff we’ve been doing. Izzie is like my little best mate, she looks after me and keeps us all in check. She’s already asked if Lexi can have Lola’s massive hoop earrings when she dies – she’s definitely going to carry on that Lola energy!”
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