Three years ago the Taylors moved into 23b Albert Square and were immediately branded the neighbours from hell. Fast-forward to 2020 and they’re one of the most loved families in EastEnders‘ recent history, with head of the clan Karen Taylor established as Walford’s ultimate modern matriarch. How exactly did that happen?
Described at the time as “Noisy, brash and not to be messed with,” gobby tiger mum Karen rubbed locals up the wrong way, particularly Sharon Watts who she punched in the face when they first met. Reflecting on the anniversary of her character’s first appearance (15h June 2017 to be precise) exclusively to RadioTimes.com, Stanley insists she was never concerned chaotic Karen would alienate the audience with her abrasiveness.
“When we landed, or exploded, in the Square it was with a bang,” she remembers. “The producers wanted the audience to see them as the people you did not want to live next door to. But they were telling a story of not judging a book by its cover – you might think this lot are the right chavs next door but they’re actually some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. They are real.
“I wasn’t worried viewers wouldn’t like Karen and was confident they’d see her soft, vulnerable and fun side. Any character takes a while to bed in, I know that as a viewer and audiences are fickle. She’ll always be hard as nails but I trusted the writers who wrote for her so brilliantly.”
Over time the Taylors revealed the depth beneath the din, and didn’t so much soften as prove what a tight, loving, blended family unit they were. Fans eventually embraced their rowdiness and related to Karen’s quest to protect her brood through life’s hardships, with the character emerging as the natural successor to the likes of legendary mums Carol Jackson, Pauline Fowler and Peggy Mitchell.
“It’s a massive compliment to be mentioned alongside those women,” smiles Stanley. “Carol is possibly the closest influence on Karen, lots of kids and a very raw, gritty character. I love Lindsey Coulson’s work, and remember the storyline 20 years ago with Carol finding out about Bianca and Dan’s affair. When I got to work with Patsy Palmer when they brought Bianca back last year it was the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment yet on EastEnders.”
Stanley’s association with the soap pre-dates Karen by some years: she played the young ‘Big Mo’ Harris in a spinoff prequel Pat and Mo, set in the 1950s and explaining the rivalry between Mo and the iconic Pat Evans, shown in 2004.
In 2016, just a year before the Taylors, she also memorably played the recurring guest role of publican Thelma Bragg. “I was slightly worried about the timeframe of coming in as Karen not long after Thelma,” shares the actress. “But it was a compliment they didn’t think it was too soon. And dare I say it, Karen was more suited to me!
“I believe they searched for a Karen Taylor for a while and couldn’t find a skanky enough actor – the casting director Julia Crampsie had always wanted me on the show and suggested me!”
Humble Stanley is full of self-deprecation at how much of an impact Karen has made, and her natural warmth and talent for comedy has imbued the mum-of-six with a huge dollop of humour. She is genuinely proud her alter ego has earned a place in soap fans’ hearts, acknowledging everyone knows a ‘Karen Taylor’ type, and admits to drawing on some real-life influences to bring the character to life.
“I grew up on an estate in Portsmouth around some very strong women, rough as old boots but the best mums in the world,” she says. “In fact my own sister is similar to Karen – she’ll kill me for saying that! She’s actually called Karen too! We grew up around proper matriarchs, people who looked out for each other – that sense of community and working class roots is what makes Karen strong.”
The storyline that arguably elevated Karen into becoming a key part of Walford life was her son Keanu’s scandalous affair with Sharon, which resulted in love child Kayden and put her in the mighty Mitchells’ orbit. The women went from trading punches to bonding over a baby, revealing Karen’s forgiving nature.
“Karen has a heart of gold and ends up connecting with the most unlikely people, such as Sharon. They are chalk and cheese but in some ways are very similar, they’re both strong women and now have the baby in common. You’d never have put them together but there is a mutual respect. Sharon needed Karen when she lost Dennis and had Kayden, who’d have thought it?
“That friendship shows Karen doesn’t hold grudges. She has empathy. If someone proves themselves she will forgive, forget and move on. That’s why the audience relates to her.
“She is a natural mother and loves looking after people. That gives her a kindness and strength, she’ll do anything for anyone. Karen would give you her last fiver, if she had one herself!”