First published in 2015
Thirty years ago Radio Times went on set at EastEnders to photograph the original Watts family line-up, but within days Jean Fennell, the actress playing Queen Vic pub landlady Angie Watts, had been fired. The story was hushed up and the photos were suppressed. Now, for the first time, RT can reveal the full story…
When EastEnders debuted on BBC1 on Tuesday 19 February 1985, very few people would have realised that only the last-minute sacking of another actress had enabled Anita Dobson to play the key character Angie Watts.
I first stumbled upon this secret in 1987 when I interviewed June Hudson for Doctor Who Magazine. A senior BBC costume designer, June had recently left her post on EastEnders. She happened to mention in passing the tragic story of Jean Fennell’s dismissal a few years earlier. I was intrigued – and wondered if by any chance Radio Times’s stalwart photographer Don Smith had captured that fleeting moment when Jean Fennell had been Angie Watts. Indeed he had.
When I spoke to Don recently, he recalled setting up many of the original cast photoshoots in 1984. And he knew EastEnders’ formidable producer of old: “Julia Smith – no relation – wasn’t exactly a friend, but I’d worked with her on and off for many years. She actually contacted Radio Times and requested me to take the photographs. I expect she knew she could rely on me not to cause trouble.”
So, on 21 November 1984, among many other photos, Don shot a roll of film of Jean Fennell as Angie outside the Queen Vic – by herself and with her new family: husband Den (Leslie Grantham) and daughter Sharon (Letitia Dean).
A true East Ender, born in June 1951 and raised in Ilford, Fennell had seemed ideal for the landlady role, but at the read-through for the first six episodes, it became clear to Julia Smith and EastEnders’ co-creator Tony Holland that she wasn’t working out. Within a few days she’d been fired. Whatever triggered such a shattering final-hour dismissal?
Realising that June Hudson would know the inside story perhaps better than anyone surviving from that time, I caught up with her again recently. “Oh dear! Poor Jean, I did warn her. I did warn her,” she says sorrowfully. In 1983/84 June had devoted more than a year to the creation, from scratch, of an entire wardrobe department at the BBC’s new studio base in Elstree, Hertfordshire. She spent weeks with each actor, choosing the right clothes for their characters.
“The costume was only one of the problems,” recalls June. “In the script it said Angie was very bling and flashy, but Jean looked so elegant and lovely. She was very slim. She looked like a model, so I tried to bring it down a bit. I had a big problem getting her to wear what I thought was right, what I was reaching for.
“Jean felt Angie should be very elegant, but Angie had to ‘miss it’, not by a mile, but get her clothes slightly wrong. I hate to say it but the role was wrong for her. And she would have blown the budget.” June only had £700 to spend per character – and that had to include clothes for all seasons, as well as shoes, coats, accessories and jewellery.
June remembers Fennell also clashed with her BBC bosses. “You’ve got to give the performance that’s asked of you, the character written in the script. And Jean would not be directed. I know how ruthless producers and directors are. I said, ‘For goodness’ sake, Jean, go with it. Wait until you’re established and then you can bring your own personality into it.’ You cannot have head-on clashes over performance, over all sorts of issues, with producers – particularly someone like Julia Smith.”
June says that Wendy Richard (playing dowdy Pauline Fowler) was the star of EastEnders but Angie was arguably the most important character. It was essential to get her costume right. “I apologised to Julia. She was a brilliant woman whom I admired enormously. There’s no way I’d have gone into battle with her. I said, ‘I will get the image right for Jean.’ And Julia said to me very quietly, ‘Don’t worry, June. There’s going to be no problem with Jean…’ ”
June didn’t grasp Julia Smith’s meaning until a few days later. The telephone rang at her home in Twickenham. “I remember it vividly. It was a Saturday morning about 6am. The call woke me up actually. I fell out of bed. And it was Jean Fennell crying on the phone – ‘They’ve sacked me!’ ‘What!?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what to say, Jean. I’m so sorry.’ I felt like saying, ‘Jean, I warned you not to go against Julia.’
“They’d sacked her that Friday afternoon. We’d done a week’s filming, which I think gave Jean a false feeling of security,” says June. But there was no reprieve for Fennell, just the devastation of being fired from a major new BBC drama at the final hour. “It was a terrible tragedy.”
Within days, the role of Angie had been gifted to a then-unknown actress. “Anita Dobson was heaven,” says June. “I loved, loved, loved working with her. She was pretty, sensitive, warm, kind. I remember our first meeting – I went to see her in a funny little place in the East End up some steps. We just clicked like that. She was delightful to dress. There wasn’t a problem at all with her, and Julia loved everything I put her in. She looked wonderful. She was utterly adorable.”
With the sudden cast change, RT’s Don Smith had to hurry back to BBC Elstree. On 18 December 1984, he was on hand to photograph the studio recording of the very first episodes, including the revised Watts family line-up at home “upstairs” in the Queen Vic.
Then, on 30 December, he was despatched to re-create the shots outside the pub of Den and Sharon with the new Angie. “I knew Anita quite well,” says Don. “I’d often see her walking up and down Marylebone High Street where RT’s offices used to be. She was always very friendly.”
As we know, in Anita Dobson’s hands Angie became a hugely popular character, one of the all-time legends of British soap – despite only staying in EastEnders for three tempestuous years. In 1986, Dobson even reached No 4 in the UK Singles Chart with Anyone Can Fall in Love, a saccharine song to the EastEnders theme tune. After EastEnders, she had many roles on stage and screen. In 2000, she married Queen guitarist Brian May, and in 2011 took part in Strictly Come Dancing.
But what of Jean Fennell? Last week, my RT colleague Patrick Foster tracked down her sister, Kay. She, too, vividly recalls the events of 1984. Jean was “told bluntly that it was finished for her. She said everybody around heard her scream. It was a huge shock. It felt to her like everything was being taken away from her.” But years later, “Jean looked back on it without rancour. She thought it was an injustice, but she never talked of what might have been.”
Sadly, fame eluded Jean Fennell. In the 1990s, she became a drama teacher and taught almost to the end of her life. In an online obituary, two of her students, Eva Pope and Bryan Thomas, described her as “not only an inspirational and gifted teacher but a very dear friend”.
She died of lung cancer in April 2011 at her council flat in Bloomsbury, aged just 59. She is remembered by a plaque on a bench at St Paul’s, the actors’ church, in Covent Garden.