In the late afternoon of 19th February this year, Gillian Taylforth was sitting in the back of a taxi, wearing sunglasses and a large headscarf, muttering over and over to herself: “Don’t say, ‘Hello Steve’, don’t say,‘Hello, Steve’!”
She was preparing to appear in a live scene during the 30th birthday episode of EastEnders, the series in which she played Kathy Beale, a London mother with a life as tragic as Antigone’s or Medea’s. Having appeared in the soap from its very first episode, Kathy was written out in 1998 when Taylforth decided to quit. Her character returned to the screen briefly in the following years but was eventually killed off in a car crash abroad in 2006.
Taylforth’s appearance this year, then, was planned as a surprise. She had been allowed to tell her partner, but not her children, Jessica, 23, and Harrison, 16. She told them, though, to make sure to watch Thursday’s episode of her old show because she had heard something very funny was going to happen.
After completing the scene – and remembering to address co-star Steve McFadden not by his own name but that of his character, Phil Mitchell, Kathy’s ex-husband – she went back to the dressing room. “On my phone, there was a message from my daughter saying, ‘Oh God, Mum, is it true you were in it?’ And then my son texted me: ‘Thank you, Mother. Ninety-nine per cent of the population know you’re back in EastEnders and one per cent, your beloved son, doesn’t.’ I asked them why they hadn’t watched it and they said they were busy.”
Taylforth is telling this story on a muggy August day in Elstree because another secret she was keep- ing at the time was that the one-line greeting she filmed for the live episode was the beginning of a storyline marking her long-term return to Albert Square.
And so she will again be working 12-hour days at the soap opera’s four-studio lot in the Hertfordshire town of Elstree, where groups of the keenest view- ers stand at the gates all day, hoping to spot the cast as they drive in and out.
When we meet, Taylforth has been filming for a couple of weeks, although away from the main cast. “Lots and lots of location work – bits and pieces in the Arches and a pub and a park somewhere,” she says, in that familiar bark of a voice.
So can we conclude from that shooting schedule that her comeback begins with various characters glimpsing Kathy in the distance? Taylforth looks to her BBC minder, who optically advises silence.
This is Taylforth’s third return to the series since she first left, having reappeared for two stints at the turn of the millennium to tie up some storylines. Was it an easy decision to resume the role? “Well,” she says, “when they asked me this time, I didn’t even think it was to ask me back.”
She had been invited to the home of EastEnders showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins to discuss “doing something for the 30th anniversary”, but assumed it would be something like presenting a cake to Adam Woodyatt (who has played her on-screen son Ian Beale since the show’s inception) at the anniversary party.
“Dom told me that they wanted me to come back. And he got all emotional and cried. I was so shocked that I didn’t. But then I got into the car to go home and sobbed: ‘They want me back! They want me back!’”
But presumably you said, “Hang on a minute! Kathy died in a car crash in South Africa?”
“Yeah, I was wondering about that and he told me a little bit. Obviously, she was killed off- screen. And it’s funny because a lot of people have always said to me, ‘Why don’t you come back to EastEnders?’ And when I say, ‘I’m dead!’ they always respond, ‘Well, I never saw that!’”
In a world of conspiracy theories, where some people think Elvis Presley is still alive and rides Shergar every morning, Kath’s return should not challenge viewer credulity too much. The best guess must be that her death was either faked or misreported? Taylforth laughs and looks at the publicist, who shakes her head. “I can’t say,” says the actress. “The truth will out.”
Can she reassure us, though, that it won’t be like the notorious comeback of the dead Bobby Ewing to Dallas, where his fate was retroactively revealed as Bobby’s wife’s nightmare while he was in the shower? “It won’t be like that. It will be something feasible.” A growly giggle. “You don’t want to see me coming out of the shower!”
In drama school, actors are taught to play the back story of their character, reflecting past events in the present personality. But – because of the demands in soap opera for sensational plot twists and cliffhangers – a character such as Kath has suffered so much that, if she thought about it all, she surely wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning? “Yeah. Poor Kath – two rapes, she got sacked by the Samaritans… Who gets sacked by the Samaritans? So you can only play bits of what’s happened to her. I just think of her as a very strong woman.”
Taylforth’s longevity in EastEnders is a striking example of the part that luck plays in the lives of actors, as she almost failed to be cast. Despite impressing at an audition, she was only 12 years older than Woodyatt, who had already been cast as her son. Pocket calculators were produced and Taylforth was asked if she could play someone who had given birth to Ian at 16: “They said ‘Pull your hair back, put it over to that side.’ And it convinced them.”
She had been working as a secretary in a solicitor’s office when she got the part and remembers panicking, at the end of her first year in EastEnders, that she had lost her typing speed and so might struggle to return to her old job. She remembers Anita Dobson laughing and saying it was unlikely to be a problem.
Only when the cast were invited to open a new shopping mall in Croydon did Taylforth realise what a phenomenon the show had become: “There were police there holding people back. And, as I went through a door, someone grabbed my hair and shouted, ‘I touched her!’ It was really frightening and weird.”
On a long-running soap, some of the actors have been playing the characters since before some of the writers were born, so there can be fights over biography. “It’s not a problem here. The writers said: ‘If there’s anything you think doesn’t sound right for Kath, just come and talk to us.’
“But I’ve got nine scripts so far and they’re all fantastic. Sometimes I’ll remind them of something from the beginning, like her being Mark Fowler’s godmother or having been a vegetarian originally.”
Although not quite officially cockney, Taylforth was born close enough, in Islington, to know what the Albert Square vernacular should be. “Sometimes there’s a bit of Morecambe and Wise ‘the play wot I wrote’, and so you change that. It might say in a script ‘going up west’, but a cockney would say ‘going to the West End’ or something like that. And once I changed ‘chip butty’ to ‘chip sandwich’, which is what we said.”
Members of the public still generally address her as “Kathy”, but Taylforth is unusual among soap actors in appearing in several different programmes – Hollyoaks, The Bill and Footballers’ Wives as well as EastEnders – and always choosing to leave, although she has witnessed the shock of actors who open a script to read a scene in a car with brakes that don’t work and realise they might soon be out of a job: “Yeah, I’ve seen that and it’s not nice. So I’ve been very lucky.”
Although EastEnders is lucky now the get half the audience that was common during her first stint (now about 6 million tune in four days a week), her reappearance in the series will bring renewed public scrutiny. Especially when, in the camera-phone selfie era, everyone is a paparazzo. “Yeah, it gets a bit much sometimes. I’m quite tomboyish and so I like going out in jeans and no make-up but then people are discussing how you look.”
Such pressure leads some actresses to the face-lift scalpel and Botox syringe, but she says: “There might come a time when I think ‘You know what, I’d better go for that’, but I’m all right for now.” Do actresses talk about it? “Oh, yeah. Just this week, we were talking about what we’d like to have done. But it’s that thing of what if it goes wrong – the wind-tunnel look.”
More unusually for an actress, there was talk, when Taylforth was a child, of her having medical intervention on her voice. “My voice was always really deep. When I answered the phone, people would go ‘Ron?’, who was my brother. I went into hospital to see if there was anything wrong, but they said it was just how my larynx was shaped and that I should never smoke, which I never have. One doctor said, ‘I think you’ve got masculine tonsils.’ I said, ‘Blimey!’”
I ask her how long her EastEnders contract is for but her minder tells her she can’t answer that. But, I wonder, does she have a deal that this time that they definitely won’t kill her off?
“No, actually I don’t. So, yeah, don’t get in a car, don’t go near the river!”
Danny Dyer, Natalie Cassidy and executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins will be at the Radio Times festival on Saturday 26 September to discuss 30 years of EastEnders.