Getting the call to confirm you’re joining the cast of EastEnders is a big moment for any actor, but TV veteran Gwen Taylor admits she was especially thrilled. Not only was she about to add yet another successful show to her long list of screen credits, but the possibility of setting foot in Walford has been 37 years in the making.
“I actually went up for the first ever episode of EastEnders all those hundreds of years ago,” she recalls in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com. “I can’t remember what the part was, we never got that far! I was turned down because I didn’t come from the London area, which I understood as they were making a commitment to the kind of actors they were after. But because of that I’d dismissed it from my mind as being something I’d ever work on.
“Then my agent told me there was a role on offer which would fit me like a glove – I thought ‘how extraordinary’, it’s like I’ve come full circle.”
The part in question is plucky pensioner Violet Highway, paternal grandmother of siblings Stuart and Callum Highway who is no-nonsense, takes no prisoners and has absolutely no filter.
“Vi is sharp but honest, and her family is important to her,” explains Taylor, who makes her first appearance on Monday 3rd May. “Stuart is her favourite, she looked after him a lot when he was younger because his parents weren’t able to. She loves those boys and is incredibly protective of them.
“The character reminds me of my old mum who would occasionally put her foot in it,” she grins. “She would sit in front of the telly forming opinions, then tell people exactly what she thought! It could be a bit embarrassing. She said the wrong thing quite a few times, but it didn’t stop you loving her and, like Vi, she never means to upset anyone.
“I’m 82 now and look more like my mother every day so there has to be a bit of her in there!”
Vi descends for Callum’s wedding to boyfriend Ben Mitchell, who summons his fiancé’s nan to attend the upcoming nuptials. However, the prospect of her precious grandson marrying into one of the East End’s most notorious criminal clans fills her with trepidation, which she makes abundantly clear from the off.
“The Mitchells are a bad lot, aren’t they? One of the first things she says to Ben is how Callum was always such a good boy, honest as they come – until he met him. She summons Ben’s dad Phil for a chat to sound him out, but at this stage she’s not in fighting mode. Phil isn’t particularly intimidated by her and doesn’t view her as a foe – yet!”
Just a few episodes in and the newcomer is sharing the screen with EastEnders icon Steve McFadden, surely a badge of honour this early on. And while Phil is dismissive of bossy Vi during their encounter, the actor playing him was the total opposite and helped put Taylor at ease as she found her feet on set.
“I shouldn’t say this as it ruins his image somewhat, but Steve is an absolute pussycat!” she laughs. “He was so sweet and kind to me, we talked about the punishing schedule and he gave me some advice. It was lovely to work with him and I hope we get to do more scenes together. Maybe it will be pistols at dawn between Vi and Phil at some point!”
Vi sounds very much in the mould of Peggy Mitchell and Lou Beale, the kind of cockney matriarchs EastEnders does so well but has notably lacked in recent years. Does Taylor see herself taking on the mantle of the late Dame Barbara Windsor who personified the legendary Peggy?
“I’d love to think there’s an element of that in Vi, but you’d have to talk the writers! They haven’t given me much of that so far but I’m hoping it gets brought in a bit more the longer I’m here. I think it’s funny Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey is called Violet, maybe Vi sees herself as Walford’s own Dowager!”
Taylor has been a regular fixture on our screens for decades, starring in numerous hit series including beloved 80s sitcom Duty Free, (“It was my big break and I remember it with affection. People tell me they used to watch it with their mum which makes me feel old!”), A Bit of a Do, for which she was BAFTA-nominated opposite David Jason, Barbara and Heartbeat.
EastEnders is not her first experience in a soap: she spent six eventful months in the show’s northern rival Coronation Street a decade ago as Anne Foster, mother of rapist Frank who she eventually murdered.
“It was short-lived but I loved doing it,” she reflects. “Sally Dynevor and Ali King were particularly wonderful to work with. Isn’t it great about Sally’s daughter Phoebe doing so well in Bridgerton? I’m thrilled.
“I remember Andrew Lancel who played my son who I killed with a champagne bottle, rang me one day and said ‘Gwen, we’re trending!’ which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, but he seemed very excited!”
If Corrie came calling for her to reprise her role, there could be a case of conflicted loyalties between the two soaps, though Taylor doubts she would ever return.
“I mean I can’t say I wouldn’t if they asked, but I’m not sure what story there would be around Anne coming back. We don’t even know if she’s still alive, was she carted off completely insane or taken to prison? I do think I’ve closed the door on Anne, but sadly they didn’t which I would’ve preferred so we knew exactly where she ended up and what happened to her. I’d say it’s done and dusted, but it was good to be trending for a while!
“Anne was very much an outsider, so I didn’t get to mix with anyone in the wider community outside of my storyline. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen to Vi in EastEnders.”
There doesn’t appear to be any danger of that. The show has plans for Vi beyond being one of Ballum’s wedding guests, with Taylor confirming she is around for a while. And as is customary for new characters, there is a skeleton rattling around in Violet’s closet waiting to tumble out…
“Viewers will have to be patient, but she is hiding something,” she teases. “There is a secret in the back of her mind all the time that she pushes out of the way. It’s the reason her life is the way it is and explains why she is here.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but it tells you why she plans to make the best of being in Walford. We won’t know what it is for a while which I think is right because hopefully the character will be part of the furniture by the time we do, and we’ll know her a bit better. Then she might be forgiven for some of the things she does…”