EastEnders boss explains his axings and gives more teasers in final part of our interview

(Picture: BBC/Getty/Metro.co.uk)

We had so much to chat about when we sat down with EastEnders boss Sean O’Connor that we have had to split our mammoth chat into three parts and here we can share the final snippets of information that he gave to us. 

So far he has spoken about which characters to look out for, why he changed the direction of the soap and what is still left to do and here he addresses why he axed certain characters – particularly Ronnie and Roxy Mitchell – as well as discussing whether he will be bringing Lee Ryan back as Woody.

He also gives more character snippets on the likes of Lauren Branning and Whitney Carter as well as addressing why the transition period has felt like it has taken a long time to bear fruit.

Here’s the final part of our Lord Of The Rings-esque EastEnders interview trilogy in all of its glory!

Who else should we be looking out for in coming weeks?

We’ve got several stories for our younger core cast coming up. I’m watching Jacqueline Jossa (Lauren Branning) at the moment and seeing her mature into an absolutely fantastic leading actress. There was a moment the other week, when she first arrived at Canary Wharf on the escalator from the tube station – her heart all giddy and full of hope – and she did it all with no lines at all. She looked like a film star. I don’t think she’s even aware of how good she is. And it’s that lack of guile, that innocence that makes her performance as Lauren so endearing.  There’s a big story to come with Lauren and her sister. And Lorna Fitzgerald is currently re-defining who Abi is. She’s having a ball exploring Abi’s darker side. Lorna looks so innocent, but there’s a touch of Lady Macbeth about Abi now – she’s so injured, the odd one out – but she’s just starting to demand that the family – and the world should take her seriously.

Abi’s upcoming 21st birthday is like a dry run for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane as an exploration of sibling rivalry and deep-seated resentment. She’s brilliantly matched by Aaron Sidwell’s deeply unnerving Steven Beale – the Peter who never was. Watching his desperation to be needed by Ian – and wanted by Lauren – is both tragic and chilling. And that’s all down to a very detailed performance from Aaron. He’s really got into his stride and it’s wonderful to watch.

And Shona McGarty as Whitney is absolutely incredible. She’s a wonderfully gifted actress – she can do pain like nobody’s business but she has such warmth and humour too. Wherever she is in a scene – if she is collecting glasses, or breaking her heart- the camera just loves her. She has some huge episodes to come- including a showdown with Mick and Linda in the pipeline which will be a Carter three hander where all of the emotions of the past few months will come crashing into the heart of the Square. It’s going to be fantastic.

Do you have any regrets about chopping any of the cast down when you first came in?

EastEnders boss explains his axings and gives more teasers in final part of our interview

(Picture: BBC)

No, not at all. One of the reasons that the show has survived for so long it that it has been brilliant at renewing itself. That’s the cycle of a soap opera.  We need new blood to explore new ideas and new themes, but we also need new faces to refresh the established characters too. I had very clear ideas about the sort of new characters I thought the show needed.

I feel that when you bring in a new core character, they should have a solid long-term story at least sketched out. They can’t just come in and hang around the Square, hoping for the best; you need to know exactly what you’re doing with them. It’s made us really scrutinise what the new characters are for and where they will go, which is why things take time. And you want the characters that you have to appear in the show in lots of different stories and lots of different scenes. As well as being in a big story about adultery or fraud, they need to be versatile enough to be convincing popping into the Minute Mart for a pint of milk.  You want them to have both humour and drama in their lives so then they feel less like characters in a soap and more like mates that you visit four times a week.

Axing Ronnie and Roxy certainly divided opinion…

When Ronnie and Roxy burst onto the Square all those years ago, they were amazing. A real breath of fresh air – and great soap characters. But as they were so popular they were given a huge amount of plot. By the time I arrived, the characters were exhausted. Ronnie became essentially a tragic character.  Can you really see Ronnie popping in to the Minute Mart for a pint of milk after sobbing her heart out after the death of yet another child? But we can with a character like Stacey, who as a character, has had time to rest between her big dramatic stories. I felt it was fairer to Sam and Rita to say ‘you have been extraordinary for the show- EastEnders legends- so we’re going to make your exit a great one to remember.’ There was no way that the Mitchell sisters would leave in the back of a taxi!

And it is hard to say goodbye to great characters and also to wonderful actors. We genuinely do think really hard about who is going, who is staying, who is dying and who isn’t. Because you’re not just dealing with the characters your audience loves but you’re dealing with actors’ lives as well. And we work with them every day, long hours – over many years; they’re friends. But sometimes you have to make really tough decisions for the show because EastEnders is bigger than all of us.

Ultimately, when we are attempting to refresh the show, everything we’re trying to do is to ensure the show’s future and stability – building up the core clans, making sure we have the right characters to tell new, challenging and entertaining stories. And it takes a long time to get there. Soap opera has a unique ecology – it’s not like any other TV format because we have to renew the show whilst it’s still broadcasting. It’s not like dramas such as Line of Duty or Broadchurch where you can recharge the show’s batteries between series.

Some have commented on there being a long ‘transition period’…

We shoot the equivalent of a feature film every single week with dozens of other movies in various stages of development at the same time.  And you still have to do the job day to day – let alone any future planning.  So that’s why it takes a while – it’s all go, nothing stops. But just about everything is now in place. I know it’s only May in the real world, but we’ve sorted the stories for Christmas already- and that’s going to be amazing – and we are currently planning some eye-wateringly complicated episodes for the autumn that are huge in scale.

Are you pleased with how Lee Ryan and Lisa Faulkner have gone down – is there scope for a return for Lee?

EastEnders boss explains his axings and gives more teasers in final part of our interview

(Picture: BBC)

I’m absolutely delighted! I met Lee and really liked him – he’s an old fashioned gent in many ways and has a lovely sensitivity. I knew exactly what sort of character I wanted, so I wrote him a short monologue myself. He absolutely nailed it right from the start. It was only later on that I let Lee know he was the only person to audition. I had a feeling he’d get it – and he did- right down to the inflections and the pauses. Some people take time to bed down and that’s fine too but Lee fitted in with such ease. It’s as if he’s been in Walford for years. And that’s when you know it’s right. And I think the audience have picked up on that too.

I’m delighted that the audience have warmed to Lisa Faulkner as well. I’ve always wanted to work with her and this character is just right for her. She’s something very different for the Square – a cool Hitchcock blonde. But, of course, she has a secret! It’s been great seeing her on screen – very charming, butter wouldn’t melt. But we’re just storylining the episodes when she reveals why she is in Walford and it’s so exciting. I’ve sworn her to absolute secrecy, but I know she is dying to get to the episodes when we show her true colours.

You have introduced guest characters a number of times for storylines, why is that and will it continue?

Yes, we’ve done that a few times. If you want to get a really good actor, you have to offer them a three dimensional role – rather than just a foil for our characters. That’s why we brought Cora back – she serves a function in Denise’s story but as she’s a fully-rounded character in her own right, you care about both sides of the debate. It’s far more interesting than ‘Policeman’ or ‘Second Woman’. It’s the same as we did with the wonderful Sally Rogers (as the Car Park Attendant) at New Year in the episodes with Lee Carter. It was based on a real story about a man who talked another man down off a bridge. They later became friends after the man who was saved tracked him down. I think most of us, at some point in our lives, have opened up to a stranger in a crisis.  So it feels realistic.

One of our new family members is played by Lorraine Stanley, who was in the show not long ago as Star’s mum. There was something about her that we really, really liked. She just fitted the show, but we felt it was the wrong character for her. But Julia (Julia Crampsie our Casting Director) never forgets a performance and she puts them in her memory bank for another time.

And of course there are always surprises in store – EastEnders is usually very good at holding back spoilers…

The beauty of soap is that, as a viewer, you want to know what’s going on but really you want to find out by watching – why read the last page of a book before you’ve read it? The Mousetrap has been running in the West End for 65 years – it’s the longest running play in the world. And why is that? Because at the end of every performance, the actor playing the murderer steps forward and asks the audience NOT to tell their friends whodunnit? It’s brilliant. Everyone agrees to respect the secret so it’s entertaining for future audiences.

From the research we do, we know that our audience love the shocks and surprises we and our counterparts give them, and that they really don’t want to know what happens next in the story.

Check out part one of the interview in which Sean gives more details on the new family, explains his many changes and discusses what is left to do. 

Check out part two of the interview in which Sean gives specific character spoilers and reveals what’s ahead for the likes of Max, Kathy, Stacey and Phil. 

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