The Paul Moriarty Interview

George Palmer, Who Art Thou?

By Tim Wilson

It’s a long way from the fictional East London borough of Walford to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre. But that’s where actor Paul Moriarty, who plays EastEnders’ dodgy businessman George Palmer, recently found himself acting this past fall in Shakespeare’s Richard II and Coriolanus, alongside screen superstar Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient).

Despite the reputation of some New Yorkers as lacking appreciative of the finer arts, the play was completely sold out. In fact, I had to barge my way past people on line for standby seats in order to make it to Mr. Moriarty’s dressing room the night before the run concluded. Once I was there, he greeted me very politely and asked if I’d like to smoke and whether I’d mind if did since this was the only smoking dressing room for miles? I assured him a little smoke wouldn’t get in the way of this interview.

WG: Has anyone here recognized you from your role on EastEnders?

PM: A lady walked up to me two nights ago and gushed, “You are such a wonderful actor. You played my favourite actor.” I was shocked. I replied, “Really? How lovely. I hope this doesn’t get back to Ralph Fiennes, though.” She laughed and pointed to her programme. “Oh, I didn’t mean in this, silly. I meant ‘George Palmer’ in EastEnders.” It brought me down to earth in a thud, but it again reminded how powerful that show actually is-the reach is staggering, really.

WG: So what brought you to EastEnders in the first place, then?

PM: Well, after years of hard work in television and on stage I got this call to read for the role of this guy called George Palmer on this TV show called EastEnders, and I went up and did it! There were 10 other guys up for the same role. I got a call later on in the day that I was hired and would I please be ready to work there the next day! [It was] quite overwhelming. I had watched the show but not religiouslyŠ I really enjoyed it when Den and Angie were the focal points-they were brilliant, those actors who played them, weren’t they? So I show up at Borehamwood the very next day, straight to make-up and then onto Albert Square to do my first bit, which entailed George asking about this Peggy Mitchell’s whereabouts and then heading into this pub called the Queen Vic. I might just as well have landed on Mars. It turned out that I had already brushed up against Barbara Windsor, in a manner of speaking, 25 years ago when I was up in Coventry doing a job that’s known as acting assistant stage manager. That meant I played small roles in the production and handled other production duties.

WG: Don’t tell me, you made the tea, right?

PM: (laughing) Yes, I made Barbara Windsor, this big star, her tea! Very exciting. It was up at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry during a production of the play The Wind and the Sassafras Tree.

WG: Try saying that three times fast when you’re drunk.

PM: Exactly. So I’m brought into EastEnders many years later as her would-be fella. She actually remembered me, God bless her. She also said, “You’re nervous, aren’t you darling?” I bloody well PUKED my first day on the job.

WG: She told me that in her interview for the Gazette. That particular incident occurred somewhere on her way up to the studio and not at the bar of the Vic. Just as well.

PM: Bless her. I was too overwhelmed to be nervous, actually. That perplexed Barbara during a scene, I think.

WG: Wasn’t George Palmer meant to be a villain in the true sense of the word? A real baddie?

PM: Yes, he was. The man’s background, as it was explained in the prepared bio which I received, was pretty nasty. He was a violent man-very bad news. He murdered people. He’d been this vicious boxer who punched and clawed his way up the ladder, disposing of a body here and there over the years if it helped him get to where he wanted to go. He wasn’t just into fencing stolen goods, you know! He was really meant to be this hard, ruthless bastard.

WG: So what happened? How much of a bad guy did the show let George be? For instance, what happened to those ragtag street urchins who dared to attack Peggy? Did George send them off to boarding school or to the bottom of the Thames?

PM: Your guess is good as mine, sorry. Obviously the character evolved in a certain way as the writers wanted to pursue the idea of George being a love interest for one of their important leading ladies. They simply wouldn’t allow her to be involved with a cold-blooded murderer because that wouldn’t reflect well in her character. Besides, inevitable comparisons would have then been drawn between Peggy and George on EastEnders, and Barbara having been married in real life to a gangster, Ronnie Knight. I remember making tea for Ronnie as well as Barbara back in Coventry all those years ago. He’d hang about wearing a black suit. He was pretty hard to miss!

WG: I guess the show sometimes feels the need to compromise to keep audience sympathy. I distinctly remember when Peggy, as played by Ms. Windsor, first reappeared in the Square and she said, I’m paraphrasing, “I know my Eric did bad things. People got hurt-maybe worse. I’m not blind or stupid-but I looked the other way. He was a good husband. He didn’t cheat on me with other women to the best of my knowledge, and that’s what matters to me.” And then she gets all self-righteous about George’s alleged criminal behaviour!

PM: I suppose being made land lady of the Vic did that to her-airs and graces! (laughs) But that’s what happens on soaps if you to stay a long-term character. You’ve got to be made sympathetic and even moral to an extent. So they had Peggy and George being all right for a while, and then George would inevitably screw up and they’d make up again-over and over. Barbara turned to me one night as we were driving home and said, “This is getting to be bloody BORING now, isn’t it?” She wasn’t half right. Quite frankly, the show didn’t know what to make of George. That’s why they brought on Annie-to do the dirty work for him! That’s actually quite accurate of the East End villain these days. They swan around in these dapper suits and get someone else to hide the money-or the bodies.

WG: It’s a great twist that it’s his daughter and not his son.

PM: Yes, the show deserves credit for this. I adored Nadia Sawalha (“Annie”), which helped tremendously. She’s this wild, vivacious lady!

WG: She always reminds me of Gypsy woman. I half-expect her to break out a mandolin or to give Ethel a run for her money in telling fortunes on the Square.

PM: Her father’s Iranian, which no doubt accounts for those exotic looks. We had a ball. She’s a marvellous person and a great deal of fun to act with. I shared many more scenes with her than I did continued on page 11 Continued from page 7 with Barbara, as it turned out. I did more plotting than romancing in the final tally!

WG: Did you enjoy working with Ross Kemp (“Grant”)? You two seemed to have a spark in scenes-some sort of actor-to-actor chemistry.

PM: Thanks, I agree. Ross became what’s called on sets “the Head Boy.” He’s an extremely quiet, sweet guy, but don’t mess about with him. And don’t mess about with the rest of the actors either, or you” be hearing from him! (laughs)

WG: Larry Jaffee revealed in a recent issue how Ross managed to keep Gretchen Franklin (Ethel) from suffocating in her dressing room on a sweltering hot day.

PM: I’ve heard that story and I’m sure that it’s true. He did a lot of little things for us, like, if someone from the production staff or someone from the crew referred to me as ‘George’ he’d tell them, “His name is Paul, mate.”

WG: How did the audience treat you? They’re really awful to some actors, by all accounts.

PM: Never awful to me. Very, very nice really. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a bit more “mature” in years than the others, so there’s respect. Plus, they think “George” is cool! I live down in Brighton and people would spot me and either whisper something to each other or give me the thumbs-up and say, “Oi, George, you’re all right, mate!”

WG: If you strolled along [Brooklyn’s] Brighton Beach over here I wonder if the Russian mafia “boys” would recognize you. They get Channel 21.

PM: (using a thick Russian accent) “There ees Meester George Palmerr. He not look after beezneess properr.” (laughs) He’s nowhere as nasty as he should be, in other words. Oh, well.

WG: It sounds like a frustrating time. Couldn’t you have a word with the writers?

PM: No, it’s not my job. I’m a jobbing actor. I just show up and do the best I can. I don’t mean to put down actors who do that sort of thing, but it’s something I simply won’t do.

WG: You’ve been quite the jobbing actor in the theatre in England.

PM: Yes, luckily. I’ve work at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and the Royal National Theatre. Early in my career I worked at Stratford-On-Avon for the RSC playing a lot of Nazi or Nazi-type characters. I did one Shakespeare play a season because that justified my existence on their payroll! But they cast me a lot as fascists and all-around bad guys. I did many new plays, which was exciting. One was called Oi for England. I played a British fascist from the notorious National Front Party. Great stuff.

WG: You’re fortunate in that you’ve continued to do theatre with such highly regarded companies. EastEnders could have pigeon-holed you as an actor. I somehow don’t see Steve McFadden (“Phil”) or Dean Gaffney (“Robbie”) doing Hamlet if they ever leave the show.

PM: To be fair to them, they may not want to, but I see your point. Martine (McCutcheon) is doing My Fair Lady at the National next year, and I’m very pleased for her.

WG: I hope to donate my kidney in exchange for a ticket to see her in that.

PM: People are donating kidneys to get in to see Ralph (Fiennes) this very night. Medics are on alert! (laughs)

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