The Return of 'Natalie'


By Tim Wilson

O.K, O.K, I know I've just used a rather too obvious pun as the headline for this interview. However, since it's a much used phrase from one of my two favourite TV shows-24-I hope I'm excused. And Lucy Speed is one of my favourite actresses from the other of my two favourite TV shows-EastEnders, of course.

In mid-January of this year Miss Speed very kindly agreed to meet with me during her lunch break from the show at the BBC Elstree Television Centre's bar, which, incidentally, serves up a darned good lunch. I assured her that because of time constraints it wouldn't offend me if she spoke with her mouth full. She merely asked me to ask long questions!

Walford Gazette: Thank you so much for doing this, Lucy. I'm well aware that you have a busy day ahead of you, filming-wise.

Lucy Speed: Oh, it's fine. I'm happy to do it. Yeah, I actually have some pretty emotional scenes to do this afternoon and because of quick rewrites I haven't locked in all my lines yet so I'd better get going on that as soon as we're done!

Let's get to it, then. Let me begin this by saying that I have always enjoyed your work on EastEnders so much. Natalie is a wonderful character, and you and her have proved to be a valuable asset to the show. (Smiling): Awwwww, thanks. That's very nice to hear. I think the viewers in general like Natalie a fair amount despite the mistakes she's made. That's the feeling I get when I speak to them in the bank or supermarkets or wherever.

Well, that leads to my asking you about why you left the show in 1995 after being on it for just a year. I read in a newspaper interview a year or so ago that you "freaked out" at all the attention you had been receiving as the result of being part of a monster hit TV show like EastEnders. Yes, I've spoken pretty honestly about how I reacted to all that- I was very frightened by it quite frankly and certainly unprepared for it. I didn't like at all the attention that came with being on such a high-profile show. But I also have to make it clear that from the beginning when I joined I always intended to stay in it for just a year anyway. I honoured my initial one-year contract and then moved on. And that's what I did. I'm sure the show came running after you with another contract, right? At that point Natalie had just slept with her best friend Bianca's boyfriend Ricky. That storyline was certainly heating up. (Nods): Yep, they did express their interest in signing me for another year but I politely but firmly declined. They were a bit shocked. I tried to explain in the best way I could my reasons for leaving at the end of my contract and they ultimately understood, and so I left on good terms with them. A good thing too, I could have ended up being run over and killed off out of spite by them! Ohhhhhh, you mean like poor Tiff the Stiff? (Eyes widening): You mean Tiffany? (laughs) Uh-huh, like her! That black-haired girl who was Natalie's replacement as Bianca's best friend! I heard she got out of B's shadow and ended up a pretty good character on her own. (Laughs)

I risk the chance of seeming to harp on this but could you explain a bit further what you meant when you admitted to having been "freaked out" by appearing on the show? Oh, it wasn't like I suffered a nervous breakdown or anything like that. I was just frightened by what I found I'd got myself into. It simply wasn't what I signed up for in the first place-all that craziness. I was naive, I admit. Of course it does come with the job of being on the show and you have to learn to deal with it and cope with it. The advantages always outweigh the drawbacks, anyway, but it didn't seem like that to me at the time. I was very young and extremely shy, so it all became a huge difficulty for me. You and Patsy Palmer (Bianca) joined the show around the same time. Couldn't you have helped each other out coping with that difficulty?

Patsy and I became great mates and got on really well together always during our time together on the show but her personal situation was so different to mine. She was a totally independent young working girl with a little boy, Charlie, to bring up, and living in her own flat. She had grown-up responsibilities and had already been a crazy girl at clubs and all that. I had lived with my parents in a consistently "safe" quiet environment all my life. And then EastEnders happened and it shook everything up, is all I'll say. It was tough.

And it must be stressed that when you left you did make it clear in the press that you wanted to take on other roles besides Natalie.

Yeah, that's really how I felt, too. I was also afraid that being a young actress I would quickly be pigeon-holed as a "soap actress" and also too strongly identified with my soap character and would find it difficult to get other work. I wouldn't have felt that way if I was a more mature performer who already had taken my turn at doing other roles. Being on a soap like this is a really good living and very satisfying for many reasons. Anyway it was the right thing for me to do at the time-I'd never advise others to do the same because each situation's different. I had some "growing up" to do and instinctively knew that "growing up" more or less in front of the British public for one year was enough! Not that anything too embarrassing was reported about me in the tabloid newspapers! (Laughs) From what I remember your personal life was rarely scrutinized by the tabloid press, if at all. (Grinning): That's because the REALLY INTERESTING stuff didn't happen to me until after I left the show! Clever girl. So how did you join the show initially? I always love the stories behind the casting procedure, they're so varied.

It was all pretty odd. I had suddenly been scheduled for an audition for EastEnders in the early evening and I had to rush up to it by leaving a dance class early. I really loved that dance class so I hated having to do that! I was in a strop, as a result, on the train up to Elstree. I was pissed! In the American sense. Pretty cranky. So I showed up there with an attitude, not giving a stuff whether I got the damn part and they responded to that. They liked it, liked my feistiness, they thought it was the quality they were looking for.

It sounds like you were more Bianca than Natalie at the audition.

(Nods): Yeah, that's true. But Natalie was a pretty gloomy kid if you remember, not a sunny show-biz kid which is all they'd been seeing until I walked through the door. So I got the part. They called up a week later and told me to report to Elstree at a certain time, nothing more. I thought it was for a rehearsal or wardrobe tests with the cameras or something. No, it was my first day on the set shooting! Someone walked up to me and asked me if I knew my lines for my first day! I panicked, it was a nightmare, I didn't know where to go. I got hold of some scripts and learned Natalie's first lines REAL QUICKLY. It's a good thing learning lines for me have never been that much of a problem or I would have been in big trouble. It sounds to me that the production people at that time were asleep at the wheel! They should have ended up in trouble, not you. Yeah, that was pretty unusual for them. I suppose the exciting prospect of my stunning first appearance on the show fell between the cracks somehow. They're absolutely brilliant about showing the newcomers around now and helping them to adjust to the production schedule when they first join. They even assign a more seasoned cast member to them as a "mentor," which is a really good idea. I wish I'd had one at the time.

That sounds like a really smart thing to do. I liked Natalie from that very first day we saw her moping around the market, hanging around Bianca as her sidekick, egging B on to get her revenge on Tricky Dicky. (Smiling): Yes, that was her initial purpose, being B's sidekick. That's one of the reasons my return to the show was so interesting-I was no longer playing B's much put-upon sidekick. Bianca treated her like dirt, didn't she? She'd tell her to her face that she was plain and wouldn't attract boys. I remember when I'd get together with other EastEnders fans in New York and we'd talk about how mean B was being to Natalie and that she didn't know what she was talking about. Natalie was a cute girl with an adorable big eyes and a great husky voice! (Laughing): Awwwww, thanks! I love hearing that, obviously!

And so when Natalie slept with Ricky we were actually rooting for her to take him away from Bianca because Bianca treated HIM like dirt, too! I KNOW! (Laughs) But after it got out that she had slept with Ricky in that love shack also known as The Arches she immediately got sent away to live with a relative by that horrible mother of hers. End of my one-year contract!

What do you think happened to her during those four years away from Walford? Well, it was revealed bit by bit that she had taken a business course at college and had had at least one ill-fated romance. Guess the guy couldn't measure up to her memories of being with Ricky at The Arches! On her return to Walford in 1999 she opened up a dating service and ended up going out with one of her clients-Barry. I thought for a change I'd incorporate questions into this interview from some American viewers of EastEnders. This is from Sherry Lehman of New York: What were the circumstances leading up to your return to the show? Did you contact them or did they contact you?

First of all, thanks for your question, Sherry Lehman! (Laughs) It happened in an interesting way. I'd actually kept in touch with Ross Kemp (Grant) over the years I'd been away, and one night over the phone I mentioned in passing that I wouldn't mind coming back to the show. He asked me if I really meant that and I said I did. He was having lunch at a very posh London restaurant the next day with Matthew Robinson, the show's then producer, and mentioned what I'd said. Matthew seemed pretty agreeable to it and asked Ross how they should get the ball rolling, should Ross call me up about it? Ross gestured over to my agent, who totally coincidentally was having lunch a few tables over! And they took it from there. Great, great story-we have a lot to thank Ross Kemp for now, don't we? You're telling me. I'm behind on my commission payments to him but he already makes a pretty good salary nowadays so I'm not too bothered! (Laughs) Matthew made a really good choice to bring you and Natalie back, that's for sure. It turned out that he'd been thinking of ways to introduce a love interest for Barry and it crossed his mind that it could be Natalie. It was good timing. He thought I and the character fit the bill. I do think they look right together in a funny way. But a lot of people both here and in the U.K. have asked the question-why Barry? In fact Irene Feldman of New Jersey asked me to ask you what was it about Barry that attracted Nat in the first place?

Thanks for your question, Irene Feldman! Uhhh, I think it has a lot to do with her childhood. Natalie really adored her dad but he couldn't put up with that horrible wife of his, Andrea, Nat's mum, and so he walked out on the family. Andrea is a total nightmare control freak, and it says a lot about who Natalie is, why she had no confidence in herself. Her mother probably emotionally abused her. So Barry represented safety and a secure family environment, believe it or not! He and Pat and Roy! (Laughs) She feels safe with him and she felt she made the right choice at the time, although of course she was apprehensive about it.

But after they got married and she became pregnant she became determined to abort their child. Oh, that's a complicated one. The safe environment she thought she'd married into became oppressive and stifling because she and Barry were living with Roy and Pat and never seemed to have any money. She couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel and also didn't have confidence in being a mum. She felt trapped and having a baby might have seemed to her like a nail in the coffin, sorry to use that term.

The scenes between you and Shaun Williamson (Barry) during this storyline were very moving. I have a theory, though: perhaps Natalie became pregnant with Ricky's baby back in 1995 and her mother forced her into an abortion and so she never wanted to have another one for fear of always being reminded of the baby she wanted so badly-Ricky's.

Interesting theory-that's all I'll say! (Laughs) Shaun is so brilliant to work with-a great, great guy, so nice and funny. I'm very lucky.

Now it looks like Natalie and Ricky might be rekindling something this year.

Well, Natalie's always had strong feelings for Ricky. And now she's grown tired of being a mother to baby Jack AND Barry! REALLY TIRED! (laughs) Ricky perks her up. It didn't help when Pat said to her that you never can quite forget your first love. Ironic, considering she's her mother-in-law. We'll see. Quite frankly I still don't know how it'll develop.

I have to ask you about your time away from EastEnders. You were in the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love-that must have been a good thing.

It was. I had a very tiny role in it though, just a few lines of dialogue. I played a whore. A whore with very bad teeth! The hair people walked up to me shrieking "We just found this faaaaaaabulously horrid wig for you to wear!" Somehow I think they expected me to be thrilled. (Laughs) I ended up working on the film for a few weeks, though. I got to hang out a bit with Joseph Fiennes, who was lovely, and Geoffrey Rush, who was fantastic-so funny and nice. And Judi Dench is an idol of mine, so meeting her was amazing, of course. Everybody was in awe of her. The wardrobe people could never figure out how she seemed to float along the floor when she was wearing built-up platform shoes to make her appear taller! I made sure I scrubbed up and put on a nice frock to wear to the cast and crew party at the end of the shoot. I wanted to show everyone I could be cute in real life! (Laughs) Joseph wasn't there-awwww!

I read somewhere you worked as a nanny. True?

True. Both here and in America. Although I only worked once as a nanny in America. It was in Boca in Florida and it was as a favour to a friend of mine. The kid was a right little terror-he chucked a milkshake on my lap and I dumped the rest on his head! (Laughs) He was SO much less well-behaved than the other lovely children I had looked after over here, like darling little Alexander of Clapham! (laughs) I love it. You've spent time in the U.S., then?

At one time my aunt and uncle lived in Connecticut. My aunt married an American, you see, and moved there. I went to visit them one summer when I was 11, and it was my first time travelling alone on a plane. They were there to meet me at Newark airport, of course. Another time when I was just hanging around bored in Connecticut my aunt's friend asked me if I wanted to join her on a trip out to Long Island in New York and I went way out there and lay on the beach for a few days! It was great! Incidentally, my brother also studied at university in Louisiana, and because of his scholastic achievements there his name is on a plaque they have up on a wall. My parents want to go over there to view it! (Laughs)

Awwww. What else did you do acting-wise from 1995-1999?

I worked on two things for American TV. One was for a show called The New Adventures of Robin Hood. I played Maid Marian's cousin Iris, who was put under a magic spell by the wicked queen. I think it turned out all right in the end. That was shot in Lithuania, and those Lithuanians got me mighty drunk one night on orange vodka and cranberry vodka. I didn't realize at the time it was 100 percent vodka! I didn't black out but... Well, I'll leave the rest to your imagination. So THAT'S what you meant about the interesting stuff that happened after your first year on EastEnders! Well, I wasn't a minor, I was of legal age. Needless to say few experiences will be able to match up to that. (Laughs) It was a lot of fun.

And your other American TV job?

Oh, that was for Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by Mr. William Shatner. I played this terminally ill girl taken to Lourdes by her friends and family hoping for a miracle. We actually shot that at Lourdes and I almost didn't get to go because the night before I was to leave I realized to my horror that my passport had expired six months earlier! I managed to get them to change my flight for six hours later-it was on a Saturday-and so I spent the entire morning waiting on line at the passport office. That was the real miracle- getting your passport sorted.

Yes! I simply HAD TO appear on Unsolved Mysteries. I HAD TO!


I saw you on The Weakest Link in Britain. It was an EastEnders special, and your fellow contestants were also EastEnders castmates. Wendy Richard (Pauline), Adam Woodyatt (Ian), Hannah Waterman (Laura), Lucy Benjamin (Lisa) and Shaun were on it, too. You were funny on that-it didn't look at all like you wanted to be there.

I didn't! I HATED IT. I'd been coerced into doing it by EastEnders! (Laughs) And I LOATHED Anne Robinson- I think she's the most horrid woman. I never wanted to vote out any of my cast-mates intentionally. So what I would do during the time we had to vote is I'd just keep on typing everybody's first name until they told us to stop and the one which stuck on the electronic thingie was the one I had to use. We didn't write out the names like they do on the other shows for some reason. Anyway, the first time I voted the name which stuck turned out to be for the guy playing my on-screen husband, Shaun! Anne wouldn't let that fact go, not even during the breaks we took, when we weren't even on camera! She's hateful! True Evil. I'm glad she didn't last long in America!


Too funny. I know you have to go now to lock in your lines for this afternoon so I'll end with a question from Esta Asteroff of Florida, but not Boca. Do you feel you'd like to remain in the role of Natalie for a long time?

Thank you for your question, Esta Asteroff! Uhhhh, I don't really know. I've actually been on EastEnders for over four times this time around and I enjoy it here very much. I love acting. I've been a working actress since I was a little girl and begged my parents to let me get an agent! I hope to be acting for a very long time. Whether it's here will, I'm sure, depend on a combination of things. I do think Natalie has a lot left to do, character-wise. She's gone from being a young girl with zero confidence in herself to a young woman with a certain measure of confidence back to someone with zero confidence. Life doesn't go easy on her but she's got strength. She's a feisty little thing and she gets on with things. We love her. Thanks again for doing this, Lucy.

You're very welcome. When you met me last month here and showed me the Gazette I took a look at the Letters pages and I thought the passion and interest of its readers for our show was fantastic. We're very fortunate to get such interest by so many people in America, which I love. I personally think that kind of interest is a pleasure to receive!

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