Judith Jacob Looks Back on Carmel

By Larry Jaffee

In the early days of EastEnders there was a pretty black health visitor named Carmel Jackson, who tended to various woes of Albert Square’s residents. Think back to the time of the traumatic cot death of Hassan, the baby of Ali and Sue Osman, or when young, single mum ‘Punk Mary’ was in need of some serious professional help.

Carmel fit the bill, but she had a domestic problem of her own: a violent white boyfriend named Matthew, who sometimes beat her. He later became her husband.

“It was a great part to play,” said the London-based Jacob, in a hastily arranged transatlantic telephone call. “People couldn’t understand how a professional woman can stay with someone who beats her. That shows the durability of the character,” she said.

She looks back on her three years as an EastEnders cast member (from 5 June ’86 to 25 July ’89) only with delight, especially because a year into her work on the series, her young daughter became a member of the cast as well.

“They needed a two-year-old to play my niece,” said Jacob, who initially resisted the casting idea, which came from EastEnders creator Julia Smith. “Children on the set can be so horrible,” Jacob said, noting the awkwardness inherent in disciplining someone else’s child in the workplace.

But Jacob found it hard to turn down Smith, with whom she had worked earlier in her career on another TV series, Angels, which Smith produced with EastEnders co-creator Tony Holland.

Midway through EastEnders’ second year, when the time came to cast Carmel, Smith recruited Jacob, who a year later realised that she’d get to spend more time with her daughter if she also was working on EastEnders.

Aisha is now 20 years old, studying drama in college, following in her mum’s footsteps. “She’s aware of the reality of acting. You can earn money and you also can be not working,” said Jacob.

In recent years, she has made appearances, on episodes of the British television series My Family (whose cast features EastEnders alumna Daniela Denby-Ashe a/k/a Sarah Hills), Black Books, Doctors and Holby City.

Following her stint on EastEnders in the early 1990s, she was a regular cast member on a comedy sketch show, co-starring with Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, both whom went on to The Kumars at No. 42. At the end of every episode, the cast would spoof EastEnders, and Jacob once got to play Bianca Jackson, which was a lot of fun.

Like many of the first wave of younger EastEnders castmembers, Jacob attended London’s Ann Scher acting school. Among her classmates were Susan Tully (Michelle Fowler) and Phil Daniels, who’s currently on EastEnders and is best known for playing Jimmy in the film version of Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia (in which John Altman also had a role).

It was Jacob’s decision to leave EastEnders, and she doesn’t appear to have any regrets about doing so. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. “They didn’t want me to leave, and made me a couple of offers to stay,” she said.

Before landing the EastEnders job, Jacob was a co-founder of Black Theatre Co-op (BTC), a London theatre group of black actresses, who hadn’t worked together in a show in 10 years, until late March. It was a warm reunion. “We’ve [individually] been through so much. We’ve had children. People lost people. A few of them are working in the U.S. One of the girls died four years ago.”

Asked why BTC was formed, Jacob doesn’t hesitate: “It was about control—actors don’t have any. It gave us the chance to produce the things that we wanted to do.”

Jacob doesn’t buy into the occasional criticism EastEnders sometimes receives that it only pays token lip service to blacks and minorities, who are usually depicted stereotypically (see Walford Gazette, issue #48, page 10).

“EastEnders was the only show to [regularly employ] black actors. Coronation Street just recently started bringing in black characters. There has always been a good flow of people in EastEnders.”

When informed that she is listed on the show business website imdb.com as having done in 1990 a short film called Fruits of Fear with Tilda Swinton (who has gone on to Hollywood success), Jacob says she vaguely remembers making it but has never seen the film. She adds that she would have remembered if her co-star was Swinton.

Paul Medford (Calvin Carpenter) is the only EastEnders actor with whom she is still in contact. Medford in the early 1990s attracted some attention as one of the leads in the West End musical Five Guys Named Moe. “Paul can sing and dance. I can dance, and I can sing… in the bathroom—not anything people would pay for,” she laughs.

When asked if there are any humorous anecdotes about her days on EastEnders, Jacob recalled the scene when Carmel was getting married and they were drinking champagne.

“A little voice came from behind, ‘Mummy, can I have champagne too?’” even though Aisha’s character was not Carmel’s daughter.

“They left it in. I couldn’t believe it when I watched,” Jacob laughed. When the Walford Gazette suggests that little Aisha understood the fine acting art of “ad-libbing” at such an early age, Jacob laughs. “That’s funny, I’m going to tell her that.”

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