Jeff Povey Demystifies EastEnders’ Scriptwriting Process

Exclusive interview with man responsible for writing 200 episodes

By Larry Jaffee

Recently watching a memorable EastEnders episode that ended with Ian and Jane covered in mud while in the pouring rain (don’t worry, no further spoilers), I made sure I caught the writer credit.

It turned out to be a very familiar name: Jeff Povey, who has written for the show for 25 years. I then remembered Jeff and I were Facebook friends, although we really hadn’t any interaction there or elsewhere for that matter.

A trading of a few messages later resulted in the following transatlantic interview, which was conducted via Skype.

Before delving into our conversation, here’s some background on him. Besides EastEnders, for which he’s written nearly 200 episodes since 1993, Povey also has written scripts for British television dramas Casualty, Holby City and Midsomer Murders, among others. He’s also written a trilogy of young adult novels, The Serial Killers Club, Shift and Delete.

Once the interview was scheduled, I reached out to two of Jeff’s former bosses at EastEnders – John Yorke and Mal Young – both whom had plenty of good things to offer about him.

“Jeff is a mad genius,” says Yorke, formerly EastEnders executive producer and BBC drama head, now an independent producer.  “When I first met him, he was wildly undisciplined and obsessed with getting his friends’ names into every EastEnders script. He even managed to call a horse after Ricky Gervais’s partner – Jane Fallon – who was then a producer on the show.  Ask him about Fallon’s Folly!”

Mal Young, the former BBC head of drama who oversaw EastEnders, and currently executive producer of the American soap The Guiding Light, said : “Jeff is one of a unique team of BBC writers who help deliver on its huge output of popular drama series, including EastEnders and Casualty, etc. – and he does it quietly, without fanfare, but with much passion and panache. He’s often underestimated and under-celebrated so I’m glad you’re putting him in the spotlight. He’s a terrific writer and a good bloke too.”

Niceties out of the way, without further ado….

Walford Gazette: I’m really glad we’re getting to do this. Your name has been on my radar forever. I started the Walford Gazette around the same time you started writing for EastEnders. When I saw the episode last week in the mud, eleven or twelve years after you wrote it, I knew I had to get in touch.

Jeff Povey: It’s all come back now. To be honest with you, that was going to be my swansong episode. I was going to quit and do something else.

WG: Why was that?

JP: I’d probably written a hundred episodes by then, so I thought, “Get out there, and see what else is on offer for young Mr Povey.” I loved [writing for EastEnders] so I came back. It was going to be the end, but it wasn’t the end. It was quite nice in a way.

WG: By that point, were you already writing for Casualty and Holby City?

JP: I think I was. It’s a bit of a blur now. There’s just so much you can keep in your head. If you’re able to, you must have a massive brain, and I haven’t got one. I know I did the first series of Holby City when it was just about heart transplants. Casualty and EastEnders, absolutely love them both. I didn’t want to go anywhere else really.

WG: It must help that some of the EastEnders actors – Michael French (David Wicks) and Paul Bradley (Nigel Bates), to name two – have also been on Holby City.

JP: Yeah, I keep meeting the same people. We just get older and fatter.

WG: Except Michael French, I guess. He’s still fit.

JP: I must tell you this about Michael French. He always remembers your name when he sees you. He’s a great guy. I saw him maybe six or seven years ago, and he says, “Hi Jeff, how’s it going?” I hadn’t seen him in about a decade.

WG: Were you writing professionally by the time you started with EastEnders?

JP: I guess I was. I was writing commissioned film and series scripts that never got made. Someone at the BBC who I worked with phoned me about a year later, “I’m a producer on EastEnders, do you want to come up and have a chat?” Somebody comes along and asks, “Do you want try this?” I say, “That’ll be lovely,” and then you realise six months has passed.

WG: Which EastEnders characters did you enjoy writing for?

JP: Pauline Fowler was an amazing character. What a woman! I still miss Pauline. I wrote episodes about her, Arthur and Mrs Hewitt. She might have been the best matriarch we ever had. That’s not the say the others weren’t, but she was the first one I came across. I loved Pat. I loved Peggy. There have been some great ones. But I think Pauline Fowler was fantastic, just a brilliant performance.

WG: Over the years, you must have written for all of them.

JP: Yes, I have. You have to live those people. You have to have them in your head. Imagine what they’re going to say. If you watch it, you get your reference points. You get the voices. The only way you can ever write for EastEnders is get the characters clearly, and you have to be truthful. I had a long conversation with June Brown (Dot Cotton) many years ago around the time of the Dot Cotton special, which dealt with her as a child during the war. At the end of the conversation, she said, “Just write the truth, and I’ll act it.” It sounds so simple, but it’s not easy to find. But if you have characters like Pauline, Dot and Pat, you kind of know them. You know what their truth is. You know what they don’t like and what they do like.

WG: So you summoned up the frying pan going into Arthur’s head?

JP: Yep. I think I got the episode afterwards, and I was saying, “The first thing that she would be doing is cooking in that frying pan. Do you want some breakfast?” I think she found a letter that Mrs Hewitt had given to Arthur. They wanted this big cliffhanger. She lays it down in front of Arthur at the end, and he says nothing. You can’t say anything, and that was what we went out on. It was brilliant. There was no way out of that.

WG: Did you write the next episode too?

JP: No, in those days we just wrote singles.

WG: I read in a piece you wrote for The Guardian that in the EastEnders office there are two files, one with all the single-episode writers, and the other is full of the regulars.

JP: There used to be a big stack of scripts, and a little stack of scripts. Now everything is on email, so they don’t print everything out. I think a lot of writers came into EastEnders thinking it was a lot like writing a play. There is no other programme in the world that you would write like this. Think about it: you have 28 minutes, 30 or 40 characters, 5 or 6 stories. Imagine if you saw that on stage. You couldn’t do it. But we do it. It’s a craft that takes a long time to learn. A lot of writers, as good as they are, it’s not for them. I’ve seen so many people just once in committee meetings. You never see them again. It’s a strange thing. It’s not a reflection on how tough it is. You have to have the right mind for it. You have to love it as well. You’ll be found out if you don’t.

WG: Did you watch EastEnders from Day One?

JP: I definitely watched the first episode, so yes. All the Den stuff with Michelle was brilliant. I watched loads of it, actually. But then I went off to college. At that time you’re too cool to watch, so for three years I missed out. You think, no, I’m going to go out and get drunk instead. I used to also watch Coronation Street when Ena Sharples was in it. Most terrifying character ever created on television for a kid watching it. I remember thinking, This is not the Lone Ranger. There was something about that was quite compelling. Maybe it’s you like things or you don’t. I never thought I’d be a soap writer. A soap audience used to be 12 million or 15 million watching in those days. That’s a lot of people. It’s very seductive. It seduces you, I think.

WG: What did you study in college?

JP: I studied all the arts, and mastered none of them [he laughs]. I always loved movies, telly. I was brought up on all that amazing 1970s American cinema like The French Connection and The Godfather. I love telly.

WG: There’s an adage in Hollywood, “What I really want to do is direct.” Some people go up the ladder on EastEnders.

JP: I think they do. I don’t know if I can do it. Two hours a week is a lot. There are no rehearsals. We’re not investigating the characters. An actor might come up and say, “I don’t know why I’m saying this.” So you have a conversation, and they can’t get past that truth thing. “But why?” If you can’t answer it, they’ve got a point.

WG: But is that prior to shooting?

JP: Yeah, but sometimes on set, you get: “Jeff, this line doesn’t work because the continuity is wrong. Can you do something?” Generally, it’s amazingly well managed. That amount of television is just phenomenal.

WG: When you started it was only twice a week.

JP: I don’t think the page count was longer. The pacing was slower, so you had more time to delve into characters. I think TV in general seems to have sped up quite a lot in the last decade. Some of the producers are trying to slow it down again, which is quite nice actually. They’re trying not to be frenetic all the time. You can bring life into the characters. It’s not just all about the story. What I preach is everything should be like a “Movie of the Week.” [With EastEnders,] you almost forget that it’s part of a bigger series because if you do, you’ll start panicking. I have to pay lip service to the one that comes after. You start with your opening image. With something like Casualty you have more time, and build around the guest [actor’s story]. You have more control, and there’s more of you in it.

WG: John Yorke told me you named a horse on EastEnders after Jane Fallon, EastEnders’ script editor, who’s now Ricky Gervais’s wife. True?

JP: I can’t resist pushing things as far as they can go with this stuff. I was a younger man then [laughs]. I’m going to have fun even if it’s at other people’s expense. Yeah, I knew Jane really well. There was going to be a horse race, so I thought, “Fallon’s Folly.” Then she went on to be a successful producer. She’s lovely. I’ll give it everything I can. I’m not going to hold back, that’s for sure. John has a sense of what makes great drama, and that’s just a launch pad. That’s stuff you can play around with. [John’s] a great friend. He told me I could make him cry [with a script].

WG: What triggered that reaction?

JP: I think it had something to do with Sonia when she was much younger. I know it made him cry. That’s the objective: make people cry because they’re caring what you’re doing. [Writers] shouldn’t be tepid. They have to blaze a trail if they can. If you fall short, you fall short, go ahead, cut it. The aim is to cry or laugh with the characters.

WG: Are some screenwriters just hacks?

JP: They probably just weren’t right for the show. They thought it was probably easier than they realised, or something else than what they realised. I don’t think anyone really sets out to be a hack. People say EastEnders is a soap, you must be a hack. No, not at all.

WG: Why do some great writers succeed and others might not do as well?

JP: Whatever comes your way, you might get lucky and meet the right people. At EastEnders I was really good pals with Ross Kemp (Grant Mitchell). We used to go out a lot. [His celebrity] just got in the way wherever we went. It was massive. You think it might be nice to be famous, but the reality is oh no. It’s quite nice being recognised for your work, but you don’t have to be. People expect actors to be their characters, and to say the right thing all the time. Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) once said, “I’m playing a pirate in a pantomime. I’m not really a pirate.”

WG: The tabloid press when it comes to EastEnders can be meddlesome, I suppose.

JP: I wrote a story arc affecting Ronnie Mitchell [whom public TV viewers in the States still haven’t met; don’t worry, no spoilers ahead]. When I pitched my version, I said it was going to come across as a really tragic thriller. You don’t know which way it’s going to go. [The newspapers] told the story before it was broadcast, so you lost all that impact that we were trying to create.

WG: Was that a case of the scriptwriter doing a lot more than usual?

JP: No, we get a storyline, they say, “We want you, the individual writer to do your take on it. That’s where the creativity comes in. I need to get control of the storyline. I have to really sell it to myself and everybody else, “This is it, this is what it’s going to be.” The storyline leaked, and everybody had preconceived thoughts about it. You lose all the impact of the cliffhangers.

WG: Any particular characters you had the most fun writing for?

JP: Favourites? Janine.

WG: Did you write her pushing Barry off the cliff?

JP: Yeah, I did, I remember being commissioned for that. I love Ian Beale. I love Phil. I love Pat Butcher. I love Frank.

WG: did you write Frank’s spinning bowtie?

JP: No, but when you saw that, you wanted to write that next spinning tie scene. That was such a genius moment. I love Peggy. I love the Slaters. Kat and Alfie. So many characters. Hundreds of them. Obvious the iconic one, Dot. It’s a joy to write for her. I love Nick Cotton. That’s a brilliant relationship between mother and son, twisted beyond words. I think it’s all Dot’s fault. She created that child, I think deep down. That’s the beautiful thing about EastEnders. You can tell these stories over 20 years. Where else can you do that? Audiences are so smart. They know what’s coming, and the story twists. You have to be smarter than them. They know when something is false or doesn’t ring true.

WG: When you were writing for EastEnders, were you writing for other shows at the same time?

JP: No, in between. You can’t write for them at the same time. I think the most EastEnders episodes I ever wrote in a year was 16. It’s quite good to go away, and do something else. You feel refreshed and raring to go. You would go to story conferences, planning meetings for the direction of the show. It’s a lot easier than just being given a story, such as when it’s learned Kat got pregnant when she was 13 and who was the father. We decided who it was going to be. There are a lot of moments like that and the Phil, Sharon and Grant triangle, Sharongate.

WG: How did you get involved writing the teen novels?

JP: It started when my oldest daughter, who’s now 25, was 16. I’m trying to do a book for each of my four children. We had kid after kid coming to our house. I thought, there’s a story in these teenagers. They’re amazing. Calm one minute, crying the next. One guy arrived in his mother’s wedding, “Hi, I’m here!” I thought I have to write about him, a version of him. Another opened our refrigerator and started drinking milk from the bottle, so he became a character in the book. That was a big departure, nothing like EastEnders.

WG: Do you have an agent who got you on the book contract?

JP: Basically I had the idea. My [TV] agent, who also deals with novels, read it and found a publisher who wanted multiple books for a series.

WG: What did your kids think about it?

JP: They love it. The ‘young adult’ genre is massive. I was at a convention and there were these 15 authors with enormous queues for autographs. I think I signed two books. Nobody knew who I was. You need a lot of books in a series to become a popular YA author.

WG: Ever thought about turning them in a TV series or film?

JP: I thought about it, but I like them being books.

WG: Do you think EastEnders in the past decade has focused on youth?

JP: I think EastEnders has to aim at everybody. I’m not sure who makes up the audience now. A lot of people started watching at 15 and now are 40 and still watching it, which is fantastic. It’s amazing to travel with the programme. So you want to bring those people who are 15 now to get involved with the programme, so there’s a teenage thing.

WG: Are you still working on EastEnders?

JP: I just finished one. I haven’t written that many in the last few years because I’ve been doing other things. It’s always got a special place in my heart really definitely.

WG: Jeff, this has been great. Thanks so much.

JP: Great, I hope it all made sense.