This May Be the Last Time: Walford Gazette Makes #100

By Larry Jaffee

It’s with great mixed emotion that I’ve decided to cease publishing the Walford Gazette, which has been a major part of my adult life over the past quarter century. The truth is I really don’t have it in me to continue it for a variety of personal, career and business reasons. Please let me apologize in advance for anyone who I’m disappointing with this decision.

I am so thankful of the subscribers who have stood by this publication in thick and thin – mostly thin. And also, I’d like to thank all the contributors through the years. I co-founded in 1992 the Walford Gazette with the late Dan Abramson, who died at 45 in 1999, mainly because I was looking to do something entrepreneurial after being bored creatively at my full-time job.

That it was about a British television series I generally liked was a bonus. If we accomplished anything back in 1992, it was proving that a popular culture niche audience could be assembled for what many believe to be an acquitted taste. While I was a casual fan although bonafide Anglophile, Dan, on the other hand, was truly obsessed.

And even though we parted ways as business partners a year before he became sick with cancer, I’m sure he would have approved of me sticking with the Gazette as long as I had, even though as a business proposition it hadn’t made much sense for quite a while in the digital age. The Internet as a commercial force initially expanded the Gazette’s possibilities, but the abundance and immediacy of free information about EastEnders eventually caught up with our success.

True, you’ve ultimately been paying for me to be a curator, but not everybody is as discerning. Still I am extremely proud of this journalistic accomplishment, as much as writing regularly for The New York Times at 23 years old or publishing an article in Rolling Stone at 24, not to mention the thousands of articles I’ve published for a wide range of magazines, publications and websites I’ve edited for others since then. I have find memories of assembling every issue among the 100 published under the “Walford Gazette” banner.

I’m no computer whiz, and technical mishaps sometimes nearly derailed its publication. But I persevered. What a quarterly ritual to endure. I’m also appreciative of the friendships I’ve made among the dozens of EastEnders actors and creative team I’ve interviewed over the years, and the occasional professional courtesies afforded me at the BBC, where some honchos regarded me as a pain in the arse.

Some within the BBC failed to recognize that my efforts helped keep alive EastEnders in pockets of the US, while they miserably failed in the late 1980s to make it a national PBS show on par with Downton Abbey. I was even banned from visiting the studio for three years. I wore it as a badge of honour, and later took to task Auntie’s inexplicable cancellation of EastEnders from BBC America, a network that is still searching for an identity. I suggest you read my still-available books Albert Square & Me (2009) and Walford State of Mind (2011) for more of that inside story.

I’m also proud that the Walford Gazette was responsible for netting probably close to $1 million from viewers for public television stations, some of which used the newspaper as a thank-you gift as an alternative to the ubiquitous station ID tote-bags. I certainly didn’t get rich off of such donations. Yet today only three of the five US public TV stations (there were 25 when the Gazette began publishing) still airing EastEnders fund-raise around the show any more, and what they do is far less of what they’ve done in the past.

In the last few months of 2016, two more stations in Fargo, ND, and Houston, TX, cancelled EastEnders. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions of where it’s headed, but at least we have BritBox, the streaming subscription service, to watch current episodes 11 years ahead of what we see.

I’m happy to report it appears I have been successful in finding a successor to me to continue publishing the Gazette, so stay tuned.

Walford Gazette Issue No. 99 Published

EastEnders Fans Stay Calm and Carry On

By Larry Jaffee

The British expression, “Stiff Upper Lip” or WWII-era motto “Britain Can Take It” sort of sums up what EastEnders fans go through to get their fix of our favourite show.

Even natural disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey, wouldn’t prevent Houston-area residents Larry Fitzpatrick and Philip Sifuentes – from figuring out a way to watch the latest on-goings at Albert Square, even though their houses were decimated.

Houston EastEnders Fan Club president Jan LaRocque, reported on Sept. 7: “I’ve been texting with Philip. He and Larry have been able to go into their homes to assess the damage. He said they had both moved valuable items up high so nothing important was lost. Now it’s a matter of dealing with the ruined carpets, furniture and other soaked items. We will call them from Black Lab (where the club holds their monthly meetings) on Monday night (Sept. 11). They are both ok and that’s the important part.”

At press time, southern Florida was bracing for Hurricane Irma to hit, with more than 1 million residents ordered to evacuate in barrier islands, coastal communities and low-lying areas.

Coincidentally, Houston and Miami are two of the only six U.S. public TV stations left still broadcasting EastEnders, but neither has fund-raised around the show in years, which doesn’t bode well for it staying on the programme schedules in the future. (See page 2 for news about the latest cancellation in Fargo, North Dakota.)

BritBox emerged just at the right time if you could put up with the gap of missing about 11 years of episodes.

Even another EastEnders station, WETA-TV in the Washington, DC area – which occasionally fund-raises around the show – causes aggro for fans.

Long-time Gazette subscriber Peter Kimmel reports that earlier this year when WETA launched a British-only channel that now carried EastEnders– sounds great, right? – it was only carried by cable systems and not DirecTV, which he subscribed to.

“I never heard back from DirectTV again,” writes Peter. “I did, however, uncover another solution, which was to switch from DirecTV to another provider. Since DirecTV coverage was spotty, especially during something as minor as a bit of rain, it became a no-brainer to switch.”

That’s the “East End moxie” that Larry Fitzpatrick refers to on page 3.

Good luck everyone!

 

 

Walford Gazette #98 Hitting Mailboxes Now

 Behind the scenes at EastEnders

We cover a lot of ground into the series’ creative process, including the news of John Yorke returning on an interim basis as executive producer; his predecessor Matthew Robinson explaining how a doctor had to be called for June Brown (Dot Cotton) at an EastEnders cast and crew party; we chronicle all the massive changeover in cast circa 2002-2004; and our exclusive interview with Jeff Povey, who’s written 200 episodes over the past quarter century.

 

 

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.

 

John Yorke Back in Charge of EastEnders

INTERIM GIG – John Yorke, shown here in his EastEnders office in 2002 when he was executive producer, a role he is filling temporarily until a permanent hire is made by the BBC. 

BOREHAMWOOD, ENGLAND – After only a year on the job, EastEnders executive producer Sean O’Connor abruptly resigned “with a heavy heart” in June to concentrate on his film career. O’Connor is being replaced on an interim basis by John Yorke, who last held the job January 2000 until May 2003.

Yorke more recently has been an independent producer, and since his last EastEnders stint he also headed drama for both the BBC and Channel 4.

Typically executive producers last two to three years on the job. It’s unclear whether lagging ratings prompted O’Connor’s departure. “I’ve had an amazing time at EastEnders,” said O’Connor, who reportedly had originally planned on leaving at the end of 2017.

Before joining EastEnders, O’Connor was the editor of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, and he hadn’t significant television experience.

“I will miss everybody enormously. Elstree really is a place where you make friends for life,” said O’Connor, who will be working with Sherlock co-creator and League of Gentleman star Mark Gatiss.

In addition, O’Connor is writing a screenplay intended for a theatrical film about the murderer Neville Heath.

EastEnders is in good hands with Yorke, who has always been supportive of the Walford Gazette, as you can see above. In fact, prior to the news of his

EastEnders return, he commented on our exclusive interview with scriptwriter Jeff Povey in the current issue (No. 98).

Oliver Kent, head of continuing drama series at BBC Studios, commented: “John Yorke is a Walford legend and I am thrilled that he will be joining us for a short period to oversee the show … while we recruit a long-term successor.”

The Metro newspaper in London came up with 10 memorable EastEnders storylines Yorke oversaw when he last worked directly on the series:

1) The arrival of the Slaters

2) Who Shot Phil? (It was Lisa)

3) Dot agrees to helps Ethel die

4) Zoe to Kat: “You Ain’t My Muvva!”

5) Phil and Steve’s explosive car chase

6) Trevor’s physical abuse of Little Mo

7) Sonia gives birth without knowing she was pregnant

8) Jim and Dot’s wedding

9) The Truemans debut

10) Sam Mitchell recast