EastEnders Head West

 

Outside Dublin there's a sleepy little village on the banks of a river. A large granite church, presided over by an English priest, casts its shadow over a bunch of picturesque houses clustered around a public house. A feisty young barmaid pulls pints and argues the toss with the young celibate from up the hill. Time passes. Times passes slowly in Ballykissangel. But down the road in Killmoneen, it's all go. Maggie Flaherty has just discovered she has a sister - a whole family - she never knew about. Jaysus, will she ever get the house looking respectable in time for the arrival of the "English relations"?

She doesn't know anything about them really. Londoners, of course; EastEnders, to be precise. Her half-sister, Pauline Fowler - now there's a real English name for you - lost her husband, Arthur, a short time ago, poor love. Sure a holiday in Ireland will do her and her family the power of good. Not quite sure what the Fowlers will make of her brood, though. Her sons Conor and Eamonn are good lads, but Conor's daughter, Mary, might prove a bit of a handful . . .

Is there no satisfying the English viewer's fascination with mythical Irish beauty spots? It seems not. Hot on the heels of Brookside and Ballykissangel, top British soap EastEnders is introducing its very own Irish family. Filming began yesterday in "secret locations outside Dublin", but viewers will have to wait until late September to get a glimpse of Maggie Flaherty, Lou Beale's 60-year-old illegitimate daughter, and her extended family.

The new Irish characters were wheeled out for a spot of PR in Dublin yesterday. None of the actors has appeared in a soap before, but they handled themselves like old pros, batting away loaded questions about storylines with aplomb. They were giving nothing away.

There was caution in the wind. Remember Aidan, EastEnders' last attempt at an Irish character? Young footballer apprenticed to Walford Town, leaves the auld sod, goes to live in Albert Square with the Fowlers, ends up taking drugs? And let us not forget Irishman Trevor Jordache, Brookside's favourite child sexual abuser and wife-beater. "Are any of the Irish characters drinkers?" No, we were assured. "Any wife-beaters then?" Nope, no wife-beaters. The concern about negative stereotyping trailed off before anyone got to terrorists, the intellectually challenged, compulsive gamblers, religious zealots . . . Melanie Clark Pullen, who plays Pauline Fowler's sister Maggie Flaherty's granddaughter Mary, is confident that the scriptwriters will avoid the old cliches. Her character, she says, has "a really positive modern outlook. She's educated, intelligent and going places". Like Melanie herself, then.

The 22-year-old from Bray, Co Wicklow has just graduated from TCD and was expecting "to spend a couple of years struggling" before she got any acting work. "This," she says, "is a dream come true."

The Irish actors, who only auditioned for the roles three weeks ago, are preparing themselves for the instant recognition that appearing in a soap opera affords. Old hands Wendy Richard (Pauline Fowler), Todd Carty (Mark Fowler) and Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale) will no doubt give them a few tips. All the English actors are "delighted" to be in Ireland, especially Todd, whose family is from Co Meath and who spent all his childhood summers "back home". Wendy hasn't been to Dublin before, and her work schedule does not allow for much time off - however, she took a stroll down Grafton Street yesterday and everyone was "very nice" to her, calling her Wendy and not the dreaded Pauline she so often answers to.

On a gloriously sunny day Wendy had no time for the begrudgers. EastEnders is not depressing, she said - firmly. "I get fed up with people saying that. The press are always talking about Pauline's cardigans and I haven't worn a cardigan for a year."