IT'S NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY

Things happen to Gillian Taylforth: black eyes, broken noses, the leading role in a lurid libel case that cost her close to half-a-million pounds. Is she just a sucker for punishment in a melodrama of her own making?
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU want to see Gillian Taylforth at work, you have to go to the place where she's filmed EastEnders five days a week for the past 10 years: the BBC studios at Elstree. To her, the strange, pretend world of Albert Square is as familiar as home; to the outsider, it can be curiously unsettling. On the lot, there's a double decker red London bus and a dinky milk float and a shabby delivery van, all familiar to the 20 million viewers of the series. And you can see the Square itself, which is astonishingly realistic; except the houses have fronts and no backs, and the railway bridge stops dead just out of reach of the camera, simply falling away into thin air.

Elsewhere, the pretence continues. On their dressing room doors, the actors' real names are inscribed on brass plates, and underneath is the fictional address: Albert Square, the London Borough of Walford, E20. The cast pop in and out of each other's dressing rooms: they seem chirpy and chipper and Cockney, just as they do on the television. Have they all grown into their roles, you wonder, or did their characters take them over? Which came first?

"Basically, people are cast as themselves in EastEnders," says a BBC director who has worked on the series. "If they aren't the part, it's much harder for them to come in, day in and day out, for years and years and years."

You can see how this might make life confusing: for the EastEnders fans, for the tabloid newspapers which trumpet the twists and turns of the actors' fictional and real lives, and for the actors themselves. Gillian Taylforth, who plays the pivotal role of Kathy Beale, probably has the stran- gest time of the entire cast: divorced, raped, and bereaved in the series; battered, betrayed and bruised in real life. (Just 12 days before our interview, she had had one of many reported altercations with her fianc, and ended up with a black eye.) As she says: "Kathy and Gillian - the two run along parallel all the time."

GILLIAN is in her dressing room, surrounded by pictures of her real family: her three-year-old daughter Jessica, her Mum, her Dad (who died in 1991), her three sisters and her brother. There's also a picture of her now possibly ex-fianc Geoff Knights, the father of her child and the man she blames for the black eye that is skillfully covered up by BBC make-up. (Kathy Beale, unlike Gillian, is currently happily married, to her second husband, Phil. Phil is hard - and with a dodgy past - but is essentially good-hearted, at least as far as Kathy is concerned.)

Geoff does not seem to be quite so good-hearted. He used to be referred to in the tabloid press as "Millionaire Tycoon Playboy Knights", but is now more tersely known as "Businessman Knights" or sometimes "Ex-Barrow Boy Car Dealer"; but he still gets on to the front page almost as often as Gillian. In the Eighties, Geoff hung out at Stringfellows and dated a couple of Page Three girls; he owns a large house in Essex, as you might expect, but he has had to sell the Rolls-Royce, the Porsche, and the appropriately named Testarossa. He's been in trouble with the police for punch-ups; and he was the alleged recipient of oral sex from Gillian Taylforth in a Range Rover parked at the side of the A1 - an incident reported in the Sun, which led to a protracted, lurid libel case, and ended up with both Geoff and Gillian losing half a million pounds in the High Court last year.

In her soon-to-be published autobiography, Kathy And Me, Gillian Taylforth describes the beginning of her relationship with Knights in 1988, and says, "One of the things I liked best was that Geoff wasn't an actor. I felt that we stood a chance of keeping our private lives private and separate from work. 'I don't want anything about us to get into the papers,' I told Geoff." This was not to be, and "Burly Knights" is now facing charges of wounding Gillian's driver, with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. It was in the same incident that Gillian acquired her current black eye; one of the conditions of his bail is that he does not see her.

You'd think, after all these tribulations, that Gillian would be depressed, but she's actually rather perky. She laughs uproariously, and talks a lot in a husky, sexy voice. She's thin, but not tragically so, and her hair is discreetly blonde and her eyes no longer puffy, but back to a twinkly blue. She's 40 in August, and looks younger - even though in the series she plays a woman with a grown-up son (and a dead daughter, conceived after she was raped as a teenager).

I'd half expected to meet a drink-sodden, downtrodden victim (she lost her driving licence after crashing her BMW in January; her daughter Jessica was in the back, for which Knights gave her a public dressing down in the tabloids); yet she does not give the impression of being a tragic drunk whose life, along with her car, is veering out of control. In fact, as Kathy would, she seems to have bounced right back after the latest trauma to afflict her.

And for someone who has had a rotten time from journalists - they camp outside her house in Whetstone, north London, for days on end - she's amazingly friendly. After a couple of hours with Gillian Taylforth, you feel like her best mate - which is, perhaps, why viewers love her. In fact, she's got a plastic bag full of letters to answer: this week's mail, from fans who hope she's feeling better after her run-in with Geoff.

She admits that her own life seems to have taken on elements of a soap opera. "People here have often said, you should just take a camera home with you and film what goes on - that'd be a great episode for next week.

"I'm trying to not let it turn into a soap, but I suppose the way it's going at the moment, it probably is. As soon as anything happens, it's in the public eye - so it is like a drama. People out there are not bothered about Kathy so much. They wonder about the next thing that's going to happen to Gillian Taylforth."

The next thing that's going to happen to Gillian Taylforth: that's an interesting idea. Is she not in control of her own life? Is it finally over between her and Geoff?

She says yes, she thinks so. "Even before this incident happened, I said to him that I needed some time on my own. I was in the middle, bet- ween my family and Geoff, and they weren't talking to one another. After my drink drive charge, they felt he wasn't as supportive to me as I'd been to him in the past. They said, that's it as far as we're concerned. My Mum always used to come up once a week, but she stopped and said she didn't want to see him. I couldn't live like that. I wanted us to be all together - lovely and happy. But it doesn't work that way."

GILLIAN Taylforth's own childhood does sound lovely and happy - like a close-knit EastEnders family, except she was brought up in north London. "There were dozens of us, bro- thers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, all living off Upper Street in Islington, mostly in four neighbouring blocks of flats." Her father, who was a printer, comes across as a bit of a tartar. "Dad had very strict ideas on what jobs the woman of the house should do and the man should not, like all the washing, cooking, ironing, child rearing, and the rest." Gillian, who was their second child, lived at home until she was 26 - before her big break with EastEnders, when she was still working as a secretary between small acting jobs - and her father laid down the law about what time she had to get in at night. She talks about him and her brother Ronnie with pride: how they used to protect her and her sisters, chasing away muggers and thugs and things that go bump in the night.

I tell her that they sound protective, but also bossy. Is that how she expects men to be?

She says that there was a big difference between her father and Geoff. "My Dad was old-fashioned, very Victorian, a strong person in the family. Geoff is chauvinistic. He would say things to me [about how she couldn't go out without him] and I'd say, 'Excuse me, you're not my father. Don't tell me what I can and can't do. You don't own me. I'm not an appendage.' "

Why, then, one wonders, did she stay with him for so long? Here she is - a successful, attractive woman - with a man who ticks her off in the newspapers for going out drinking with her friends from EastEnders ("they're idiots, the lot of them" he was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail); and who is clearly a hard man. When I ask about this, she shrugs, and says, "There's that age-old saying - every woman loves a bastard. There's that thing of the chase - you say, I'm going to be the person who tames him."

Although many journalists have speculated that Gillian loves Geoff because she had an autocratic father, the truth of the matter may be rather more complicated than that. She never seems to have wanted any of the nice local boys who her parents knew and approved of: and going out with a man like Knights was, perhaps, her first real act of rebellion. She clearly didn't want to settle down and have babies in her twenties as her mother had done - she was too busy trying to make it as an actress, and have a bit of fun at the same time. And you can see why she fell for Knights: when they first met, she was already becoming a celebrity, and so was he, at least in that world where real men drive fast cars and make loads of money and drink champagne at Stringfellows. Like her, he'd come from a large working-class family, and they were both moving into a different sphere. Why not enjoy their good fortune together?

Apart from anything else, she claims to have seen a kinder, softer Knights (the man she nearly tamed, at least in her own mind?) "I read the agony aunts in the newspapers telling me what I should do," she says (they've all been begging her to chuck him out), "but they don't know Geoff. They don't know the side of him that I know." She cites his "love of animals", though her illustration of this is somewhat surprising. "He arrived home with a pheasant which he had found at the side of the road. 'Look at this,' he said, holding it up, 'it's still warm, look at the eyes.' He opened its eyes and they stared out at me. 'What you've got to do, Gill, is hang it for a bit, then it'll taste beautiful.' "

Anyway, however tender he may have been, their relationship was volatile. Last year, after the libel case had left them both short of cash and patience, he yanked her out of bed one night, and as she fell, she says, she fractured her nose. She describes the scene in a rather chilling passage in her book. " 'Look, Jessica,' Geoff was saying, cuddling her on his lap, 'look at silly Mummy. That's what happens when you're being silly and you fall over.' I could see that he was succeeding in keeping her calm, but he was doing nothing to allay my terror as the blood kept pouring out of me."

She rang her Mum; Geoff rang the police, which seems perverse, given that Gillian didn't want him to. He was arrested, charged with assaulting a police officer, and, in March, fined £2,000 for the offence. The tabloid newspapers had another field day. (Today was most inventive of all, composing an "open letter" to Gillian from Barbara Windsor, who plays her screen mother-in-law, headlined: "A word in your shell-like, Gillian - How one EastEnder who has had her troubles might advise another who attracts disaster like a magnet.")

Yet despite these unhappy events, she retains a certain loyalty to him. She says it was as much her decision as his not to get married ("marriage is a big committment, and I wasn't sure if he was the right person"). And when I ask her about Knights's alleged infidelities, which have been emblazoned on various front pages over the past few years, she says, "I can only say that I read about them. The newspapers used to say to me, 'What do you think about this?' I'd say, 'I don't think anything. If you can prove it to me with a picture, then obviously I'll have to hold my hands up and say it is true, you're right, and then I'd have to confront him with it.' But every time there's been something printed, there's always been an explanation from Geoff to cover it. And I know what it's like because I've had things written about me which were lies - and I know that money speaks volumes, and people are willing to lie for the sake of a 10-grand cheque. I've been on the end of that myself, so who am I to say, 'The newspapers are telling the truth, and you're lying, Geoff.' " She admits that the stories did put a strain on their relationship, but "You also think, I'm not going to let them split us up - so you stick together, just to prove a point."

More than anything else, she says, it was the libel case that forced them "to cling together". You can see why: a humiliating public ordeal of the very worst kind, it also turned into a gigantic, enthralling soap opera for the entire nation.

BY THE time the Sun ran its exclusive revelations about "TV Kathy's Sex Romp", giving details of how Geoff and Gillian had been cautioned by the police for gross indecency after engaging in oral sex in a Range Rover parked on a slip road off the A1, she had endured any number of kiss and tell stories about her sex life. This one, she says, "was the straw that broke the camel's back". It was in June 1992, when her daughter was a few months old, and she decided to "clear her name" because she couldn't bear the idea of Jessica growing up to be teased about her mother's alleged sexual predilections. Both Taylforth and Knights maintained then, and now, that he had been afflicted with an attack of pancreatitis, and that he had stopped the car to vomit and then loosened his trousers to relieve the pain while she leaned towards him and rubbed his stomach.

In her book, Taylforth says that at first the accusations seemed ludicrous. "What sort of people did they think we were that we would stop on a major slip road for sex? I was still recovering from a Caesarean birth and was coming down with 'flu. We had also been rowing and were hardly at the stage in our relationship where we couldn't control our urges. Besides any of that, Geoff was throwing up."

The police, however, stood by the Sun's story, which was based upon the account of the constable who had peered into the Range Rover. When the libel action (brought by both Knights and Gillian) came to court in January 1994, Taylforth was terrified. "Usually when I appeared in front of 20 million people it was as Kathy Beale. This time there wouldn't be anyone to hide behind - this was going to be Gillian Taylforth on display." And when she appeared in the dock, she says, "It was far more gruelling than being in front of any cameras. I did not have the support of scriptwriters or a director who would let me rehearse or reshoot if I got something wrong." But when she was cross-examined by George Carman, QC for the the Sun, he suggested that her tearful appearance in the witness box, where she spoke of her outrage and distress at the newspaper's allegations, was very similar to her moving performance as Kathy Beale, when she was portrayed as a rape victim in EastEnders.

In the end, however, the case hinged not on whether Gillian was playing Kathy in court, but instead on her role in an amateur video, shot six years previously at a party at the Anna Scher School, where she had trained as an actress. There were lots of other actors there, and the party became rowdy. The video, which was shot by a friend, showed Taylforth with a German sausage: waving it like a cigar, she says; simulating oral sex with it, according to Carman and the Sun. She was also filmed with a wine bottle; one of the party said, "There's a good head on that bottle," and she replied, "Yeah, a lot of people say I give good head."

This was, of course, wonderful material: both for the newspapers that reported the trial in graphic detail, and for George Carman. The real Gillian Taylforth, he declared, was not to be found on the television screen playing likeable, yet vulnerable, Kathy Beale, nor in the courtroom drama that had just occurred. "I suggest all that has been a great show," he said, "and the true Gillian Taylforth when in drink emerges on that video."

ON THE morning the jury was due to deliver its verdict, Gillian arrived at the court to be cheered on by fans who called out, "Good luck, Kath!" When it was announced that she had lost the case, events inside the court became as melodramatic as the most ardent soap fan could hope for: Gillian collapsed; her sisters started screaming, believing her to be dead, and she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.

But Gillian Taylforth wasn't dead - she'd had a panic attack - and she pulled herself together and later that day sold her story to the Daily Mirror. There were the legal bills to be paid, and as she points out, "We thought we might as well, since they were all going to be writing about us anyway."

She then signed a book deal with Blooms- bury and a serialisation deal with - wait for it - the Sun. I look surprised when she tells me this, but she says, "You have to do that sort of thing."

I talked to a journalist at the Sun, who explained that the paper would not be featuring anything to do with the court case in the extracts from the book; but there was still plenty of good material. There was some riveting stuff about her real-life ex-boyfriend, Nick Berry, who played her stepson in EastEnders, and her relationship with her fictional first husband, Pete Beale, played by Peter Dean, who, she felt, had been too "realistic" with his on-screen kisses.

The Sun journalist said that Gillian Taylforth was "mega in tabloid terms. People adore her - she's so nice, so down-to-earth, and still so touchingly naive."

IT'S VERY difficult to be sure about who the real Gillian Taylforth is, despite George Carman's assertion that she revealed herself in her true, coarse colours on that drunken amateur video. To be honest, it doesn't seem to matter that she might or might not have indulged in oral sex with Geoff Knights on the A1 nearly three years ago; nor do you get anywhere by agonising about how many times he may or may not have thumped her. What is possibly more important is that the same steely pragmatism that allows her now to do business with the Sun (for all their belief in her "touching" naivet), may also be what enables her to move on from each disaster that engulfs her.

"I'm 40 in August," she told me at one point in the interview. "You do hope at 40 that you'll have some stability round you, but it all seems to have evaporated over the past 10 months: no home, no car, no relationship. I can't see any light at the end of the tunnel." It sounds like a line from EastEnders - which doesn't mean to say that she doesn't believe it. But a few minutes later she's blithely telling me about the new house she wants to buy, "now that the money thing may be sorted out". If she's learnt anything from 10 years in EastEnders, it's that if you don't want to be written out, you'd better show how good you are at being a cheerful Cockney survivor, as well as having a knack for melodrama. !

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