A Carty Christmas on all channels

Man and boy, one star will dominate the small screen over the holiday period. Ros Wynne-Jones meets a 'Grange Hill' graduate made good
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The Independent Online
Turn On your television this Christmas and there's one face you'll see more than any other. On Christmas Eve alone he appears in the new ITV period drama Black Velvet Band, the classic film Please Sir!, and on the Des O'Connor Show. Throughout Christmas week, he'll be selling his usual fruit and veg in Albert Square market and on New Year's Day, you can see him as mischievous but good-hearted Tucker Jenkins in the Grange Hill 21st anniversary special.

"People will be throwing darts at the telly by the time Christmas is over," laughs Todd Carty, who has been growing up on screen since his first TV appearance at the age of seven. From Christmas Eve to New Year's Day we will have watched him pass through 24 years of his life: in short trousers and long flares in Grange Hill, as a rebellious dole-boy teenager in the spin-off series Tucker's Luck, and as Mark Fowler, the East End market trader who is living with HIV.

"It's bad enough having your mum get out the family photographs at Christmas, let alone watching yourself acting aged 10, 13, 19, and in two contemporary shows," he says.

For someone who has lived most of his life in the public eye, Carty is peculiarly down to earth.

He knows that other child actors haven't been so lucky as to still be landing decent parts at 34. It is "Tucker!" that people usually call out to him in the street, but it is his role as Mark which, he says, has taught him about humility. "I was at a football match recently and I saw this big bloke eyeballing me and I thought, 'look out - he's going to come up to you and start something'," he says. "When he came over he just wanted to say that he thought what Mark was doing in EastEnders was really important. He was HIV positive. Without being corny, I found that totally humbling."

From a large Irish family, Carty grew up in Kilburn, north London. His mother, a nurse, and his dad, an engineer, first took him to drama classes as a way of finding an outlet for their son's boundless energy. His first ever appearance on television was in an advert for Woolworth. "All I can remember is running up and down the escalators all day at Croydon Shopping Centre," he says.

After a role as the "baked bean boy", came his first film, Please Sir! at the age of eight. His auspicious split-second appearance involved sticking his hand up in assembly and asking to go to the toilet. "Then the camera panned down and showed a puddle of pee."

Then, at 13, came Tucker Jenkins. Grange Hill, which also launched such stars as Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director, Phil Redmond, and Naomi Campbell, who once played an extra, was a runaway success. "Kids ran home from school at 10 past five to watch Grange Hill because it reflected their own lives and they loved Tucker because he got away with all the things they never could," says Carty. "The only better part was Benny Green because he was so good at football and we were all mad about football. I remember one episode when Bullet Baxter doesn't let Benny play because he hasn't got any football boots. Tucker nicks Tricia Yates's hockey boots so Benny can play. He wasn't a bad lad really."

Carty's own childhood was strict but solid. "My parents never let me get too big for my boots," he says. "They tied all the money I was earning up in trust funds, so I was never spoiled." While he was at Grange Hill he moved to the Phil Dene stage school. At times it was uncomfortable - he would find himself jumping off the underground as a group of lads would recognise him - but he says he never knew anything different. "I've only really known life in the public eye." He never goes out of his way to court publicity because "that's asking for trouble". He has had the EastEnders-shocker News of the World treatment just once. "It hurt," he says.

Having grown up in television, Carty's closest friends are all in the industry. Black Velvet Band, a film for Yorkshire television about a gang of 19th-century fugitives who jump ship in Cape Town, reunites him with two old friends from the set of EastEnders: Nick Berry, who once broke East End hearts as Wicksy, and Chris McHallem, who used to play Rod, (Mary- the-punk's boyfriend) and on whose idea the film is based. "We had a fantastic time filming for six weeks in South Africa," says Carty. "We were wearing great costumes, riding round on horseback and shooting guns. And I got to spend some time with my mates - we'd been planning to do something together for 10 years."

Despite enjoying the break, he still loves work at Albert Square. "I'm not being funny, but it's just really good to be working and to do work you enjoy." One of the soap's most long-standing cast members, he misses some of his original screen family, including Susan Tully, (Michelle), who he had worked with since his Grange Hill days. "She was a few years below me," he says. "I remember when she first started and she was tiny and had this little squeaky voice. It was great to play her big brother all those years later."

The recent scenes with Ricky and Bianca opting for an abortion because their child would have been so terribly disabled, had him in tears. "It's being a dad, I think," he says. A year-and-a-half ago, he and his fiancee, Dina, who has been a friend since childhood, had a son, James Liam. "I adore them," he says.

He says it is up to James what career he follows. After all, the notoriously unpredictable actor's life has treated him well.James, meanwhile, is growing into his dad's biggest fan. "One time the family were all together and my dad's going 'There's our Todd on television.' James just pointed at the screen and went 'Shshsh'. He wanted to watch. God knows what he'll make of it all this Christmas."

'From Grange Hill to Albert Square... and Beyond': NewYear's Day, BBC1 5.05pm; 'Black Velvet Band': ITV, Christmas Eve, 9pm.