There's a joke going around actor circles at the moment: "Have you had a call from the National Theatre of EastEnders?" Because something rather interesting is going on in Albert Square. They're assembling a crack repertory team that you're more likely to see at London's National Theatre or fringe venues such as The Bush. Last month the news broke that Sophie Thompson, a fine theatre actor and sister of Emma, will be going into the soap opera - playing a solicitor.
She joins Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, The Long Firm), Diane Parish (who won Royal Television Society Best Actress award for BBC2's Babyfather), Jake Wood (Vera Drake) and Lee Ross (Secrets & Lies). Meanwhile Una Stubbs, last seen on stage in the National's Pillars of the Community, is moonlighting as aunt of the soap's character Honey. And Jo Joyner (who starred in No Angels and won a Golden Rose for sketch show, Swinging) is installed as beautician Tanya.
Once upon a time, going into a soap was a kiss of death. No casting agent would take you seriously. Anita Dobson has spent years proving there's life after Angie. Michelle Collins and Lindsay Coulson are still more likely to be asked about playing a soap bitch in EastEnders than their new drama projects.
So what makes Daniels, Thompson et al think there's life after soap? Industry watchers put it down to the "Tracy-Ann Oberman factor". Oberman spent 18 months on EastEnders as Den's wife, Chrissie, with epic storylines four nights a week, then, when she left last year, her life changed overnight. She went into plum roles in Dr Who and the BBC1 drama Sorted, and was about to play the lead in Mike Leigh's 2000 Years before she announced her pregnancy.
"I can't believe what it has done for me," says Oberman. "I've been offered things that I never thought in a million years I would be considered for."
Far from wrecking her career, EastEnders put Oberman on the map. Also it proved that you can do good work in a soap for a short, intense period, then exit with all guns blazing. "She played that game incredibly cleverly," says the National's casting director, Wendy Spon. "It gave her a burst of exposure where people who'd never heard of her went, 'Oh, God, she's rather good in this.'"
Patsy Kensit resurrected her career in Emmerdale, Sir Ian McKellen legitimised the soap cameo in Coronation Street. "If you get a big storyline, that's one in four people who have watched and know you," says Oberman. And bagging Daniels was a real coup for EastEnders. "Phil coming in did represent a tipping point, in terms of making other actors sit up," acknowledges executive producer, Kate Harwood.
Daniels isn't just an actor, he's a legitimate Britpop star (he narrated tracks on Blur's Parklife and Think Tank albums). "I had to make my mind up whether it was something I wanted to do, but I'd done a lot of everything else, so I thought why not, really? There's a fashion for all these things," says Daniels. "When I started out you couldn't be an actor and be in a pop band, and then you couldn't be in a soap and do anything else - so I'm glad things are changing."
"I was surprised and delighted when they approached me," Sophie Thompson insists. "Because you look at certain areas of work and think, 'Well, I'd never be allowed to do that.'"
So no one's suggested she should be doing Three Sisters, rather than playing Phil's latest flame? "My friends are so excited. They keep saying, 'You're going to the Square!' And everyone wants you to report back."
But when it goes wrong - poor scripts, lack of chemistry with co-stars - soap can be fatal. And many young actors get typecast. "The very thing that gives you a profile, which means ITV will put you on a list that gets a programme green-lit, is the very thing that condemns you to be for ever associated with it," warns Spon. "If you go into a commercial theatre project, you are for ever: 'Beth from Brookside'."
"We're halfway through building the next generation," says John Yorke, BBC head of in-house drama and the man spearheading the revamp, "because to all intents and purposes, really, once Wendy [Richards] goes at Christmas, the Watts and Fowler generation is dead."
Yorke's previous job was head of drama at Channel 4. As he sees it, soap should always aspire to be drama. "Audiences get really cynical if all the characters are gangsters or you've just had yet another mystery killer virus."
People were surprised when Yorke brought in Harwood. Her background is in classic drama (Crime and Punishment, Daniel Deronda, Charles II: the Power and the Passion). But it means she can think outside the box when it comes to casting.
"She's got a great pedigree," says Jo Joyner. "When someone like that offers you a job, you can't just turn your nose up."
From day one in the job, Daniels and Parish were on Harwood's wish list - she'd worked with them both on Tony Marchant's seminal multilayered drama, Holding On. "What Kate has done brilliantly is bring that generation of actors in and say: 'Actually, this is our National Theatre'," says Yorke.
As Joyner sees it, "Instead of worrying that you might never work again because you've been in a soap - which is a big fear for a lot of people because you can get so typecast - I thought, 'Why don't I go in not worrying about that. And if that is the normal pattern, then I'll change it'."
"It's a very hard time for actors," says Spon. "The fact that you can get Phil Daniels or Sophie Thompson into EastEnders is a symptom of how the profession is now."
Before taking over at the National, Spon spent three years as casting director at the production company Talkback Thames. "Having worked on The Bill, I know that even five years ago there were artists' agents who wouldn't have returned the call. But now the bigger agencies, will let the client do it - and earn a few bob - so long as it's a decent part," she says.
"When I took over EastEnders, I sat down with the casting director and we discussed how 90 per cent of actors live in London, and a lot of them aren't working," says Harwood. "And I don't see why we can't ask anyone to join the show. Hardly anyone has turned us down. Actors like to act, they're doers."
Daniels readily admits that he was holding out for a second series of BBC3's acclaimed drama, Outlaws. "But the BBC in their wisdom said the ratings weren't good enough." Frustrated that niche drama is not supported properly, he made the decision to go mainstream. And, with a family to support, the job security on EastEnders is a relief. "It's like a drug: good work, good pay."
This is not the first time that EastEnders has brought in guest stars (when he first worked on the programme in the late 1990s, Yorke brought in Sheila Hancock, Cherie Lunghi and Susan George). But the soap is not the juggernaut it once was. How long can an actor afford to stay in a soap?
"It's quite a fine balance," says Spon, "but I think more than a couple of years is very dangerous. It's most dangerous for the kind of actors who go into it as teenagers, unless they then take themselves off to drama school. If you look at Martine McCutcheon or Anna Friel, they've sort of escaped it, but looking at it now, have they really?"
"You have to make it work for you," one agent said. "It's all very well claiming you want to play a gritty, working-class slice-of-life character, but you have to make sure that you don't fade into the wallpaper."
Obermann knew her storyline would be a cracker - with Leslie Grantham returning for the first time in 14 years. But when Grantham's personal life was splashed over the tabloids, he was written out - leaving Obermann to carry the show. "In 18 months, I probably got about three or four years of exposure."
Would Spon cast a young actor straight out of soap? "I think I would be very cautious about the whole TV thing in relation to a theatre like the National. It's very seductive, but then you have to know they can hold their own. There are some very talented young people in EastEnders, but you'd want to see them first at the Soho theatre or the Bush to discover whether they could deliver in a play."
Yorke believes that the soap opera is still a valid art form, "I first sat around the EastEnders table 15 years ago, and now everyone from that table is running the industry. Paul Abbott and Jimmy McGovern, they learnt their craft from doing popular drama. I always liken working on EastEnders to working in an A&E department - one script comes in after another, you've got to patch it up and get it on the road."Reuse content