Diane Parish has featured in many headline-grabbing storylines during her 11 years in ‘EastEnders’, but it’s her latest plot - which, by her own admission isn’t the most “sensational” - that has struck a personal chord.
In recent weeks, viewers have seen Diane’s character Denise Fox slowly find her personal circumstances worsening thanks to employment and money troubles, and in Thursday’s (18 May) episode, things will reach a new low, when she’s forced to visit a food bank.
Speaking exclusively to HuffPost UK, a clearly passionate Diane reveals her connection to the on-screen events, which she describes as “a very important story about social injustice”.
“From a personal point of view, there are people in my life who I think are absolutely fine, [yet] who don’t always pick up the phone to people,” she says. “Somebody very close to me would have had to resort to - nearly did, but thankfully didn’t in the end - a food bank. It’s a question of just surviving and thinking, people are just living week to week.”
Meanwhile in Albert Square, many of Denise’s relatives and friends are unaware of how dire her situation has become, as on the surface level, the facts are simple: Denise quit her job, but has a secure home, and is trying to gain a GCSE.
Sadly - as will be evidence in Thursday’s show - Denise’s bid to better herself has not gone well, but Diane admits she’s “very defensive” of her character’s decision to try and do so in the first place. “She’s entitled at the age of 47 years old - which isn’t old, but isn’t young either - but at 47, to say, ‘You know what, I want to do something and get to the end of it and say I did it’,” she explains.
“She’s not had a good ride with men, she’s had bad luck in all kinds of situations and lives in a house owned by a man who is not really her father, but just an elderly man who claims a pension and cares about her.
“So this first little baby step she’s made towards doing something that’s just for her, after raising her children and pulling herself through rubbish relationships and with her sister rubbing it under her nose that she’s got everything.”
And while the circumstances surrounding Denise’s journey to this point may be unique, the fact she finds herself at a food bank is not. In the run-up to the general election, the sheer number of UK families relying on these services to get by has been covered extensively, and Trussell Trust statistics reveal that, in the last year alone, 1,182,954 people sought emergency help.
This is something Diane and the ‘EastEnders’ team are well aware of.
“What we’re trying to say is - what I do know to be true - is that anybody, at any time, in our current situation in the world and in our country, can find themselves in Denise’s position,” she says. “It’s the slipperiest of slopes: our social system and our welfare system.
“People are so sort of demonised as ‘scroungers’ and there are all these sort of buzzwords for people who find themselves in that difficult predicament, but the books are there to say that there are many people who find themselves hungry at night and there are children that go to school [hungry].
“The definition of poverty is a grey area for us, in this country. We hear ‘poverty’ and see adverts for Unicef and Red Cross, and that’s what we see, but it’s all relative.”
As many fans will point out, this isn’t the first big storyline of the year that Denise is featuring in, as 2017’s opening weeks saw her newborn baby up for adoption. And while all soaps have at times been guilty of introducing a plot, only for it to quickly be forgotten just months later, that looks unlikely to be the case here, for two reasons.
The first is that Denise’s adoption plot is still informing Diane’s portrayal of her character. She says: “One thing I feel is that a woman, at that age, who gives away her baby, goes through a certain amount of psychological damage.
“There are all kinds of things that happen to you biologically and hormonally when you have a child and then when you give it away, you have to go through the formal process and red tape as well - and the cord psychologically as well as physically.
“Then you have to just try and get on with life, pretending it’s not happened. That is a kind of shadow that’s there constantly and I feel that Denise has got issues that haven’t been dealt with.
“When Kush [Kazemi] is trying to get close, there’s an instinctive reflex to tell him to get away. She doesn’t want him to get under the surface.”
The second reason is that this week’s episodes are just part of a wider plan from EastEnders’ executive producer Sean O’Connor.
“If all we want is primary colours painted for us at 7.30pm every night then I’m afraid Sean O’Connor isn’t going to do that - and I give him massive props for that,” she offers. “His long-term agenda is talking about the real Britain and the world we’re living in, in the best way he can, within the constraints of the soap.
“What I love about the bravery of Sean taking on a storyline like this - which I doubt a lot of people would have done - is that he’s doing something that may not be palatable for a lot of people, because we just don’t want to admit that we live in a society that can be that callous.”
And with seven million viewers tuning in each night, there’s every chance that Sean’s ‘Real Britain’ approach will inspire important conversations, which Diane is understandably hopeful for.
‘EastEnders’ continues on Thursday 18 May. Catch up on all the latest soap news and spoilers here.