In the 35 years that EastEnders has been on air, never has there been a stunt as ambitious as the one currently unfolding over the course of this week.
The special set of anniversary episodes sees a Titanic-style disaster strike the Walford residents, as a booze cruise on the Thames to celebrate the Queen Vic’s recent Pub Of The Year win turns into a watery nightmare.
As several key storylines reach their climax in dramatic scenes aboard the boat, one Walford resident won’t make it out alive, which will undoubtedly have long-lasting ramifications.
Tasked with executing a celebration befitting of the soap’s milestone birthday were the BBC’s head of continuing drama Kate Oates and executive producer Jon Sen.
With fans already hooked on the drama after the first of the week’s episodes aired on Monday, Kate, Jon and cast member Kellie Bright (aka, Linda Carter) revealed just what it took to get the anniversary episodes to air – just as the boat went down...
The whole idea was inspired by the show’s iconic opening titles
As well as Ian Beale, one other thing has been consistent since EastEnders started in 1985 – the River Thames in the opening titles. So, it seems fitting then that the whole idea for the 35th anniversary was born out of the east London map.
Jon reveals that he and fellow bosses realised the idea had been staring them in the face during a brainstorm about the episodes.
He says: “We wanted to do something epic, obviously. But we were aware that for the 25th and the 30th, they’d done these live episodes. We wanted to do something different that was equally iconic and a big audience event.
“We all got together and listed everything we wanted... to celebrate about EastEnders – London, contemporary, compelling.
“Then we have the shot of the Thames in the opening credits, and we went, ‘Ah! There’s the idea,’ and it came from there really.”
About 150 people helped bring the storyline to life
Bringing a storyline of this scale to a soap that is always shooting two hours of drama a week is no mean feat, and there was a crew of around 150 people that worked on anniversary week.
“It’s a huge operation,” Jon explains. “We took a team that are used to a more sedate soundstage in Elstree, and said, ‘There you go, there’s the Thames. In the middle of Storm Brendan [in January].’
“It was a crew of about 150 in total, including all the support services. They were all incredible. They loved the challenge and really rose to it given the elements.”
And even with that many people, there was still a whole lot of challenges
“There’s just no room for error, you have to get it,” Kate says.
“We’re against the clock normally anyway, but when you’ve got a shoot like this with extra days, plus Christmas, the logistics of cast availability and all that stuff, it really, really was a minefield for the whole team to navigate.
“It was a real team effort with everyone from the production office, story and editorial to all of the crew. It’s the EastEnders family at its best of pulling together.”
All the exterior scenes had to be filmed much later than the rest of the episodes
That’s because the Thames was lit up for Christmas decorations, which would definitely have looked out of place with the episodes going out in February.
As a result, it all had to be shot out of sequence, with the interior boat scenes – shot in a water tank – filmed first back in December. Kellie revealed that she was in the water for nearly a whole week capturing her scenes.
The exterior scenes were then filmed in January over nine consecutive night shoots, with all four episodes taking about six weeks in total to bring to life.
“As actors, we come in and out of that. But for the crew, it was a huge, huge ask,” Kellie says. “And even down to those nine night shoots in a row, which was towards the end of the shoot when everyone was exhausted, the crew are out there for the whole thing.
“I remember looking at some of our camera crew and they were wrapped in plastic, the cameras were wrapped in plastic and they were literally holding things like lights to stop them blowing over.”
Many scenes also had to be shot twice
It wasn’t just the interior scenes that had to be shot in the water tank, as some of the exterior ones did too.
However, unsure of the weather they would encounter when it came to shooting other scenes outside, producers had to film two options for the sake of continuity in the edit.
Jon laughs: “We had to make sure for all eventualities, so all the stuff in the tank was done with rain and without rain. So when Storm Brendan came in during January, we were glad of the footage with rain!”
Kellie Bright and Linda Henry had stunt doubles for *that* iconic catfight
Monday’s episode saw a classic EastEnders scrap take place between Linda and Shirley Carter, with slaps, insults and even glasses hurled. It was something Peggy and Pat would have been truly proud of.
However, the EastEnders crew took the health and safety of the two actors very seriously, enlisting the help of two stunt doubles – even if Kellie and Linda didn’t really need them.
Kellie laughs: “We did have stunt doubles for part of it, but you end up sort of repeating it anyway.
“Linda and I love each other dearly, and so we were going, ‘I don’t want to hurt you! Are you OK?’”
Kellie’s foot got caught for real during her scenes on the boat
In tense scenes during Monday’s episode, alcoholic Linda ended up getting her foot caught between a kitchen surface and an appliance as she suffered a mishap while reaching for a bottle of wine.
Trapped, her life is in danger as the boat fills up with water and husband Mick is unable to release her.
Shooting the scenes also proved to be a bit of a worry for the crew too, as Kellie explains: “It was actually quite awkward keeping my foot in there, I’m not gonna lie. Once it was in, it was properly, actually stuck. That was the thing that everyone was worried about as I couldn’t just release myself if anything happened to the set in the water.
“When I was pulling against it, I did end up with a few scrapes and bruises, but it was worth it.”
She adds: “But safety is the most important thing. You can’t see them, but there were lots of people around us, lots of divers there.”
There were arguments in the writers’ room about the dead character’s fate
While their identity is currently a closely-guarded secret, we know that this week will end with one Walford resident in a body bag. And while that was always the plan, it doesn’t mean the decision to kill off the character in question was without its disagreements.
Kate says: “We discuss it in depth, and we actually had a lot of arguments about it too. The story room is a vibrant room and we discuss a lot of different options, but we knew in our hearts that this was the story.”
Producers used a code name for the dead character
In order to avoid the identity of the character who dies leaking on social media or the press, bosses gave them a code name when discussing them on set or mentioning them in the script or story documents.
We’re not allowed to reveal what that code name was just yet, with Jon saying of the measures they take: “We just don’t want the audience to ever have their enjoyment spoiled.”
Kate adds: “I’ve learned over the years that the reward that comes with a twist is just brilliant. I used to come from the other side of the fence and think that you want to get people watching and that you want to reveal stuff, but I think people have had enough of that now.”
Kate and Jon thought carefully about the structure of the week’s episodes
In the end, they decided to tell the same day from the perspective of three different family groups – the Carters on Monday, the Beales and Fowlers on Tuesday and the Mitchells on Thursday – across the first three episodes, with the culmination of events on the Friday.
“Kate and I both discussed how stunts unfold on soap – you usually have the event and it happens very quickly, but this structure creates intrigue,” Jon says.
Kate continues: One of the nice things about playing the stories out of order is that there will be moments of intrigue.
“On Monday, you see Phil on a boat, a gun has gone off, you see Ben running round a dock, we know that Sonia has opened the door to the police, but we don’t know necessarily know how all of these things are going to fit in with the larger narrative. That’s why you have to watch the whole week!”
There are some easter eggs hidden in the episodes for superfans
Wondering why the boat name the Smith-Holland is familiar? That’s because it is named after the soap’s creators, Julia Smith and Tony Holland, whose names have been on the credits for the past 35 years.
The dock where the boat sets sail from is also called Fassett Dock, and Fassett Square is the name of the real-life location in Dalston, east London on which Albert Square was originally based.
EastEnders’ 35th anniversary continues Tuesday and Thursday at 7.30pm and Friday at 8.30pm on BBC One.
Some quotes have been edited for clarity and length.