Interview: Reinvention of a drama queen
PUBLISHED: 12:48 24 February 2015
Ware-born Charlie Brooks made her name as 'the Walford witch' Janine Butcher on Eastenders, filmed at the BBC Elstree Centre in the county. With Albert Square behind her she is creating new dramas on stage
When Charlie Brooks left Ware as a toddler in the early 1980s, little did her family know that 17 years later she would return to the county to cause havoc as one of our favourite TV hell-raisers. Prostitution, cocaine addiction, murder – you name it, as EastEnders’ resident Walford witch Janine Butcher, the actress left her malicious, manipulative mark all over Albert Square. Her work as the bad girl fans loved to hate won her numerous awards.
In real life, with her outgoing, carefree nature, the 33-year-old couldn’t be more unlike destructive Janine. Her 1999 introduction to EastEnders completed a full-circle journey after her family left Hertfordshire for north-west Wales, 18 months after Brooks was born in May 1981.
‘I was only one when we left for Wales,’ Brooks says, ‘and 13 when I moved to London, so to end up back working near where I was born was a bit weird!’
Hertfordshire was home from home until her initial stint in the show ended in 2003. But such was Brooks’ popularity, she was written back into the script in 2008 for what was meant to be a year but lasted until 2014. Reflecting on her time on the show, she quotes a number of acting highlights, singling out the last year of her first stint, when she says Janine ‘really formed the character’, coming into her own and starting to get all the drugs and prostitution storylines. ‘There were some great episodes,’ she says. ‘All my marriages and all my deaths! So I feel really blessed to have had so many highs there. Being part of the live episode was amazing as well.’
She knew in 2013 however that it was time for her to move on: ‘My creative bones were desperate for me to challenge myself and not feel so comfortable.’ Janine left EastEnders in March 2014 in a suitably dramatic blaze of glory, setting off for Paris with her daughter Scarlett.
While thankful to leave the commute home to Surrey behind (‘My Friday evenings have consisted of sitting in traffic jams driving home from Hertfordshire. Once I got stuck for nine hours!’), Brooks nonetheless has mixed feelings about putting a full stop on such a significant part of her career.
‘Sometimes I miss it. I miss the people. And I was very lucky with the character; I had a lot of great storylines. And I miss the money!’ she laughs. ‘But no, I’m managing. There are certain elements I miss, but I 100 per cent think it was the right time for me to leave...for now.’
Brooks has proved her confidence is not misplaced. Many actors have found to their cost that leaving an established soap job in pursuit of new exploits doesn’t always work out, but Brooks has carved out a life beyond Walford. During her first break from EastEnders, she remained in the public eye with an array of successful cameos including in Casualty, Robin Hood and, most notably, Bleak House, the Charles Dickens tale which gives EastEnders a run for its money in the harrowing stakes. Brooks won plaudits for her portrayal of Jenny, a brickmaker’s wife living in 19th-century poverty-stricken London.
Light relief came in the form of reality TV. Brooks won the 2011 Christmas special of Strictly Come Dancing and became a camp mate in ITV’s Australian jungle show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here. Brooks’ bubbly personality was always going to play well with the watching public, and so it proved – she won the 2012 series at a canter. Yet the invitation to I’m a Celebrity... wasn’t one that Brooks initially jumped at: ‘I wasn’t too sure. It was a big decision for me to do it. But in hindsight, I think it was the right one.’ Is it possible to enjoy swimming with crocodiles and eating turkey testicles? ‘I did have an amazing time but it was bloody hard work. I’ve done my best to steer away from the celebrity limelight, but it was good, they were a good team of people.’
Her second post-EastEnders calling is shaping up to be equally fruitful – and there isn’t a creepy-crawlie in sight.
Brooks teaches at Esher Stage School, a performing arts school near her Surrey home where she lives with 10-year-old daughter Kiki. ‘I work there as much as I can. I love it, I find it really rewarding. I work on lots of different things; poetry, all sorts.’ And her own acting opportunities are also filling her with excitement as she begins a new adventure in theatre. Last month, Brooks began performing Contact at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, a risqué production exploring modern dating. ‘It’s a new play about swinging! It’s a bit raunchy, which I’m a bit nervous about, but it’s exciting,’ she smiles.
Bigger still is the news that next month she will begin an 18-week UK tour with a Nikolai Foster-produced adaptation of Jonathan Harvey’s modern classic Beautiful Thing, a tale of tumultuous young love between two teenage boys in working-class post-war south-east London.
For Brooks, it is a dream opportunity. ‘I was obsessed with the film version when I was a kid, I watched it like 100 times, I was one of the cult followers.’ The casting of Brooks as Sandra, a feisty single mum, seems perfectly judged.
‘Are you saying I’m a feisty single mum?’ she says with a huge laugh. ‘You’re right. But what I’m hoping to do is bring a great deal of warmth to it. Sandra is feisty, she’s loud, she’s not afraid to speak her mind, she’s had a hard life and fought to be where she is. I’ve got some of the best lines, I just couldn’t wait to say them.’
As her workload increases, so too does her sense of validation. ‘I feel I am achieving what I set out to when I left EastEnders, so I feel really, really lucky. It sounds a bit corny, but I feel really blessed at the moment.’
What are the chances of Brooks returning to Elstree, ready to set Janine – once called a ‘classic villainess’ – prowling the streets of Walford again?
‘I never said I’m leaving for good. ‘I’ll always be interested in what Janine is doing. So it’s a watch-this-space...’.
The good folk of Walford had obviously better watch out.
. Charlie Brooks stars in Beautiful Thing, touring the UK from March 23.