As EastEnders fans bid a sad farewell to soap’s ultimate matriarch, Peggy Mitchell, Tanya Sweeney looks at other strong women who commanded our attention on the small screen over the years...
Was there ever as bold, bleached and brassy a landlady in the East End as Peggy Mitchell? She may have been about 5ft tall, but if you incurred the wrath of the EastEnders matriarch, there was always hell to pay. Lots of it.
Last night, millions of soap fans bade an emotionally-charged farewell to the indomitable East End institution, amid rather teary scenes. And rightly so, for as characters go, the soap matriarch is the centre point of any good soap.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find that, much like bad boys, shock pregnancies and forbidden affairs, soap history is positively littered with brilliant alpha females who won’t let any disaster, from helicopter crashes to wayward husbands, get them down…
Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell
As soon as she shimmied on screen in 1994, EastEnders viewers knew that an icon was being born in front of their very eyes. Though Peggy was played briefly by Jo Warne back in 1991, Barbara Windsor took up the reins and was a Queen Vic fixture for decades. As the only woman who could keep her sons, the notorious Mitchell brothers, in check, she needed an iron will (and a serious pair of lungs).
Ena Sharples (centre)
With her ubiquitous hairnet, Ena was to the Rovers what Peggy was to the Queen Vic — a hardy, mouthy part of the furniture. Ena could be relied on to provide piercing commentary on Corrie’s other residents. Alas, her departure was not at all dramatic; Ena merely went to stay with a friend while her flat was being renovated in 1980. The rest of her storylines had to be scrapped as Violet Carson was too ill to reappear.
Where some soap matriarchs shouldered their family’s myriad woes with nary a groan, sultry Carla gave as good as she got. Whether she was Carla Connor, Donovan, Gordon or Barlow, Carla was referred to as the ‘new Elsie Tanner’ and as such was afforded a slew of juicy storylines. Among them: marriage breakdowns, being held hostage in her own factory, drink driving, a suicide attempt, a gambling addiction, a crash, fires and finding out the identity of her real father. After all that action, Carla is about to depart the cobbles, hopefully for a quieter life. “It’s been emotionally draining,” King is quoted as saying. You don’t say.
Deirdre Barlow (or Hunt, Langton or Rachid) is herself no stranger to an outlandish storyline (who can forget the ‘Free Deirdre Rachid campaign that went viral back in the day?). And much like Peggy Mitchell, Deirdre had to contend with her firebrand daughter Tracy down the years.
Tributes poured in for Anne Kirkbride when she died in 2015 after battling cancer. Suitably, Deirdre was played out of the soap in grand style with her own farewell storyline and emotional funeral.
From 2008, Anna has picked up the matriarch mantle and also had a wayward son, Gary, to deal with. Poor Anna has run the emotional gamut already: there has been the adoption of Faye, the rocky relationship with her husband, bankruptcy, an ongoing, weapons-grade feud with the Platts, and being blackmailed into sex by Pat Phelan. Someone get that woman a cuppa.
Debra Lawrence as Pippa
So good they cast her twice: Vanessa Downing played the loving foster mum from Home and Away’s opening episode in 1988, until viewers tuned in to see that Pippa had changed entirely in 1990 (Downing suddenly quit the show).
Lawrance had played the Summer Bay staple on and off since then, until 2009. And in those two decades, Pippa provided a shoulder to cry on for dozens of wayward teens in Summer Bay. Every town should have one.
While Irene’s introduction into the soap was less than positive (she was an alcoholic who was violent towards her three children), Irene soon turned a corner, and became the soaps ‘classic Aussie battler’. The character underwent a massive transformation, from the town’s antagonist to a wryly humorous woman with a heart of gold. One of soap’s true diamonds in the rough.
Ramsay Street was divided into two factions: the Robinsons and the Ramsays. Heading the charge against Jim Robinson’s clan was the indefatigable Madge Ramsay, later Bishop. Madge died in 2001 from pancreatic cancer, while Anne Charleson gained Irish citizenship status and went on to star in a number of productions on the Irish stage, including, in 2012, Steel Magnolias.
We’ve all known Irish mammies who can handle anything and anyone, but Rita Doyle has put them all in the Ha’penny Place. Bella’s wife (and mum to Suzanne, Yvonne and Darren) died in a nursing home in 2010 after her daughter Yvonne granted her ‘do not resuscitate’ wish. Like her character, Jean has also suffered from ill-health, bouncing back from two strokes of her own and a battle with cancer.
On leaving the soap in 2010, Jean said: “I’ll try other things. I’d love to do theatre again. I’ll miss the money from Fair City, though. It was 23 years on a good week’s wages.”
Soapland has been crying out for a new matriarch for ages, and Red Rock’s Patricia Hennessy does not disappoint. Giving new meaning to the term ‘Machiavellian’, Patricia runs a number of local businesses and properties in the Red Rock area now that her husband has died. Her rivalry with Bridget Kiely (played by Denise McCormack), and her fierce devotion to her troubled children Claire, Michael and David are the things that keep her going. Cross her, in other words, at your peril.
Biddy Byrne was a formidable woman who knew her way around a farm and spoke her mind, and she and husband Miley were the poster people for rural Ireland… well, until Miley’s roll in the hay with Fidelma.
Popular as Biddy and Miley were, things weren’t quite as they seemed off-screen for McEvoy, who admitted later on that she used to cry every morning before going into work on the RTE soap, thanks to ongoing battled with anxiety and depression. Her character was killed in a road accident in 2000, a year before Glenroe went off-air.
Before joining the sop, Mary had worked at the Department of Agriculture, as well as on her father’s farm in Westmeath. Who said art doesn’t imitated life?
Across Albert Square, Pauline Fowler was a sort of foil to bubbly Peggy. Pauline endured more money worries, bereavements and family troubles than any soap character rightfully should. The moment when Pauline found out that Dirty Den was the father of her daughter Michelle’s baby was watched by over 30 million viewers. Pauline, alas, met a grisly end in 2006 as part of an incendiary murder storyline.
Wendy Richard died of breast cancer in February 2009.