Choppy waters ahead for 'Eastenders' Irish spin-off
It's miles away from Albert Square but strong women still rule the roost in this Waterford-based 'Eastenders' spin-off
Shane Ritchie is lying on the sand at Dunmore East looking rather stressed and angst-ridden. Legendary actress, Fionnula Flanagan, approaches to have what appears to be very strong words with him, and things seem a bit tense, to put it mildly.
They're only acting, of course, because we're not really in Waterford. We're in Redwater - the fictional village that is the setting for the Eastenders' six-part spin-off of the same name. It stars beloved soap couple Jessie Wallace as Kat Moon (née Slater) and Shane Ritchie as her husband Alfie.
The premise for Redwater is that Kat and Alfie have arrived in the quiet Irish village in search of her long-lost son Luke. In true soap style, he was taken from her at birth without her knowledge, and a cryptic postcard has led her to Redwater to find him.
The new Irish setting is light years away from Eastenders' gritty Albert Square home in London. The seaside location has delighted the English actors, particularly Shane, who says he would consider buying a place here if Redwater gets a second series.
"Since I've been here, I've sung with Aslan and got s***-faced on Guinness," he laughs, when we meet him after filming the beach scene. "When I was doing EastEnders, it was an 120-mile round trip to get to work and back, and at times, it's quicker for me to fly here than get around the M25. Dunmore East is a beautiful place to film, but there was one scene on the beach at midnight where they created this beautiful mist over the sea and I thought, 'F***, is this a horror film?' I felt like I was in The Wicker Man."
We learned in EastEnders in 2015 that Kat became pregnant by her uncle as a teenager and tried to kill herself. She passed out during labour and didn't know she had given birth to twins, although her mother Mo knew. Her daughter Zoe was raised by Mo and thought for years that Kat was her older sister, while son Luke was adopted by a family in Ireland without Kat knowing he existed.
Following the tip-off, she and Alfie arrive in Redwater on holiday to see if they can discreetly work out who her missing son might be.
More than one young man fits the bill, and her efforts to figure out Luke's new identity threaten to unearth deeply buried secrets that the villagers would prefer remain hidden. Although it's a spin-off from Eastenders, Redwater is designed to stand alone as a whole new cast of characters are introduced and their stories are also told. The main family featured is comprised of Agnes Byrne, played by Fionnula Flanagan, her husband Lance (Ian McElhinney) and her daughters Róisín Kelly (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Eileen Harrington (Angeline Ball).
When we speak to the cast, they're in the middle of filming, and are terrified of revealing aspects of the plot, which has lots of twists and turns and surprises. We learn early on that the village was devastated by a boating tragedy 20 years earlier, in which Iris Dolan and her niece Aoife, who is Eileen's daughter, died. It appeared to be an accident, but the truth was left buried at the bottom of the harbour. Redwater is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its secrets until Kat begins asking questions. There's a cathartic reckoning, but naturally this comes at a great cost to all concerned.
"It's a very tight village and very family-orientated, and then you have these two outsiders coming in," Jessie explains. "People don't know if they are just there on holiday or what they want, so they get suspicious, especially Agnes."
Ah yes, Agnes. While Eastenders had hugely strong matriarchs like Peggy Mitchell, Mo Slater and Pat Butcher, it looks like Redwater's Agnes Byrne could give them all a run for their money. Kat wonders if Luke might be Agnes' grandson Andrew (Peter Campion), but Agnes is determined to protect the family's secrets at all costs. Fionnula is having great fun playing the strong, feisty character.
"Oh my God, I wonder how she hasn't been murdered by someone," she laughs. "She is very protective of her family but very manipulative too, which makes it yummy to play. She's a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother, so she recognises Kat's pain, but at the same time, she has to fight her corner. There are layers of secrets within the family and she happens to be the person who knows them all. If they come out, other people are going to be shocked, disappointed and enraged, so that's why Agnes wants to keep a lid on things."
It was revealed in Eastenders that happy-go-lucky Alfie has a brain tumour, and while they're in Redwater, his health starts to deteriorate. He begins getting hallucinations, and as he's ill, he and Kat stay on longer in the village.
"Alfie is on a journey of dealing with his own mortality, and that becomes more visible towards the end of the series," Shane explains. "For the first time in my 15 years of playing Alfie, he begins to question himself as a father and a husband. Agnes is a real force and she even makes Alfie stutter and tells him what to do. He usually has the gift of the gab, but not with her."
Elsewhere in the cast, Angeline and Maria provide a bit of Irish star quality in roles that reunite the former stars of The Commitments and The General, where they played sisters. Angeline's character Eileen is Agnes' youngest daughter, and after losing her daughter in the drowning incident, she goes off to America for 20 years. She has a son Kieran (Ian Toner) who is around the same age as Róisín's son Andrew, and only returns when a family drama erupts during the series.
"I think she really left Redwater physically and emotionally, so her whole demeanour and clothes are very much the opposite of her sister Róisín," Angeline explains.
"You see this strong, independent, cocky woman, and then the veneer starts to crack a little bit. Playing her is a dream job for me and I get to go home at weekends, which is great because I have two children. Dunmore East is one of the most beautiful parts in the world, and when we all arrived down, we thought it was a holiday, not a job."
Angeline actually appeared in seven episodes of EastEnders as another character, and played Shane Ritchie's wife in What We Did on our Holidays. She is delighted to be reunited with Maria, although their characters bicker a lot on screen.
"Róisín is the one who stayed in Redwater and helped her parents to run the farm, but as they're getting older, it's her family's responsibility to run it," says Maria. "She and Eileen are very close, but they're very different so there is constant sparring. If you're the person that has been there all the time, there's a certain niggle there when someone lands back in and tries to put their stamp on things."
Redwater is a a British-Irish co-production, written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars), Julie Dixon (Trial & Retribution), Lauren Klee (Eastenders) and Matthew Barry (Death in Paradise). Executive producer, Dominic Treadwell Collins, previously worked on Eastenders.
While it will be very different to Eastenders, Shane says that Redwater is also a community led by strong women, and Angeline's character Eileen is even tougher than Kat. The pace of the show is slower and calmer than the English soap, and Jessie says that she has had to adapt to that.
"You even speak much slower since you have been here," Fionnula teases Jessie. "I couldn't understand a word you were saying when you first got here."
"I love working with Fionnula," says Jessie. "Our characters clash so if we get the green light for a second series, I hope we can become friends."
"Or," Fionnuala laughs, "deeper enemies."
Redwater begins on RTÉ One this Sunday at 9.30pm