From Albert Square star to panto villain – John speaks to Steve about life on stage and screen

I first met Steve McFadden in Milton Keynes at Christmas in 2005, where he was starring in pantomime.

I first met Steve McFadden in Milton Keynes at Christmas in 2005, where he was starring in pantomime.

I got lost in the nearby shopping malls – which all looked the same – and had to race to the theatre because I was late.  Would I be in trouble with the infamous Phil Mitchell? My luck was in – he was also late. We have met several times since then and the most recent was a few weeks ago in Southampton, on their pantomime launch day. As ever, he was a perfect gentleman. Mind you, I never give him any trouble!

I know you could never settle in the early days, having been a market trader, building site worker and nightclub doorman. You suddenly had a calling in a most unlikely place. How did that happen?

I went back to college to study and really wasn’t very happy. I hadn’t discovered what I wanted to do in life. I found myself

in education because I was trying to find a route out of where I was. I looked out of the college window and saw some guys carrying bricks on a building site and thought I don’t want to go back to that or stay in the intellectual world that I was in at the time.

Suddenly, I decided I wanted to be an actor. It was the best thing I could ever have done. I might well have gone off the rails, otherwise.

How did you set about it?

I just got this obsession and went into Foyle’s bookshop in London and found some drama books, like Look Back In Anger and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, picked out some speeches and went for auditions. Ironically, every  drama school turned me down, except RADA, which was rated the best. I was so lucky. I even directed an excerpt from a play that ended with a fight scene. I actually got a few old mates from Soho in because they were used to that kind of thing. Actually, I won a couple of prizes there.

Some of your first television appearances were as a tough guy in series like Bergerac, The Firm and The Bill. Then you got the call from EastEnders, which changed your life. Could it have gone either way for you?

Yes, nothing was guaranteed. Thankfully, it was very quickly a success but I didn’t know what kind of impact I had made. I wasn’t used to that world and couldn’t read the signals. Then after a few weeks they asked me to sign for two years. Suddenly, the penny dropped that they were investing a lot of money in the Mitchell brothers, with a new set idea and big storylines. Ross and I loved working together and we had a chemistry on screen. Then Barbara Windsor came in to complete the whole family and made it what it became.

How did you cope with instant fame?

I didn’t find it difficult and I had a load of fun and a lot of doors opened. Before then, I had to queue up at nightclubs and then they sometimes wouldn’t let me in. Suddenly I didn’t have to queue. They let me in straight away and it was free drinks. Also, generally,  the public have always been nice to me.

Recently, they were enthusing that 11 million viewers watched the hit series Bodyguard. Your EastEnders ‘Sharongate’ storyline had 28 million viewers. What was it like?

At that time you really felt amazing. You actually felt it on the street. Wherever you went it was just crazy because over half the nation were watching your show. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have had so many cliffhanger stories.

When we last met, you had taken a year or two off. After 14 years, did you just decide you needed a break?

It’s a lot of constant hard work and my character has always had so many emotions to portray. Doing that week in and week out takes it out of you. I just got away on my boat and did some sailing. I was happy to go back and am still there. Incidentally, I love the Isle of Wight for sailing. My son actually did his navigation skippers’ certificate over there.

When you started in the show there were two episodes a week. Now it’s more, is that more stressful for you?

I don’t know but the numbers of the cast have gone up as well. In some ways, the story structure has been broken down. We don’t get so many big scenes of seven or eight pages, which used to be the standard. Now it’s down to two pages. In a half hour show, if you break that down, they are much easier to learn.

What does pantomime mean to you?

Panto is the focus of my year. We always talk about it and my family love coming to see the show. It’s now a part of my

family life. In this Dick Whittington, at the Mayflower, Southampton, we have a great cast and I’m looking forward to a few

laughs with the wonderful Bobby Davro. I know I’ll also get plenty of boos and hisses as King Rat.

In Woking at Christmas, back in 2011, didn’t you lose a fight at every performance to a girl from the Isle of Wight?

Trust you to remember that! I was Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Amy Bird was playing Peter Pan. I didn’t have to pull any punches with her. She was so good with a sword and was the best fighting Peter Pan I’d ever performed with.

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