Robbie Jackson is back in EastEnders at last – and his new job as market inspector is certainly going to cause a stir as he starts to get on the nerves of the stall holders with his overly enthusiastic regime and team building exercises.
Robbie arrives back on the Square alongside sister Sonia in a much needed Jackson reunion and while many of his loved ones are really glad to see him, his new role on the market takes a lot of getting used to for some – not least of all Donna!
In the run up to his return, we sat down for a chat with Dean Gaffney who shared his joy at being back home, teased what’s ahead for Robbie and reflected on his time away from Albert Square.
What brings Robbie back to Walford?
Robbie has come back from India via Milton Keynes. When I left last time, I wrote a thank you note to one of the series producers here, saying thank you for having me back. And if Robbie ever finds his ways around the many roundabouts in Milton Keynes, he’d like to come back. A year and a half later, here we are…
Has Robbie changed much?
There’s one mention of Wellard, we mention my son once and then it’s kind of forgotten about. Sean (O’Connor, show producer) said in our meeting when I came back that he wants Robbie to be Robbie. Every show needs a Robbie. He didn’t want me to be the hapless, bumbling teenager that I was. He still wanted him to do things wrong, but in a mature way. He said, ‘we’ve exhausted every avenue with the dog. Let’s get Robbie to be more older.’ So there’s a transition period of Robbie still doing stuff wrong, but being older with it.
What’s he like at his new job?
It’s a step up from being a road sweeper! It’s funny because the first block I come back in – he’s doing this self help and he’s trying to get the market stall holders to chant and do this meditation and they’re looking at him like they don’t know what the hell he’s on about. Even though Robbie is ruffling a few feathers, there’s a side where Robbie is just trying to do his job. Robbie is a very jobsworth person – we all meet them every day of the week. If you didn’t have a contactless card on the bus or the Tube, you wouldn’t be getting on! He’s just that kind of annoying character!
Why do Robbie and Donna clash?
Lisa Hammond is brilliant. I think it’s purely because she sees this anal character coming in and throwing his weight about. And also there’s a discrepancy with her stall – will she lose the stall? And Robbie is the reason why she might or might not. It’s a clash of personalities. The stuff we’ve been filming of late kind of rectifies that so we’ve come full circle in a short space of time.
Had you given up hope of returning full time? Did you want to return full time?
There was probably a time when EastEnders looked over me. They knew I wanted to come back but sometimes, in any job, you need to make the bosses want you more and just being that person who says, ‘I’m still here’ might make people overlook you. But when I had my meeting with Sean, he said he’s surprised that previous bosses haven’t got me back sooner. That was a nice thing to say.
When you left in 2003, were you devastated?
Yeah, funnily enough, the boss at the time saw me at a party three months later and she said, ‘I’m not necessarily sure it was the right decision’. But she was locked in a room with me and she probably felt it was the one thing she could say. But since then, I’ve read an interview on BBC World where she said, ‘I regret letting the character go because he’s the kind of character who – with all the drama going on – provides a bit of lightheartedness.’ I think that’s the thing with Robbie – maybe it’d be hard for him to get a Who Shot Phil? kind of storyline, but he’s always there, making people laugh. He’s the fallback guy – I don’t think you can have 52 weeks of drama in any soap and I think Robbie is brought in to blend the two. Look at Marlon from Emmerdale and people like that in other soaps – Benny from Crossroads – every soap needs it.
So there was no bitterness?
I was very fortunate to do 11 great years on the show. It’s given me an amazing lifestyle, I’ve got a lovely home and two beautiful children so I can’t ever be angry with the show. My contract came up for renewal and it wasn’t renewed. They use this word ‘sacked’ a lot – if you’re sacked, you’re told to clear your desk and eff off. But in TV land, it’s just that your character – at that time – has exhausted every avenue. I’m very lucky – I think there’s a handful of people who would be on the hitlist of bosses to get back – I’m sure Ross Kemp would be on there. To be one of those people that they say, ‘yeah, we want him to come back’ – I feel immensely honoured.
What’s his relationship like with characters like Bex who he hasn’t really met?
As a viewer, I remember saying to someone, oh that’s my cousin. Or my auntie. And it’s weird. Automatically, you would have a relationship with these people. And I remember Sean asking if I had watched the show while I had been away and I said that I purposefully hadn’t watched it of late because I didn’t want to be overfamiliar with characters that Robbie would never have met – Mick behind the bar or whatever. As an actor, you know your lines and know what you’re meant to do.
14 years ago I took Sean out to dinner just after my 2003 stint here. I was just asking for advice – I’d been in this job 11 years and didn’t know any different. And he said ‘if I was to ever be the boss of that show, I wouldn’t have Robbie back without Sonia. I think Robbie and Sonia are siblings and it works. So I wouldn’t have you without her’. It’s mad that 14 years later, he is the boss and he’s made that come around, which is great.
How has EastEnders changed since your last stint? Obviously Sean is taking the show in a slightly different direction…
Obviously TV has changed massively and it’s a completely different world. EastEnders back then is completely different to now because it has to move with the times. I think that EastEnders always works because it’s about family, as cliché as that sounds. You can have your sensationalist stories, but then you need to bring it back to family – whether it’s the Carters, the Slaters, the Jacksons, the Mitchells or the Beales. It’s always been about family. Peripheral characters last for maybe a year, but they need to bring in a family for them.
In that sense, I think Sean is trying to bring it back to the core values that Julia and Tony created. I think Sean is very much about bringing that back and bringing the show back to what familiar people of a certain generation would remember. Although I am sure there will still be people asking who Robbie is because the show has a demographic audience who won’t recognise him.
Are you hoping Robbie will have some romance?
There are two things that I used to always ask on my first stint. The first was, I always asked the costume department to put him in something that wasn’t florescent and I was always asking if he could have a permanent partner. Patsy Palmer used to always say that they should go against the grain and get Robbie a fit woman; someone who is walking through the Square and everyone is saying ‘who is that?’
Is there anyone you think he’s suited to?
That’s a good question, I’m not sure. Obviously this would never happen, but as a character, I would like to work alongside Lacey Turner. I think she is sensational in what she does on the show. But I’d like them to bring in someone new for Robbie really and see what happens.
Would you like to see Lindsey Coulson and Patsy Palmer return?
I’m not just being biased here but I think Lindsey is probably the best actress I’ve ever seen on the show. I know that the EastEnders producers probably phone her once a month and beg, but Lindsey is at peace with what she’s done on the show and she feels she’s taken the character to a place that she can’t come back from at this moment in time. Patsy is on a different continent and a different part of the world. It would be lovely at one point to see her back as well, and Sid too. They are a double act and, in my opinion, there hasn’t been a double act as good. The only good thing is that they are so popular that they can’t recast those characters. You’ll never get anyone to play Bianca like she did.
When you were between EastEnders stints and you did reality TV, did you enjoy it? Or was it for the pay cheque?
This is no disrespect to anyone who has done this shows, but if my agent called me up and asked if I wanted to do Coach Trip, for example, then all he would hear is a dialling tone because I don’t need the money that badly. It’s just wanky, reality crap. That said, you have to have that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude. I’ve got two children and I need to work. There comes a time where you think you have to do that because it pays a good wage.
There are two shows I’ve always said I wanted to do – one is Strictly Come Dancing and the other is I’m A Celebrity. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia, I’m too tight to sit in economy for 29 hours. Anything that Ant and Dec touch turns to gold and it’s also about picking something that has 8 million viewers as opposed to something that has 500,000. It’s about picking the clever one. The doing the dishes kind of reality shows are just not my bag.
You won The Club…
Yeah, it’s funny because if The Club was now then I wouldn’t have touched it as I would have put it in the same bracket as the other shows. But it was something that, at the time, I felt quite knowledgeable about. No one really understood it, no one knew if it was going to big and no one really knew what reality was. But I got out of it an amazing friendship with Richard Blackwood. If I got married tomorrow, he would be my best man.
When you look back at that period in your life, how do you view it?
I think life is a learning curve and you can go two ways on a show like this, especially in that period in the 90s when EastEnders was regularly getting 22 million viewers. That’s nearly half the nation watching you in an episode. I defy anyone not to get big headed and enjoy their time doing what 18/19 year olds do at that age. I was fortunate not to go down the drug route and I just enjoyed myself and do what any kids at that age do. But I think having children makes you realise that you need to stop being a child yourself.
Did you enjoy the fame side of it?
Yes, I’m not going to lie. I came out of a normal secondary school, I was 15, it was very documented that I had a bit of bad skin and then all of a sudden I’m in this show that propels you to a fame that I can’t even describe. You can’t explain it until you go through it, and at that time, you would go into a nightclub and people are interested in you, and you think, ‘I didn’t have this a few years ago’. I think it’s the reason some of the older people, like Lindsey Coulson have left, because they don’t enjoy that scrutinising that the press and other people can sometimes give you. You just want to do your job and go home, but this show, and any soap to be fair, does create celebrities whichever way you look at it.
Do the younger cast members see you as someone to go to as advice?
I think what EastEnders do here now really is a lovely thing. They’re doing a lot of classes for the younger generation to prep them for the TV world. I’m sure if someone has problems they will seek outside help to come in and help them, so I think EastEnders are very knowledgeable about fame and what it can do to younger generations. Not just younger people, not to be patronising, it can be for any age, but they are trying to help everyone be happy. People always ask what was it like back in my day on the show, so it’s nice to give words of wisdom. But I certainly don’t do it in a patronising kind of way because I’m still learning myself.
What about Robbie’s life? What’s in store for him?
I think he’s going to kind of hopefully set up home in Walford. Like I said earlier about families, as long as there’s that breath of a Jackson being there, like with Natalie’s character, then there’s no reason for him to leave the Square. So if at some point Sonia left then it would probably be hard for Robbie to stay in the Square because there’d be no reason for him to. Bianca’s in Milton Keynes, so the family are not too far from London. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next months and years.
I think he’s already making his mark in the sense of rubbing people up the wrong way. And again, it is typical Robbie, he hasn’t changed in that sense.
Will he make some new mates?
We keep talking about him being hapless and annoying people but there is also a scene where Sonia turns to someone and says, ‘But you gotta love him…’. With Robbie he tries, and people can see he’s a trier, but sometimes he gets it wrong. And I think there is that kind of people feeling sorry for him. Not necessarily laughing at him, but with him kind of thing so let’s hope he does make some mates.
Was is easy to recover that rapport with Natalie?
Funnily enough, we were walking up to the Albert Square lot yesterday, and she just looked at me, she pinched me and said, ‘Can you believe this?’. And it’s so surreal, because it’s been very documented that I’ve wanted to come back for many years. And she’s also wanted that because she’s wanted her character to have someone she can bounce off as an actress.
And there’s also Richard Blackwood – he actually phoned me on the day of his audition and he said, ‘number one, keep it under wraps, I’m going to an audition for EastEnders. And number two, I don’t know why, and I’m telling you this Dean and I haven’t even got the job, because I’m just going for a meeting, but for some weird reason I’ve had a premonition that me and you are going to be on Albert Square and we’re going to be doing a scene and we’re just going to laugh to each other.’
But bearing in mind, he’d not even had his meeting at this point, he was going to it, and there was no way there was anything on the cards about Robbie going back – this was probably three years ago. I texted him the other day because there was a scene in the lot, Albert Square, where he speaks to Robbie. So I screengrabbed it and sent it to him and said, ‘there we go, three years later – your premonition has come to fruition’. It’s mad!
Do you believe in fate?
I do now! I feel that things happen for a reason. When I first met Sean to come back, his first words to me were, ‘Come home’, and I just thought, ‘Wow, what a lovely thing to say’. So I do feel like he was someone that had my back as an actor.
Can you see yourself being here until June Brown’s age?
That’d be lovely – 90! I’ve heard Natalie answer this question, and I think it’s such an endearing quality to just be honest and humble. I heard Natalie in an interview yesterday where she said, ‘I’ll be here until they kick me out’. And I think the same thing. Sometimes you’ve got to hold your hands up and say yeah. You can lie and say, ‘I’ll see what’s round the corner’, but no, I’m bloody happy here, I live 20 minutes away, it’s a great job, I’m earning a great wage, thank you!
One to watch: Monday 26th June at 8pm on BBC One.