EastEnders recruits real-life partners for ‘intimate’ scenes

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Ian Beale (played by Adam Woodyat) and Dotty Cotton (played by Milly Zero) act on either sides of a Perspex screen

The real-life partners of some of the EastEnders cast have been drafted in, to allow “moments of intimacy to be cheated” when the soap resumes.

The new recruits will act as body-doubles so that “crucial moments where two characters are kissing” can be filmed following government guidelines.

The BBC said the move was just one of several measures being taken to keep the cast and crew safe on set.

New episodes will resume on 7 September, after a three-month break.

The hiatus was made necessary when the Covid-19 lockdown brought production to a halt. Since then fans have been taken on a trip down memory lane, with re-screenings of classic episodes from the soap’s 35-year history.

Filming resumed at the end of June and the show’s executive producer Jon Sen said the production team “had to choose our moments carefully” when it came to filming intimate scenes “because it takes much more time to film like this”.

The cast’s families won’t just be used as stand-ins in the bedroom, he added.

“We hit on the idea of [using] supporting artists from the same household to reflect the world outside…. or a husband and wife who would be walking down Bridge Street and of course they can get closer together than the two metres,” said Sen.

“It really adds to the sense of life.”

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Callum Highway (played by Tony Clay, left) and Ben Mitchell (played by Max Bowden) keep a safe distance

In order to follow social distancing guidelines on interior sets like the Queen Victoria pub, producers had to think laterally.

‘Family units’

Clear Perspex screens – which are invisible to the camera – are being placed between actors who share a scene; and computer-generated composite shots are also being used.

The perspex screens allow the producers to “bring people really close together and that’s really good because it gives an intimacy to performance that wouldn’t be possible otherwise”, said Sen.

Other measures have included creating one-way systems around the studios, and temperature-checking the cast and behind-the-scenes staff.

Seating in the Queen Vic has also been adjusted to allow for a 2m distance between actors.

“Our greatest challenge is that we have several family units, that’s the nature of EastEnders and soap,” said Sen.

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Emmerdale resumed production with special episodes showing characters dealing with lockdown

“Families who would be in the same household, so not at 2m distances, but obviously they are played by actors who are obeying social distancing, so there’s a huge challenge at the heart of it.”

The computer-generated shots create the illusion of actors being close to each other when in fact “they have been filmed in complete isolation from one another”.

“So, when you are filming, the actor will be talking to space, essentially, and that will happen with the other actor, and then you’ll put them together and it will look like they are at the same table, so we’re doing that a lot,” said Sen.

‘Judgment call’

New episodes will be 20 minutes or slightly longer, rather than 30, when EastEnders returns for four nights a week.

Kate Oates, BBC Studios head of continuing drama, said: “We wanted the ambition of the storytelling and the quality of the storytelling to be as high as possible, so to achieve that and to achieve everything Jon has talked about and to make it look brilliant it takes longer so we really did have a judgment call to make.”

Other popular soaps have faced the same challenges of filming in the Covid-19 era.

Coronation Street resumed filming on 9 June with strict social distancing and other safety measures in place.

No actors with underlying health conditions or who are aged over 70 were allowed back on set, ruling out the likes of William Roache and Maureen Lipman.

Emmerdale restarted production on 20 May by recording new episodes showing characters dealing with lockdown.

The restrictions followed the publication in May of guidelines for the TV industry to get back to work.

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