In the past, EastEnders spin-offs have lived on DVD, the red button or BBC iPlayer, but this week Kat and Alfie return to our screens in Kat & Alfie: Redwater, a new standalone six-part drama for BBC One.
Having left Albert Square in January 2016, Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie reprise their roles as EastEnders legends Kat and Alfie in Redwater as they search for Kat’s long lost son.
This is a continuation of a story which began in EastEnders where Kat found out that when she gave birth to Zoe at the age of 13, that wasn’t the only secret her family had kept from her. They had also kept the secret that Kat had also given birth to a son that day, Zoe’s twin brother.
Heading to Redwater in Ireland in search for him, celebrations are in full flow for a lively annual fundraiser and already Kat thinks she might have already found her son, Andrew (Peter Campion), son of Roisin (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Padraig (Stephen Hogan) and wife of local Garda Bernie (Susan Ateh). But has she found him too soon?
As Kathleen (as she is now known) relentlessly pursues her quest for confirmation that Andrew is her long-lost son, she ruffles feathers with Andrew’s mother Roisin at their family farm, further fuelling the rumour mill - until Agnes intercepts and sends Kathleen politely on her way.
Alfie once again has to play peacekeeper, pulling Kathleen into line and making peace with the locals, allowing the dust to settle. Distracted by her quest, Kat fails to notice that Alfie is hiding his failing health from her.
Can you remember any of the initial meetings about Redwater?
Shane: Yeah, myself and Jessie had the meeting initially with Dom (Treadwell-Collins) and Ben Stephenson and we thought we were going to Spain. We had this great idea that we were going to rent villas...
Jessie: I'd already packed my bikini! (Laughs)
Shane: Then Dom came back and said "Right. We're not going to Spain. I've just been to New Orleans..." - and in my head I went "Great! Kat and Alfie are going to New Orleans now and for about five minutes he didn't mention Ireland at all.
I still couldn't get my head around it, thinking that Kat and Alfie were going to New Orleans and then of course he mentioned Ireland and everything kind of fell into place.
Do you still wish you could have gone to Spain?
Shane: Benidorm do it so right, but going to Spain would have just been another Kat and Alfie working in a pub, Brits abroad, and it wouldn't have been the show it is today I don't think.
It would have been a completely different look and completely different feel. Trying to come up with a title was a nightmare as well!
Dom had some good ones like I'll Take You Home Kathleen and Moon Over Ireland.
Do you think the audience will be surprised that Redwater is so different to EastEnders?
Jessie: I think audiences will be surprised. I think it's going to take a while for them to warm to it. Hopefully just the first episode!
But it's taken these two strong characters out of EastEnders and put them into this whole new different drama. Our look has changed as well.
So it looks like we've taken ourselves away from the Square, matured and then moved on.
Shane: The BBC and Dom have been very clever in that they're hoping that of course they'll bring in the EastEnders audience, but also an audience that don't watch EastEnders. People that watch, for want of a better word 'high-end drama' which I like to think this is. It's Broadchurch meets The Wicker Man!
I remember reading the scripts and there was no reference whatsoever to EastEnders. We don't mention Albert Square. We don't mention E20. We don't mention The Queen Vic.
I'm the only one that calls her Kat. Everyone else calls her Kathleen. That was really interesting and very brave. But I think it pays off.
This is very much an ensemble piece isn't it?
Shane: It is. Although Kat and Alfie front it and you tell their story, there are other stories that happen around them.
How different was filming Redwater compared to filming EastEnders?
Shane: The experience was very different from doing single camera as opposed to multi-camera. You tell a story in ten days, sometimes you do four episodes, because you're doing up to 25 scenes a day.
(On Redwater) You've got a chance to breathe. You get a chance to look at the dialogue. You get a chance to think about where the emphasis is on a word. You get to think about the sort of look Kat and Alfie are going to have. What are we trying to say? How are Kat and Alfie going to play this scene?
You don't get a chance like that in EastEnders. You hit the ground running. So in that sense, as an actor, it was wonderful. We'd sit there for hours and at times we got bored because we're so used to shooting twenty scenes in a day!
(On Redwater) Sometimes it'll take two hours to set up one shot...
Jessie: Also, because you're banging out so many scenes in a day. Sometimes twenty scenes if you're in The Vic all day, you don't really get a chance to rehearse so you walk away from a scene thinking about what you could have done better.
But when you're doing something like this, you have the opportunity to try out different ways and take direction from a director that doesn't know your character. It's nice for someone else to find layers in your character that wasn't there.
When you're in a soap, you can be as big as you like, but when you're doing this, you pull your performance right back and it's a lot more powerful I think.
Shane: You can afford to be subtle. Whereas on a soap it doesn't really well.
Why do you think Kat and Alfie are so popular?
Shane: I think it was all about timing back in 2001/2002. Alfie came into the soap with Nana Moon and with Spencer and I remember Tony Jordan at the time saying that he wanted to try and create Only Fools & Horses, another family like the Trotters and that's what he did.
Also, the time Alfie came in was the time that there were lots of alpha males, a lot of bad boys. I just think the timing was right.
Over the years, we've played every emotion. Splitting up, infidelity, rape, child cot death, baby swap, burning the house down - we've kind of played everything. And the audience stuck by us and I think that's going to be the pay off for Redwater.
The audience are no strangers to Kat and Alfie. But of course, there will be a whole audience that will watch it that might have heard of Kat and Alfie, that bloke off the telly and her who plays Kat, and it'd be interesting to see their reaction. Not knowing their history. But I don't think it matters.
Going back to why Kat and Alfie are so popular, it took a year before they kissed. That doesn't happen now in soap because the appetite has become very veracious, it's more like fast food.
But back then, millions of people tuned in just to see their first kiss. They waited something like fourteen months!
And what about off-screen? What's the key to your relationship with one another?
Jessie: We're like brother and sister. We argue. And then we won't talk for a day. But then we'll talk again! He makes me laugh all the time.
We just know each other really well off-screen and on-screen as actors. We can tell what one another is thinking and we can tell the truth to each other.
Shane: As actors we have a shorthand. We've got each other's backs as well as far as personal stuff that's happened throughout the years. Some of it has been well documented, some of it thankfully hasn't. We'll be taking those stories to our grave, won't we sweetheart?
Did you ever have any reservations about taking Kat and Alfie out of Walford?
Shane: We had a little wobble. But when we started talking about it it felt right. And Dom (Treadwell-Collins) already has it all planned out up until series four!
We had some lovely afternoons in the hotel with a glass of wine knowing that we weren't filming and I aid to Jessie "What do you reckon then? Series two?"
And Dom said - "Don't worry about it. I'm already onto series four. I know where we're going with this. Kat and Alfie..." And I was like wow!
They both look very different in Redwater. Was that a conscious decision?
Shane: Yeah. We both made the decision making Redwater that we changed their look. We've become less stylised. We wanted to get rid of the lairy shirts and the leopard print and just start playing our age.
Of course I put more grey in my hair, I let it grow long... With EastEnders it was very different because you were always on the front of magazines and it becomes a bit glossy, whereas with this we thought - No, let's just let go a little bit.
Jessie: It was more Vicky Wharton (producer) that wanted that. She completely flipped all the lipstick and the leopard print and made Kat really bohemian. There was a touch of it here and there.
But you do start to play the character differently because you're dressed like that you pull your performance back. If you're dressed brassy then you're going to be brassy. That was a nice thing to do for Kat.
Jessie, which look do you prefer?
I love them both. I love the proper Kat look because I created that. But I love this bohemian look as well because it's more how I dress I suppose.
Can you ever see a time where you put Kat and Alfie to bed and don't play them anymore?
Jessie: I don't know. It's just nice that they're still alive! (Laughs)
Shane: There is that.
Jessie: When I left EastEnders I had this fear that Stacey would be in her house and the phone would ring and she'd pick it up and go "Oh Kat's dead!"
Shane: It's so easy to do as well.
Jessie: So it's nice to know that the door's open. I love Kat. I've played her for a long time now. She's a huge part of me so I wouldn't want to say goodbye to her really.