London's favourite soap opera EastEnders has notched up over 30 years of on-screen drama. But in 1984 — a year before it was first broadcast — the soap was known by the more enigmatic title 'bi-weekly serial'. Fine artist Gina Parr was among three set designers called in by the EastEnders' creators to design what became one of the most iconic squares in TV history. Ben Venables talks exclusively to her about the origins of Albert Square.
Three decades ago Albert Square was nothing more than a flat piece of land behind the BBC’s Elstree studios (confusingly, out in Borehamwood). The home of the Beales, Cottons and Watts was only conceived when producer Julia Smith famously took a stick and drew the outline of a London Victorian square into the earth on the site.
When tasked with bringing the heart of the East End into Hertfordshire, senior set designer Keith Harris needed a more detailed blueprint than this down-to-earth etch-a-sketch. Luckily, he had two aces up his sleeve: Peter Findley and Gina Parr.
Gina and Peter made the first scale model of Albert Square and were on the lot in Borehamwood almost every day during construction.
“We were like a small family,” says Gina, “rattling around in the old ATV studios which later became BBC Elstree. Keith reminded me so much of my Dad, who I lost when I was 17. He had a great sense of humour which made working as a team, with Peter and myself, lots of fun.”
With this talented duo on hand during Walford's early days, it’s little wonder their boss Keith Harris was able to stay in such good humour despite the scale of the job in front of them.
If the idea of a happy family-like atmosphere in Walford seems at odds with the mood of the often gloomy soap, it’s perhaps even more surprising given that producer Julia Smith had a fearsome reputation — she sacked the original actor set to play first landlady Angie Watts just as filming began.
“To some,” remembers Gina, “Julia was thought of as the Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland — ‘off with their heads!’ She was very direct and had exacting standards. She’d soon tell us if something didn’t fit her vision. But that was because she was strong and capable. For much of 1984 we were the only two women on site; she was a role model for me, actually.”
EastEnders’ famous dark sets were inspired by US police procedural drama, Hill Street Blues, Gina says. “Julia wanted to change the way British drama looked." There were also extras busy in the background to give a sense of reality (with suitable investment to support the enlarged cast).
“I remember clearly the opening scene of EastEnders, dark room, curtains closed…," says the designer. "There was a lot of talk and differing opinions about how dark Julia wanted it all to look, never dark and dingy enough for her — but too dark for others on the production team.”
Gina and the team would also stand by during filming, to make sure the set evoked the right character and atmosphere. She'd often run on between takes to add some authentic detail — once by throwing a cardigan over a chair.
The real Queen Vic
It's surprisingly difficult to confirm the original watering hole behind the creation of the iconic Queen Victoria pub — despite the number of places that dubiously claim to be “the real Queen Vic”.
Even Gina struggles to remember the name of the pub — although she can recall its look and feel in detail. “Peter would know,” she smiles, searching her memory. “It was on a corner of a busy road. It wasn’t on a square. I can see it… We’re sat waiting for Julia to join us.”
We dig out a 2004 article from American fanzine Walford Gazette in which a former EastEnders’ sound technician suggests the pub was The College Park Hotel on the corner of Harrow Road and Scrubs Lane. It may be a storey taller than the Vic but it is striking in its similarity.
“Yes! That’s the pub,” says Gina, “I’m sure.”
In contrast, it’s well known that Albert Square and its Victorian houses are based on Dalston’s Fassett Square, which was built in the 1860s.
“We went to Fassett Square and Ridley Road,” says Gina, “Then we took a cherry picker to Fassett Square, measured the Victorian houses and used plaster to mould certain features.
“Then we went away and created it.”
It wasn’t as simple as Gina's understatement makes it sound. One of the early problems they had to overcome was how to make the garden in the square look old and established: solved by planting laurels and other plants that could grow quickly in time for broadcast.
Gina had particular responsibility for Lou Beale’s house and for the original matriarch herself — or “that bleedin’ old bag” as her son, Pete Beale, toasted at the character's funeral.
“The idea was that Lou had been there forever — and she was the core of East End values.
“The prop buyer and I would set off at dawn to find things in charity furniture shops. We had a tick list… And with Lou Beale we were looking for specific items. All then carefully stored and labelled by lovely Tony the props master.”
This sometimes led to the occupational hazard of Gina seeing the world through Lou’s eyes. Thinking she was away from it all for a weekend, Gina spotted some old stair rods at a fête in her Devonshire hometown. Knowing they were perfect for Lou’s house she felt compelled to buy them. “An old hoover of ours ended up belonging to Lou too,” she adds.
"If you are in drama, the design has to reflect that character. If anything feels wrong then visually it is not supportive. If we'd given Lou Beale a swish apartment, it would have gone against the believability of what we are watching and the ethos of the show."
Maintaining the ethos
This principle holds for all characters, whether it's Lou Beale in the mid-80s, or today's Queen Vic landlady Linda Carter, as current story producer Alex Lamb tells Londonist: "She has parakeets and flamingo wallpaper because we think of Linda as being like a beautiful exotic bird. She also has Les Miserables and Oliver posters on the walls of the bar because running the pub is like a show for her... And all these elements of characterisation filter through design, costume and make-up."
The team have also made efforts to 'reattach' Walford to the surrounding parts of London. There's the trendifying of Turpin Road with a bit of Shoreditch creeping into the hairdressers (sorry, stylists). A more subtle innovation was the creation of ‘Spring Lane’, an off-screen market which merged with the Bridge Street stalls we know. The market was always meant to be an off-shoot, but simply by making it busier it has gathered more of that Ridley Road bustle that Gina and the original set designers visited and hoped to capture.
Lamb returned to the show with executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins in 2013. With the latest team they have heralded something of a renaissance, with ambitious story-lines and an enthusiasm for EastEnders that is palpable on the screen.
Gina has not been a stranger to Walford since the first year. She helped with the development of extra sets a couple of years later — The Dagmar and then The Arches garage.
She was also there for some of the more unusual episodes: the early two-hander with Dot Cotton and Ethel Skinner that was filmed like a stage play and the war-time spin-off episode, Civvy Street, featuring a younger Ethel and Lou.
Then there was the time after the October 1987 hurricane that hit southern England, causing widespread damage and uprooting trees. The team travelled to the set fearing the worst. There were no backs on the house facades, which caused concern that the wind would simply lift them off the ground. It turned out though that only one market stall was damaged and so they still managed to shoot a day's filming — very much the Blitz spirit that EastEnders aims to evoke, though also, more tangibly, a testament to the integrity of their designs and the set construction.
Sadly Julia Smith, Tony Holland and Keith Harris didn't live long enough to see the show reach its 30th anniversary.
However, since creating arguably the most famous square in British TV history, Peter and Gina went on to become senior production designers themselves (Peter scooped the Royal Television Design and Craft Award in 2012). Gina — with a CV that includes Match Of The Day, Shooting Stars and The Brit Awards — finally fulfilled a long-held desire to return to her fine art roots in 2007, and has become a fine artist. Recently, several of her works were acquired by Keble College, Oxford, for its permanent collection.
And the connections made all those years ago remain strong. In 2011, Peter needed some artwork for one of the consultants’ rooms on Holby City (also filmed at the BBC’s Elstree site). Gina's The Lay Of The Land was the perfect picture and it is fitting that they could celebrate their collaboration in the very studio where they learned so much of their craft.
To read more about the soap's history, try EastEnders: The Inside Story by Julia Smith and Tony Holland (with illustrations by Keith Harris) and EastEnders: The First 10 Years by Colin Brake (with more illustrations by Keith Harris).
Special thanks to David Jørgensen of Inside Soap for delving into their archive of BBC EastEnders photos for the additional images.