'Kat is a huge part of me ... I can't say goodbye'
EastEnders favourites Kat and Alfie Moon are back on screen in new drama Redwater ... but it's all a far cry from soapland, actors Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie tell Jeananne Craig
When EastEnders last visited Ireland, in 1997, it caused a stir for all the wrong reasons. Locals were depicted as rowdy, drunk, or surly, farm animals were shown roaming streets around Dublin and the BBC had to issue an apology for offence caused.
Two decades on, spin-off drama Redwater aims to depict a more realistic, contemporary Ireland - hopefully without a donkey in sight.
At its core are Albert Square favourites Kat and Alfie Moon, who quit Walford for Spain last year. The pair, played by Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie, have now come to Ireland to track down the son Kat gave up for adoption when she was just 14.
If you're expecting EastEnders-esque high drama and "doof doofs", however, think again. According to Richie, this is more "Broadchurch meets The Wicker Man".
"You're hoping to bring the EastEnders audience with you, but also the audience that doesn't watch it - people who watch, for want of a better word, 'high-brow' drama, which I like to think this is," says the London-born star (53). "In all the episodes, there is no reference to Walford, and that's quite brave and I think it pays off."
Even Kat's beloved leopard print has been replaced with a more bohemian style.
"You do start to play the character differently because you start to pull it back, whereas if you're dressed brassy, then you're going to be brassy," says Wallace (45).
While the acting and costumes might be pared back, the show isn't short of gripping moments.
Kat's hunt for her long-lost son is only the start of the drama in the fictional village, as producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins notes: "Kat and Alfie become the catalyst for all these secrets kind of exploding in the town."
Alfie, meanwhile, is "in a very dark place" and battling a brain tumour.
Wallace and Richie are joined by an impressive ensemble cast, including veteran Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan and The Commitments star Maria Doyle Kennedy.
"Every character has got their own story to tell. Some of them are solo stories and some of them intertwine with other characters," says Richie.
"This whole community has a dark history."
The location for filming was Dunmore East in Co Waterford - an incredibly picturesque fishing village, but not quite what Wallace and Richie were expecting when they heard they had landed their own show.
"We thought we were going to Spain," said Richie. "We had this great idea that we were going to rent villas."
"I had already packed my bikinis!" Wallace chips in.
Swimwear disappointment aside, the stars (who both have family in Ireland; Richie, in fact, claims he was "conceived in a car park in Dublin"), soon felt at home.
"The first couple of days, I remember us being there and signing autographs and having pictures, which of course we were happy to do, and then it stopped," says the actor. "We'd go into the pub and we'd become locals. And if tourists would come up, the locals would say, 'No leave them alone'. We were like their property. We had the best time."
Kat and Alfie's romance captured EastEnders fans' imaginations as soon as the pair first locked eyes in the Queen Vic in 2002.
"He's throwing these glasses up in the air and he's doing these cocktails, and Kat walks in and he stops and he smiles at her - and I just go, 'Pffff'," recalls Wallace, who joined the cast of the hit soap in 2000.
"The (crew) were all around the monitor when they saw it, and they saw us chatting off screen and they said, 'These two should be together'."
"Back then, 14 or 15 years ago, millions tuned in and waited for, I think, 14 months for them to kiss," Richie adds. "Over the years, we have played every emotion, split up, had infidelity, death, rape, cot-death, baby swapping, the house burning down, but the audience has stuck by us."
In real life, the pair are firm friends - "like brother and sister", according to Wallace.
"We argue, then we won't talk for a day, and then we're talking again and he makes me laugh all the time. We can tell each other what we're thinking. We can tell the truth to each other."
Once this six-part run is over, they'd both like to do more Redwater - but will they be returning to Albert Square?
"I don't know, it's just nice that they're still alive," Wallace says, smiling.
"When I left, I had this fear that Stacey (Slater) would be in her house and her phone would ring and she'd pick it up and go, 'Oh, Kat's dead'. It's nice that the door's open and I love Kat, I've played her for a long time now and she's a huge part of me. I don't want to say goodbye to her really."
Redwater, BBC One, Thursday, 8pm