For the past 15 years, the turbulent relationship of Kat Slater and Alfie Moon has become one of the most famous and enduring partnerships in soapland.
But this year the actors who portray them, Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie, are taking time out from playing the pair to appear together in pantomime for the first time.
Shane takes the title role in Robin Hood, while Jessie is his Maid Marion at the Mayflower in Southampton.
Interviewing the two of them together, it’s clear that they have got an easy chemistry and are past experts in winding each other – and unsuspecting interviewers – up. They talk over each other, finish each other’s stories and indulge in endless good-natured bickering.
‘This feels like play time,’ says Jessie. ‘I’ve really missed working with him.’
‘I’ve missed just being around her,’ continues Shane. ‘It’s kind of like they’ve said ‘‘go on then, go to Southampton, go and dress up and go and have a laugh.’’ That’s what it feels like.’
Really though, the two have been working together quite a bit in 2016 – at the start of the year they did 10 weeks on stage in The Perfect Murder, an adaptation of the Peter James thriller, an experience Shane describes as ‘pretty heavy.’
‘We were worried that people would only see Kat and Alfie,’ explains Jessie, ‘but the reviews were good. We just work well together, we’re in tune with each other, like Hattie Jacques and Eric Sykes.
‘Or Terry and June,’ chips in Shane.
‘We’re so lucky to have that,’ she continues, ignoring him, ‘and I think we’ll have this until, I hate to say this, I pop my clogs.’
You come to do panto and it’s like the shackles come off and you go, “right, what shall we do today?” What can we play with today?Shane Richie
Shane jumps in again: ‘Well, we ain’t got long then – you’re on the downward slope now, love, I tell you...’
But they do admit to having some impressive rows – like the time they were in Edinburgh and Jessie lost her passport, thinking she needed it get in and out of Scotland, which Shane ripped her for, mercilessly.
Retelling the tale, both are in stitches, but Jessie adds: ‘We didn’t speak for four days. But you can only do that when you’re that close to someone.’
And how do they feel about being described as ‘soap royalty’?
‘Damn right,’ Shane deadpans. ‘I think we’ve earned it. You’ve got to earn those story lines,’ he says padding imaginary medals on his breast.
It’s a mark of their standing that they are about to appear in the first ever full-blown Eastenders spin-off, Redwater. The new drama finished filming in the summer and is due to air early next year. In it Kat and Alfie head to Ireland to put their old lives behind them.
‘It’s never been done,’ says Shane with a hint of pride. ‘There’s been stuff where you can press the red button, but I’m loath to call it a spin-off as we’ve been told not to call it that. It’s a whole new drama with Kat and Alfie, and there are no parameters because we’ve got nothing to compare it to as it’s never been done.
‘People ask us what it’s like and how it’s going to be received and I have no idea. It’s going to be interesting. While we’re here in the panto, they’re going to start seeing the trailers and people are going to see another side of Kat and Alfie.’
Right up to the week before rehearsals began for the panto, Jessie was Mama Morton in the latest nationwide tour of Chicago. But now they’re focused on having some fun.
Shane: ‘Jess has been doing Chicago and that takes a lot of stamina and you’ve got to be on the ball the whole time, so then you come to do panto and it’s like the shackles come off and you go right, ‘‘what shall we do today?’’ What can we play with today? I’m going to dress up as Robin, you dress up as Marion and I’m going to come and rescue you.
‘And that’s how it feels, and to do it here, I’ve been to this theatre so many times and I love it. I’ve always threatened to come here for Christmas, but this is my first panto here.
‘I’ve done Scrooge, Boogie Nights, Cuckoo’s Nest and my stand-up here but to come here and do panto, you try and make it home from home.’
Shane may be a Mayflower veteran, but it’s Jessie’s first time at the venerable venue – indeed, it’s only her second panto. So who were her co-stars last time? ‘I was the star, dahling! Me!’ she vamps.
Shane laughs: ‘She made all the parts – she’s a big old unit.’
‘Right, a big old unit – I played Cinderella, the fairy godmother, the ugly sisters, the lot,’ she gives a cackle familiar to millions of Eastenders fans.
Do you two think you’ll be able to stick to the script at all, then?
‘There is a script,’ says Shane, ‘but it’s a big up and at ’em adventure, Robin and his merry men fighting the sheriff of Nottingham, then in the middle of that there’s the big love story with Maid Marion. Throw in The Acromaniacs, and there’s Jeffrey Holland,’ (Jessie interjects with a perfect Ruth Madoc impersonation: ‘Hello campers, hi-de-hi!’) and it’s a really big cast, which I’m really excited about.’
Plus it promises jaw-dropping 3D effects. ‘I’ve done 3D in the past few pantos and it’s incredible. Everyone puts the glasses on and the theatre just comes to life.’
Robin Hood is at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton from tomorrow until January 8.
Tickets range from £15 to £39.
Go to mayflower.org.uk or call 023 8071 1811.