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Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 10:39 GMT
EastEnd girls promise fireworks
Lucy Benjamin and Steve McFadden in EastEnders
Lisa and Phil reach a crisis point at Christmas
BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas interviews EastEnders stars Tamzin Outhwaite and Lucy Benjamin.

Christmas would not be the same without its traditions and among these an extra helping of disaster from EastEnders ranks pretty high.

Viewers this year will not be disappointed as a double dose of the BBC One soap on Christmas Day promises more than enough tears to last well into 2002.

Central to the festive mayhem will be Albert Square's Lisa Shaw, played by actress Lucy Benjamin.

New mother Lisa will continue to worry about her seriously ill baby Louise.

But as the baby's chances of survival look slim, Lisa finds it harder to keep from Phil the fact that he is the father.

Queen Vic pub sign
Albert Square's Queen Vic: A focal point for Benjamin on Christmas day

Just imagining the tension sends shivers down the spine and Benjamin is bubbling with excitement.

"The story is filled with hope in the beginning but then it goes horribly wrong in true Lisa style," she warns.

"There will be massive fireworks with huge repercussions. It was good to play and a lot of fun, despite being very draining."

This will be Lisa's third, and most traumatic, Christmas in Albert Square.

This says a lot, considering last year her then boyfriend Phil Mitchell was unfaithful with her best friend Melanie Healy.

But, says Benjamin, the more Lisa suffers, the more she relishes the meatiness of her role. Indeed, watching the high drama has become an integral part of her festive fun.

"I always watch it with my family. It's part of the day's ritual. We love it. You just can't believe you are watching all these terrible things happening," she says.

'Rubbish'

Christmas for Benjamin also means more time with real-life partner, and former onscreen boyfriend, Steve McFadden, who plays Phil.

In the soap, the two actors played out difficult and violent scenes as their relationship broke down. But, says Benjamin, their real-life romance made the fictional trauma easier.

Lucy Benjamin as Lisa
Benjamin: Would not take as much "rubbish" as Lisa

"It meant we could drop all the acting etiquette. We don't have to talk through things or ask each other permission to say or do things. We can just go for it."

Benjamin says that, unlike Lisa, she would not "put up with so much rubbish from men".

But she adds: "Lisa is developing all the time and I am enjoying bringing my own strength to her character."

Benjamin states that she has no plans to leave the show. But former EastEnders actress Tamzin Outhwaite - still very much in evidence in the Christmas show - says she has no regrets about leaving this year.

It has meant being able to take on the challenge of Army drama Red Cap, which is also on BBC One over the festive period.

'Gruelling'

Outhwaite plays Sergeant J McDonagh, a new recruit to the Army's special investigation branch.

Though bold and uncompromising, McDonagh has a tough time proving herself and gaining acceptance from the predominantly male unit.

Tamzin Outhwaite
Outhwaite plays a tough Army sergeant

And after playing Melanie Healy for three years, the actress says she relished taking on what has proved her most difficult role.

"It was very gruelling. I did a week's training with the Army and learnt the assault course and weapon training. It was a very strange thing to be using a gun," Outhwaite says.

"But without meaning to boast, by the end of the week I could assemble and dissemble a gun with a blindfold on in nine seconds."

Unlike Albert Square's Melanie, McDonagh does not wear make-up and is, says Outhwaite, "very plain".

She says: "I drew on my own character to bring out the Tomboy side. It was liberating to be able to concentrate on the action rather than my image."

Tamzin Outhwaite and Martin Kemp in EastEnders
Outhwaite: Grateful to her role as Mel in EastEnders

Outhwaite also acknowledges the debt of experience she owes to EastEnders.

"I drew a lot on my part as Mel. I brought along her drive and ambition and her determination to keep going," she says.

And like Benjamin - and millions of viewers - she says she too will not be missing the Christmas action in Walford.

"I spend Christmas with my family and after dinner we watch EastEnders - it is a bit of a tradition."

EastEnders goes out on Christmas Day on BBC One at 1755 and 2030 GMT.

Red Cap goes out on BBC One at 2100 GMT on 28 December.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | TV and Radio
Queen to meet EastEnders
29 Oct 01 | England
Dog lands EastEnders role
05 Oct 01 | TV and Radio
EastEnder Tamzin bows out
04 Oct 01 | TV and Radio
EastEnders sees helpline calls rocket
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