Bringing Cindy Beale back from the dead was bold, audacious and daring – three words that could also describe the lady herself.
A truly iconic character with more baggage than a cheap flight to Marbella, Cindy’s return to EastEnders in the summer of 2023 after 25 years was soap at its most heightened, yet felt grounded in a story about protecting your loved ones, and the regret that comes from impossible choices life throws at you.
Soap fans thought they’d never see sinful Cindy again, and Michelle Collins didn’t envisage reprising the role that catapulted her to the unique level of fame only a soap can bring – mainly because Cindy was killed off screen in 1998.
“I was filming in Cyprus when I heard I’d ‘died’,” recalls the actress, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com. “The only way I ever thought to myself she could go back was that she’d been in witness protection.
“When they approached me last year and suggested that was the storyline, I thought, ‘Wow!’ It wasn’t an easy decision, but not a day went by in 25 years where people didn’t talk about Cindy. I spoke to Adam Woodyatt (who plays ex-husband Ian) and the timing was right. I feel very settled being back and there’s a lot to explore.”
As sinful Cindy settles into her new/old life in Walford, the happy family set-up with Ian and the Beale brood is already falling apart.
With two of her six children (count them, there’s bound to be one you’ve forgotten about) having died during her protracted absence, Cindy now faces the possibility of losing another of her offspring as son Peter fights for his life following a suspicious fire at Kathy’s cafe.
It’s no wonder she unleashes an angry tirade at step-son Bobby and tells him she wishes he’d perished in the blaze instead…
“That’s pretty heavy, but Bobby did cause the death of Cindy’s daughter Lucy, and Cindy has to live under the same roof as him while another of her kids might die. How would you feel in that situation? When you take that into consideration, you understand why she behaves this way. Fans have been waiting for a big Cindy and Bobby showdown. It needed to happen.”
This week’s episodes give a glimpse of the tougher, steelier side of Cindy, who so far has had to swallow several portions of humble pie by way of an apology to those she abandoned.
As well as the Beales, the family she had while living undercover as ‘Rose Knight’ are now running the Queen Vic (what are the chances?), and husband George and their daughters Gina and Anna are still adjusting to being reunited with the wife and mother who did a runner a decade ago.
“Cindy has always been unapologetic,” observes Collins. “She’s complex and has been through stuff others wouldn’t have survived; she really is very strong.
“Women have always responded to the character, I don’t know why. Perhaps because she is flawed and audiences don’t want to see perfection on TV. Why did people love Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, or Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley? They were flawed, dysfunctional and real. Nobody’s perfect.”
Certainly not Cindy, the woman who cheated on insufferable Ian several times (womanising Wicks brothers Simon and David were among her conquests), then was so eager to escape her marriage she hired a hitman to bump off her hubby.
Scheming, selfish, spiteful but, somewhat miraculously, sympathetic, Collins’s compelling performance created a complicated character who commanded the audience’s attention as they eagerly awaited her next naughty move. She was arguably EastEnders’ first fully-fledged femme fatale, although Collins almost played a decidedly different Walford woman.
“I auditioned for Mary the Punk at the very beginning,” she reflects (the role went to Linda Davidson). “In 1988, I came in for 11 episodes as Cindy, she was quite a slow-burn character. I loved it and told my agent I wanted to stay as I was having such a great time.
“I’d already had a decent career beforehand, including lots of theatre, films and TV, which I was glad of, as it made me appreciate EastEnders more. Julia Smith (the show’s co-creator) told me it would change my life. I didn’t believe her at first, but it really did. It was gritty, raw and very much about the working classes. We knew were part of something big.
“You had those amazing characters like Ethel, Pauline and Wicksy. I particularly loved Cindy’s friendship with Colin Russell, and am still close to Michael Cashman (now Lord Cashman, thanks to his campaigning for LGBTQ rights) to this day.
“I was a witness at his wedding. Cindy needs a friend now, doesn’t she? It looked like it might be Suki – they sat on a park bench one night and had a chat, but I don’t think that’s going to happen!”
Collins clocked up 10 years in her initial stint on the Square, during the soap’s first peak of intense popularity. The affair between Cindy and David Wicks was a national scandal, and saw her flee to France to start a new life.
“I was nearly eight months pregnant at the time, and remember running for that Eurostar! I was highly emotional because of the pregnancy, and Cindy was highly emotional as she was desperate to leave Ian and be with David. All those things helped make it believable! I am proud of that era.”
Following the birth of her daughter, Maia, in 1996, Collins briefly returned to wrap up Cindy’s story which ended with her being jailed for attempted murder, before apparently perishing in prison (or so we thought).
At a time when many actors struggled after a successful soap run, Collins broke the mould with a run of hit shows including Sunburn, Two Thousand Acres of Sky, Real Women and Daylight Robbery that established her as one of TV’s leading ladies who could attract an audience, paving the way for the likes of Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones to demonstrate there was life after soap.
“I was very ambitious back then,” Collins candidly remembers. “I wanted to prove myself. I had a brilliant few years but when a woman hits mid-life, things do change. There isn’t enough representation on TV of older women, and soaps are great for that, which I suppose was one of the reasons for coming back.
“I didn’t want it be a joke, hence there being a good explanation as to why Cindy faked her death. And it was important it wasn’t just for a few episodes; it had to be a significant, full investment, and for the character to be as interesting and complex as she was before.
“Again, it’s all about timing. If I’d been asked 10 years ago I would’ve said no, but I found myself embracing it. A lot’s happened to me personally in the last few years, I lost my mum and several friends, I got married – it’s all changed me as a person, and I feel like I’ve gone full circle.
“I’m more content but still ambitious to be a good actress, and I want to play Cindy well and make the audience understand this passionate, emotional and often funny woman. I’m thankful she has come back into my life, to be honest with you.”
Far from being a misjudged novelty, Cindy’s resurrection has been a triumph and a highlight of EastEnders’ recent renaissance. With so much unfinished business to address, and with Collins happy to stick around for the foreseeable, we’re only just getting started. Surely passion will reignite with old flame George before long?
“I think Cindy is still in love with George,” smiles Collins. “Their relationship was forced to end very abruptly because fate intervened, but she didn’t cheat. She did lie, but only to protect him and their girls. George and Cindy develop quite a friendship and will be leaning on each other for advice.
“Going forward, Cindy becomes much more of a matriarchal figure, she is running a new business (Beale’s Eels, with controversial silent partner Dean Wicks, another surprise return) and gets stronger, increasingly self-assured and accepted by the community.
“There will be more clashes with Kathy; people love their dynamic and I always enjoy working with Gillian Taylforth. Cindy is finding her feet and so am I.”
Sounds like Cindy is finally settling down, which means it can only be a matter of time before she spirals into self-sabotage and starts wrecking her life as part of the eternal, impossible quest for happiness and fulfilment she’s been on for the last 35 years. Does Collins have a theory as to why her alter ego usually ends up destroying everything she touches once it looks like she’s got what she wanted?
“We’ve never really gone into it, have we? I think something must’ve happened in her childhood. She is prone to sabotage but deep down is extremely insecure, that kind of behaviour comes from fear of losing what you have, and this sense that she always needs to be loved by a man. Maybe it’s time Cindy had some in-depth therapy!”