Sonia from EastEnders


“Cor, it’s really nice ‘ere innit ? Lovely.”

Taking Sonia from EastEnders for tea at Claridges is one of the more surreal experiences life has to offer.

Sonia is, after all, one of life’s unfortunates. Even in EastEnders – a show that has made its name by being relentlessly depressing and packed with emotional masochists – Sonia is unusually miserable. Whenever she is on screen, she is usually moaning.

Not that you could blame her. The Jacksons have been riddled with enough trials and tribulations to last most soap families decades, giving young Sonia a life of impoverished suffering that would make Charles Dickens’s waifs and strays look fortunate.

At the tender of age of 15, like many of the characters in EastEnders, Sonia survives off virtually nothing. Her brother Robbie, is a road-sweeper, and her granddad collects glasses at The Queen Vic. They are also two of life’s more annoying losers.

Sonia has no father – at least not one who has appeared in the series. Her beloved stepfather Alan departed after an affair with the local cabaret singer. Her sister Bianca (Patsy Palmer) fled to Manchester in disgrace after having an affair with her mother’s fiancé, Dan Sullivan. Her mother Carol and younger brother, Billy also deserted her when they were placed in police protection when Billy witnessed a robbery.

Whilst the show, like the other soaps, has become increasingly packed with hunky teenage boys and promiscuous, pouting sex kittens, Sonia is, as she once described herself the token “stupid, fat and ugly one. I’ve always been the one not invited to the party or the last one to be picked in games.” For this though, she is also a breath of fresh air – a normal, realistic teenager who tries to do well at school and is (shock, horror) a nice person. But not a lucky one.

Her first relationship was a doomed holiday romance with an Italian boy called Enrico who went home and never phoned. She then lost her virginity, uncharacteristically drunk on cider, with the charmless Martin Fowler.

Nine months later, she discovered she was pregnant and, with her mum remaining in witness protection and with only Mo Slater to support her, gave birth to baby Chloe (also on the sofa).

This normally happy event was tarnished by the fact it cost her the one highpoint in her life, her some-time heart-throb boyfriend Jamie (Jack Ryder), who, like the rest of us, couldn’t accept that she didn’t know she was pregnant, and accused her of stringing him along.

Sonia, who had already seen her mother decide to have Dan’s baby terminated, then decided to give Chloe up for adoption, explaining plaintively that she didn’t want her baby to have a life like the one she’d had.

“When you reel them all off like that, it’s quite funny, isn’t it ?” laughs Natalie Cassidy who plays poor Sonia and who, like her, seems old before her time.

“I just think she’s one of a kind,” she says affectionately, as if she’s talking about her best friend – which, you suspect, in a way, she probably is doing.

“She’s been through so much, and, I mean, the girl’s only 15. She’s been a mum. She’s seen her mum have an abortion. She’s had the same clothes on for at least 5 years, which I can vouch for. Same old shoes. Same old uniform. It’s good though, cos a lot of people live like that, scraping through…”

Thanks to Sonia and her suffering though, Natalie Cassidy couldn’t be happier.

“I love work. I love going to work,” she beams, sheepishly.
“I don’t class it as work. I love it.”

The day we meet EastEnders are filming the conclusion to the storyline of Who Shot Phil Mitchell ? suggesting that Sonia is not a suspect.

“No I don’t think so. I wouldn’t do it,” she admits, switching surreally into the first person. “When Phil gets shot, I’m just there for Jamie really. You wouldn’t mess with her though. She doesn’t take any rubbish.”

Two years older than her character, Natalie Cassidy has been playing Sonia for seven years now, since she was only ten – more than half her life. She is so close to her that, when he runs through the characters who have arguably been close friends to Sonia, she rejects Nikki di Marco as a candidate, sighing wanly, “She hurt her so many times. She wasn’t a true friend,” as if she was talking about one of her own.

Even when Cassidy is not filming, hearing the word ‘Sonia’, whispered or shouted at her wherever she goes in her life, is something she has grown used to.

“If I’m walking round, there’s not usually a day goes by without someone saying something. Unless I stay In all day indoors,” she says, as if this is always a viable option.

Of all the people that recognise her from EastEnders, she estimates that “30% think I AM Sonia,” sounding as if she thinks this is pretty low.

“Me and Jack (Ryder) went to Barbados last year for a couple of week. He went with his family and I’d never been abroad so he said, ‘come with us’. So, all the time, people just said ‘so you are really together !’ It’s not the end of the world if people say that.”

Her profile has risen enormously since the storyline about Sonia’s baby, which culminated in an audience of 22 million people over Christmas, the highest for any programme last year.

“John Yorke (the executive producer) came up to me and said ‘we’ve got something big for you to do. We’d like you to have a baby’” she smiles.

At first, she admits, she didn’t know if it would seem convincing that Sonia hadn’t realised she was pregnant.
“But when it come out, so many people said they knew someone who it had happened to them. It’s quite scary isn’t it ?” inadvertently looking down at her tummy.

Sonia’s life has calmed down again but Natalie says she’d “love that kind of intensity every week. I’m a greedy actress. The more I got, the more I liked it. People said ‘oh you must have been so emotionally drained’ but I wasn’t, not really. It wasn’t my baby !’”

Thanks to the press Natalie has done around the story, she has been recognised a lot more.

“It’s really lovely because people call me Natalie now,” she says cheerfully. “It is nice yeah, to be called by your own name. I still get people saying ‘oh where’s the baby then ?’ which is annoying because if they were real fans, they’d get their facts right wouldn’t they ? I have to say ‘well I haven’t got her any more have I ? If you were such fans, you’d know not to mention that, cos it upsets me…’”

Unlike actor William Roache, who once said his own father sometimes called him by his character name (Ken Barlow in Coronation Street) by accident, Natalie says her parents have never made that mistake.

“I’d whack them if they did that. But some of my really close friends have – by accident. We were in the pub and some bloke was going, ‘hey Sonia, hey Sonia, Sonia, Sonia.’ So my friend Tony got up and goes ‘can you just leave Sonia alone please ?’”

Despite this, it’s immediately obvious that Natalie is not anything like her character. (Natalie is a Taurus while Sonia is a Gemini.) She has a pink Prada handbag for a start and is not wearing school uniform.

“Sonia will never have a bowling bag, no. Unless she picks up a cheap one somewhere – a knock off or a dodgy copy from the market.”

Not remotely as plain as Sonia, Natalie is prettier and more personable and glamorous, and arrives in a Ted Baker top, Gucci sandals, and, like a true celebrity, wearing shades (“it’s sunny out there OK ?!”).

Ask her if she wouldn’t like the producers to let Sonia become glammed up a bit more and Natalie tuts: “oooh no. No !! The more down-trodden she is, the better it is ! Because then, when you go out as yourself, people think ‘ooh, you’re not as bad as you look on TV you know.’ It’s lovely to be different. My character wouldn’t get her hair down or wouldn’t get nice clothes cos she’s got no money.”

Of course the history of soap operas is riddled with actors who have said that the public’s inability to distinguish between them and their characters has ruined their lives.

Despite this, and despite the cautionary tales of childhood stars like Michael Jackson, Patsy Kensit and the boy who played Arnold in Diff’rent Strokes, Natalie says her parents about letting her join EastEnders when she was only ten.

“My mum and Dad are great believers in the idea that, as long as you’re happy, you should do what you want to do. They didn’t know what it would become. If they had known the implications of what it actually does to you and how much your life does change over it, they might have thought about it longer.”

The daughter of a newsagent and housewife, Natalie went to Islington Green comprehensive

“It was branded one of the worst comprehensives when I was there, but I liked school. I could’ve done really well at school if I hadn’t been working. I’ve stuck school out to the end even though I was working.”

When she was 8, she started going to the Anna Scher School, which, she stresses, is “not an acting school” but still produced fellow EastEnders stars Patsy Palmer (Bianca), Sid Owen (Ricky Butcher) and Martin Fowler (James Alexandrou).

“Anna Scher’s is just a Friday night/Saturday thing. It cost about £ 1.50 then for a class. You’d get 60-80 kids going to one of Anna’s classes. ’t was not to get on telly, it was a social thing. My best friend Amy was already going so I went with her. It was brilliant. My mum and dad didn’t even know about it. It was my auntie. We went to pick my cousin up from this place that looked wonderful. I came home from school one day and said ‘I put my name down for that thing’, then I got a letter saying, ‘you can come along and do a class if you like.”

At the audition she was one of 600 hopefuls to be Sonia, despite the fact that her only stage appearance had been as an urchin in The Beggar’s Opera at the Barbican.

She has now been in what is probably Britain’s most high profile, most popular show so long that she can’t remember how she started.

“When people ask me ‘what was it like when you did your first scene in EastEnders ?’ I can’t remember. It was October and it was in the square, so I know it was really cold and it was dark, but that’s it.”

Being on TV for her is second nature, as anyone who saw her on So Graham Norton, alongside Lauren Bacall, would have noticed.

Her life would seem more surreal for her if she wasn’t in the show.

“I do feel comfortable, yeah. I’d rather be sitting in Graham Norton’s armchair than I would sitting on the tube probably. You adapt. I don’t think about it.”

The other day for instance, Natalie and her mum went to Marks & Spencers together.
“When we got home, my mum said, ‘that’s drove me mad that has ! You’re not coming shopping with me any more ! Everyone’s looking at you, trying to see what you’ve got in your basket’ But I didn’t see any of it.”

Being a very grown-up 17 has helped her cope, something she attributes to being born when her mum was in her mid 40s (44).
“My brothers were 15 and 18. It was a bit like being an only child, yeah. Yeah. I’ve been an auntie since I was two. I’ve got nieces and nephews who were like my brothers and sisters and my brothers are like my Dad. Its all quite weird. A lot of my friends are late 20s-30. And I’m 17.”

The only time during the conversation that Natalie Cassidy sounds anything like her age is when she starts talking about former Spandau Ballet/Krays star Martin Kemp (who plays resident bad boy/heart-throb Steve Owen in the show).

She has a copy of his autobiography in her bag.
“The other day, I couldn’t put it down, and he came in and caught me reading it. It was really weird. And I’ve never ever felt like that about Martin Kemp. I felt really weird.”

She is blushing, actually as much as Sonia probably would be.
“It’s as if he’s got a light around him,” she says, almost whispering. “I think he’s an angel. I do think he’s an angel. He’s got an aura around him. It’s weird. And I believe its because he’s special.”

She is getting used to the idea that some people who watch the show might feel the same way about her, regarding her as more than just a role model.

“I’ve got a couple of people who write to me loads and loads and who want to be my friend. I get quite upset. This one woman – she’s 30-odd. She says, ‘I need you to be my friend. I haven’t got any friends. You have to be my friend.’ It’s hard. Sometimes you do feel like you should sit down and write back. But you know you can’t.”

Sonia/Natalie has now become a role model and a symbol with which more and more girls can identify with.

“Mostly they write about not having a mum around.
‘I know what it’s like’, they say. A lot of girls say ‘I’m a size 14, 16 and I’m so happy you’re not on TV and how great it is that you’re on TV and people really like you and boys fancy you but you’re not a stick.’

The fact that Sonia is going out with Jamie, she says,
“gives them confidence and makes them think maybe they go out with such-and-such in their class. We are role models. Me and Charlie (Charlie Brooks who plays Janine) – we’re not a size 6 or size 8. In EastEnders, even Tamsin’s not really lollipop-like. She’s the only Hollyoaks one. Hollyoaks is stupid. It’s Planet Blonde. They’re all so good-looking. If Jack (Ryder) was in Hollyoaks, he’d be playing the ugly one.”

The down side is she gets letters about Sonia going out with Jamie.
“Saying, get out, he’s mine.’ He gets a lot of girls that just desperately want to be with him. I looked at an internet site the other day and it’s called Juicy Jack Ryder and it’s just a bunch of girls, just chat to each other. He was laughing and I was like ‘how can you laugh ? I’d be scared’.”

She says that most of the flak for Sonia’s decision to put the baby up for adoption has been addressed to James Alexandrou, the young actor who plays the baby’s father, Martin Fowler.

“I’ve just had letters saying ‘you’ve done the right thing’ and ‘you’ve got to get on with your life’. Even Wendy Richards (Pauline Fowler – Martin’s mum) said to me ‘this storyline’s getting me.’ She was in Selfridges and she got people coming up to her saying ‘leave Sonia alone’ and ‘it’s not your baby you know…’ But everyone’s been really nice. Sonia is a love character. People say ‘ahhh ! to me a lot !”

The surreal nature of the whole thing seems to have leave Cassidy completely unfazed.

As part of her preparation for the role, there was a nurse on set – “to give me grunting lessons. I was going to watch a few birth videos, but I ended up only watching one and I didn’t really watch that properly. Afterwards I felt so emotional, I was crying. It took me a good hour to come back to earth.”

Her performance underlined that, given the chance, Natalie Cassidy could become one of the best young actresses in the country – someone that million of girls can identify with and grow up – following in the footsteps of EastEnders stars like Susan Tully, Michelle Collins or Patsy Palmer.

“We are role models. I’ve had a few mums write in and say ‘thank you.’ One lady wrote in and said ‘I’ve been sitting her with my two daughters who are 11 and 13 and who both said, ‘oh mummy, we’re going to be careful’… Stuff like that.”

As for any plans to have a baby of her own, Natalie says Sonia’s experience taught her only that she didn’t want to have it on the sofa, covered in newspaper, “like a gerbil.”

“I haven’t got a boyfriend at the moment. I get on with blokes rather than girls. I think it’s because they’re not bitchy. And I’ve got brothers. I’m still good friends with my last boyfriend. We had a lovely time but it just didn’t work. I’m busy, he was busy.”

It’s rather disconcerting hearing Sonia’s doppleganger implying she is happier playing the field.
“I like flirting. Having a laugh. I went out on Valentine’s night. Had a nice meal. I don’t know whether I’ll see him til whenever. I just want to be on my own. Why get a boyfriend and settle down ? I’m 17.”

She’s such a familiar face on our TV screens, it’s easy to forget just how young she is. (When I ask her if she had a fall-back for her career as an actress, she points out that she was at primary school at the time she started.)

Sonia has, irrefutably, immeasurably, changed Natalie Cassidy’s life.

“The job in itself has changed me. If I wasn’t doing it, I wouldn’t have had so much experience. I think I’d just be studying.”

She seems to appreciate the value (and rarity) of playing such a decent character.

Ask her what has most rubbed off on to her from playing Sonia and she says immediately, with all seriousness,
“her wisdom. The way not to let people in so quickly in the way she does. To be so ‘give, give, give.’ I do that. I give and I give and I give, like then and then, it goes wrong.”

She would like to do EastEnders for a good few years to come but would love a career as varied as one of her heroes – Kathy Burke.

“In ten years time, I’ll only be 27. I don’t want to be there forever. I’d do it for as long as Sonia gets boring. I want to do so much stuff. I’d like to do comedy. I’d like to do a really tough drama, like Nil By Mouth. I’d like to do a period piece. I’d like to write. I’d like to direct.”

As for her ambitions for Sonia, she muses, “I would like Sonia to leave school. She’s at that age where she’ll either go to college or work in the caff. I don’t want to be in the market – ooh no – it’s too cold. I’d like her to get out of school uniform. I’d like her to do something really worthwhile and make something of herself. I just hope she turns out happy.”

Somehow you wouldn’t bet on it.