EastEnders star Carol Harrison says toxic sexism on soap made her feel suicidal

Former EastEnder Carol Harrison claims show bosses left her feeling suicidal after she challenged them over her ageist and sexist scripts.

The star – who played Tiffany’s mum Louise Raymond in the Nineties – says she had SEVEN crunch meetings with producers over the issue which created a “toxic” atmosphere on set and led to a breakdown.

“I was told, ‘We don’t care about women over 40. They are not our audience. There is no interest in them’,” says Carol, who was axed after just a year on the soap.

“It left me shocked at how ageist and misogynistic they were. They told me to just get on with it and be grateful.”

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The actress is speaking out after Albert Square legend June Brown quit the soap last week amid an ageism row.

Carol – who first accused the show of branding her “past it” last year – today reveals the full extent of the breakdown she suffered.

She tells how the stress of her battle to get her character right led to her piling on weight, suffering blackouts on set and the return of suicidal thoughts she had suffered as a teenager.

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She ended up in therapy and on antidepressants.

“For years after EastEnders I believed I was a has-been,” she says.

“It’s only now I’ve felt able to get back to performing”

Like millions of the soap’s fans, she was infuriated by the low-key exit of June Brown, 93, who played Dot Cotton.

“When I heard she quit, unhappy with her storylines, I thought, ‘how could she be treated like this?’” says Carol.

“Dot’s character was diminished. It smacks of ageism.”

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Carol had no idea of the problems she’d face when she was hired by EastEnders in 1998 after starring in London’s Burning and Brush Strokes.

Then 43, she played the sassy mum of Martine McCutcheon’s Tiffany.

In one of the show’s top plots, Louise slept with Tiffany’s hubby Grant, played by Ross Kemp.

Carol said: “That storyline won a Bafta.

But after the first six months the script around Louise changed.

A drip-feed of negative, ageist comments crept in.

Louise was only 40, but I had to say lines like, ‘Underneath my clothes my body’s not what it was’ as if I was ancient.

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“In one scene Louise’s lover Gianni di Marco had to say, ‘I found your hair dye in the medicine cabinet – you’re nothing but an old granny’.

It was demeaning to the character, to me and to women her age watching.

In another, Grant says, ‘Why would I be with you when I can be with Tiffany?’ – yet his character was only five years younger than mine. It was ridiculous.

“I had about seven meetings with executives.

My relationships with them became toxic and I started feeling ill.

I confided in friends like Patsy Palmer and Nadia Sawalha about how I was feeling.

“I was working 7am to 7pm and had my little boy Alfie and husband Jamie. I’d go home and cry.

“There were a couple of times on set when I blacked out.

I put on weight and my GP said my thyroid was acting up, probably due to stress.

Then I read I was to be written out.” Five months later, in 1999, she was gone.

“By the time I left I felt I was no good and my acting days were over.

I got offered parts, but all like Louise had been portrayed.

My marriage ended in 2000. By then I’d lost all confidence.”

In despair, the actress felt as vulnerable as she had done as a teenager following abuse as a child.

“I started to feel as low as I did when I tried to commit suicide at 18.

I did have suicidal thoughts but never let them go beyond that.

“When I tried to take my own life as a teenager, it was because I’d felt helpless.

I blamed myself for the abuse I’d gone through.

In some way, what had happened at EastEnders brought back that same helpless feeling.

Acting had become my saviour after my teenage years but now I felt powerless.

“I started taking medication and had CBT counselling.

I was so drained.

Luckily, because of my past, I knew the signs and how to hold myself together.”

Her revelations come just days after Louise Jameson, who played Rosa di Marco, told how she was booted off the show in 2000 after challenging a storyline she didn’t like.

Carol’s recovery has been gradual.

After her EastEnders hell, she studied a two-year MA in scriptwriting, avoiding the front of the camera.

She has gone on to write plays including All Or Nothing which toured the UK and hit the West End.

Carol remarried in 2006 and is happier than ever.

And last year she made a triumphant acting comeback in the smash hit theatre show The Thunder Girls, which will tour the UK again later this year, also starring Corrie’s Beverley Callard and Coleen Nolan.

Carol says: “To think they tried to write me off when I was only 43 and now at 65 I’m having the time of my life in a show audiences love.

“All the Thunder Girls cast play strong, complex women over 50 and we all feel great about ourselves.

“The TV industry should celebrate women, not denigrate and humiliate them like EastEnders did to me.”

For tour info see thundergirls.co.uk

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