Lucy Benjamin: Why leaving London for Essex was the actress' best family decision
PUBLISHED: 11:36 03 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:36 03 July 2019
© It's Your Day Photography, Sean Dillow
Former EastEnders star Lucy Benjamin is a true convert to Essex living after spending the last decade here with her young family. Once under constant scrutiny from the tabloids, Lucy reveals to Denise Marshall why leaving London to raise her daughters has proved the best decision
Playing the beleaguered, but incredibly popular Lisa Fowler in BBC1's EastEnders for four years earned Lucy Benjamin one of the most gripping storylines in soap history as the assassin in the 'Who Shot Phil Mitchell' saga. The episode revealing her as the true suspect pulled in 22 million viewers and she enjoyed all the privileges of a prime-time actress resident in the capital.
Hand in hand with her high profile however came a lack of privacy, her personal life was pursued so intrusively by the press that she later received compensation following the Leveson inquiry. Fans longed for her to find happy ever after in real life too.
Events then took a poignant turn in 2005 when she boarded a plan to visit her close friend Michelle Cotton (Jim Davidson's wife) in Dubai. Seated next to City broker Richard Taggart, the pair were engaged within six weeks and their first child, 12-year-old Bessie, was born the following year. Four years later Lucy fell pregnant a second time, much to her delight, and gave birth to Rosie, now eight.
"I've completely embraced life in Essex. We've been together 13 years now, so it does work, these whirlwind relationships," laughs Lucy, 48.
"It's quite romantic and people are always impressed by that story, but it happened late for me. At 35 I didn't know how long it would take to get pregnant and then I was lucky enough to fall again when I was 41. If it hadn't have happened again I was fine about that, but she was a lovely surprise."
Lucy didn't take much persuading to move to Gidea Park near Romford.
"I'd been in London for some time and was over it really," she continues. "I loved how green it is in Gidea Park, with lots of parks and outdoor space. We were talking about having kids anyway, so it was a natural progression. I've never looked back.
"Last year I actually sold my flat in Islington that I'd kept. I thought, 'Do I miss it? Am I sad?' In fact I was completely fine. I think I can call myself an Essex girl."
Incredibly warm and down to earth, despite counting Jimmy Choo as a friend (he attended her wedding) and being close with the late George Michael, Lucy is just as happy socialising with members of her local church in Gidea Park. "We have a really nice Priest and you can leave your devices, the hectic pace and enjoy quiet times," Lucy shares. Just three years after leaving EastEnders in 2002, she found herself in a different world.
There have been three brief returns to Albert Square since, most recently last summer where Lisa sunk to a new low abducting her seriously ill daughter Louise from hospital, but still left alive and kicking by scriptwriters. She also appeared in Casualty reprising her role as the sinister widow of a far-right group leader Denise Ellison.
Yet Lucy is the opposite of her troubled characters; fulfilled and beaming as a working mum.
"Gidea Park is the perfect base, although I have to turn a lot of touring stuff down because of the kids. I thought it might get easier the older they're getting, but there's the netball, the drums, the swimming - I think it gets harder. Television is different. You only have to be away for a couple of days. But I love my work. I'm starting a London theatre job in the New Year. I don't want to miss the kids growing up."
In November Lucy had a cameo role in war film Eleven, released to tie in with Armistice Day, and has a pilot lined up with details firmly under wraps. In the run up to Christmas she is preparing to host the big day at home and enjoying seeing friends in Snow White at Basildon's Towngate theatre.
"I was considering doing panto this year but the kids are off school and I'd have two shows a day. My brother and his wife have just moved over from Australia, so I'll be hosting for them and our mums. We sadly lost Richard's dad last year and my dad the year before so New Year feels like a funny time. I like to be really prepared for rehearsals, so some of the holiday will be spent with me locked up in the bedroom cramming lines."
Lucy dismisses New Years resolutions, preferring to enjoy everything 'in moderation'.
"As I get older I like to be tucked up in bed by half nine. I'm probably in bed by 8.30 with a book, but if we do go out we like Zaafran, an Indian restaurant, and we have a drink in our local, The Ship. We have a lovely art gallery nearby too. If it's a big occasion, Rich and I will go to Alec's restaurant in Brentwood or The Fat Turk."
Lucy famously brought out Simon Cowell's softer side when she won The X Factor: Battle of the Stars in 2006 with an emotional rendition of Last Dance. Cowell proclaimed her 'gorgeous', and it was Sharon Osbourne who let slip her pregnancy to the nation as the panel were all charmed by her. The victory raised over £150,000 for Rosie's Rainbow Fund, a small charity Lucy is patron of.
"They struggle to raise money for music therapy for really poorly children and we'd love to roll it out to more hospitals. We have a full-time bereavement counsellor for parents too. Joanne Froggatt from Downton Abbey is another patron."
The charity has also helped Queens hospital in Romford, which Lucy has nothing but praise for after giving birth to Rosie when it first opened, and she also supports the cancer charity Macmillan.
"After I lost my dad to cancer, it really brought it home. He died very, very quickly, (Lucy's dad passed away six weeks after being diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2016). It was too quick to get involved in the Macmillan scheme, but I know how invaluable the work is that they do."
Growing old in Gidea Park is now Lucy's goal and while her friends urge her to decamp to Brentwood where her children attend school, she still enjoys a taste of the East End with Romford's vibrant market and urban feel.
"It would make sense to move and Rich would move further out where it's even leafier, but I say I just won't. I love Romford. I love that the market is still going. The shopping centre is fab, regenerating itself. I'm proud of it.'
Performing is clearly in the blood too, as Bessie recently became Havering Junior Musician of the year on piano.
"I just want to be able to keep working alongside being there for my children. I never dreamed in a million years I'd be asked back to EastEnders last year, but they rang me and it was a fascinating script. I think it jogged people's memories, so I do get recognised more when I'm out. I wouldn't say no to going back, but I'm a jobbing actress now, happy to keep jobbing."