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EastEnders star Ellen Thomas talks on diversity, her African roots & more



Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas in Accra

Eastenders star, Ellen Thomas was recently in Accra for vacation and I caught up with her to find out what she has been up to; her memories of former EastEnders actress, Sian Blake (who’s alleged killer was found and arrested in Ghana), her take on diversity in British film and Television among others. 

Ellen Thomas who was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and emigrated to the UK at the age of 9, has had many television and film roles. She is perhaps best known for her recurring role in Bristol-based comedy, Teachers and of course her record setting appearances in  Britain’s most loved Drama, EastEnders – where she is on record as  one of the few people to have played 3 different characters.

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Ellen first appeared on EastEnders in 1990 as Pearl Chadwick, a Jamaican grandmother trying to abduct her granddaughter back to Jamaica. In 2011, she  returned as a Nigerian,  Grace Olubunmi, the grandmother of Mercy and Faith.  In 2015 Ellen Thomas returned to EastEnders yet again this time as the  steely matriarch Claudette Hubbard.

In the 30 years history of EastEnders, the BBC for the first time did a feature story trailer with a Black family, which is headed by Claudette Hubbard, the character played by Ellen. Excited by the feat, she commented, “I love her character. A lot of the times, audiences say to me that there has never been a black woman playing a character like that on British television.”

On the trending issues if diversity in film and television, Ellen believes the situation is getting better in the UK. She said,  “I think it is getting better in the UK, it is not there yet, but it is getting better. The things that happen in America whether we believe it or not is influencing the way UK thinks and works. For instance, for the character I play in EastEnders, a few years ago they just wouldn’t be brave enough to take it up. I remember the challenges they had with the Nigerian character I played previously – any storyline that was recommended, they were like that was too controversial. I think they are gradually moving away from that to bottomline, what audiences what to see.”

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She also believes that independent web-based productions have also contributed to the change in tides.“Also a lot of things have happened on online, a lot of young people are doing things on their own and not waiting anymore to be given the opportunity. They are taking the bull by the horn so to speak, and making stuff and putting them online. TV producers now go online to have a look at these products and a lot of actors get cast from online shows, a lot of story ideas generate from online shows. So in a way, the internet has done a lot to improve things,” she added.

On the phenomenon of black British actors excelling in Hollywood, she believes it is down to the talents and work ethics of such British actors.  She opined, “As actors we go where the opportunity is, and America is where the opportunity is. A lot of Americans say that the difference between their actors and British actors is the work ethics because a lot of us in the UK have unbelievable and amazing work ethics – you really do just get down to the work, you learn your lines, you turn up on time and you just do it.Thats what we have been trained to do. But in America people something get political forgetting they are there to work. These talented British actors are getting opportunities in America that they wouldn’t get in the UK. I was planning to go there also until the call came from EastEnders.”

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Sharing her memories of former EastEnders actress Sian Blake who was murdered along with her two children Ellen described Sian as a lovely young lady full of confidence. She said, “The time Sian was on EastEnders, I didn’t have any scenes with her but I saw her on set and she seemed like a really lovely woman. The time I actually worked with her was during a play reading at the Almeida Theatre in London. She seemed like a a confident and lovely woman so we were all really shocked to hear the sad news…and her beautiful children, it is really sad and unthinkable.”

Don’t forget to watch the full interview with the award-winning Ellen Thomas as she shares her journey of over 25 years in the film and TV. She also revealed her favourite roles which include Claudette Hubbard in EastEnders  and Liz Webb in ‘Teachers’. According to Ellen, one of her least favourite characters ever was Grace Olubunmi in EastEnders because the character wasn’t well written and her storylines weren’t very strong.

Do keep an eye out for Ellen Thomas, she may soon be in an African movie production as she hints of her interest to work with multiple award-winning Ghanaian film maker, Shirley Frimpong-Manso. She can also be seen this year in ‘Mount Pleasant’  a comedy on Sky 1 in which she plays a Jamaican grandmother new to the neighbourhood. ‘Golden Years’ a movie which she shot last year also opens in UK cinemas in March