Ethel Skinner

Ethel Skinner

Infobox EastEnders character 2

character_name=Ethel Skinner
actor_name=Gretchen Franklin
years=1985–1997, 2000
creator=Julia Smith
first= 19 February 1985
last=7 September 2000
dob=19 February 1914
dod= 7 September 2000
occupation= Cleaner
brothers= Howard Lewis
sisters=Trish Lewis
husband = William Skinner
aunts = Lily Lamb
cousins = Doris Lamb
Herbert Lamb
Wendy Lamb

Ethel May Skinner (née Lewis) was a fictional character in the British soap opera "EastEnders". She was played by the late Gretchen Franklin. Ethel Skinner also featured in a 1988 "EastEnders" special, entitled "Civvy Street", set on Albert Square during the Second World War. The character was played by Alison Bettles.

Ethel was an "EastEnders" original character and in the early years she could always be found wandering the square with her adored pug Willy. She and Dot Cotton were life long friends and although they wound each other up no end, they were completely dependent on each other. In fact Ethel trusted Dot so much that she even asked her to help her die in 2000, after she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.

Character creation and development

Ethel Skinner was the second (out of the original twenty-three) character invented by the creators of "EastEnders", Tony Holland and Julia Smith. Ethel was based on an elderly woman that Smith had encountered in a pub in Hackney. She had bright ginger hair, a face plied with make-up, she laughed a lot and was obviously "the life and soul of the party". She also had a little dog, Willie, who she dressed in a red ribbon, tied in a neat bow on its head. Smith felt that a character like this would be an excellent inclusion to the show.cite book |last=Smith|first= Julia|authorlink= Julia Smith|coauthors=Holland, Tony|title= EastEnders - The Inside Story |year=1987|publisher=Book Club Associates|id=ISBN 0-563-20601-2]

Ethel's original character outline as written by Smith and Holland appeared in an abridged form in their book, "".

:"Most of her money goes on food for her dog, Willie, a Yorkie, and booze for herself. She has a hopeless memory for actual facts but can tell endless stories about pre-war London, her childhood, and, above all, the war. She does miss the friendliness of the old East-end... She has false teeth and red hair: those are the two things you most notice about her - then the dog... Her greatest joy is telling fortunes, cards, tea-cups and palm-reading. "I've got the gift she says... Born in 1914, in Camden Town... left home, aged 16, to work for a posh Hackney family, as a general undermaid... Ethel came home one day to find her street destroyed by a doodlebug. Her parents had been in the house... Ethel met William, a docker, and they married when Ethel was 25... Ethel and William had no children... As a youngster, Ethel would have been a page three girl, a real pin-up." (page 52)
Gretchen Franklin was the first actress that Smith and Holland had in mind for the role. An experienced actress with a long career in show-business, Franklin was considered to be ideal casting, so she was offered the part.

Ethel became a popular and well-loved character from very early on in the series. Ethel was a gossip who didn't always get her facts right, and this was often used for comic effect, as was her use of malapropisms. She became famous for owning a pug named Willy and a lot of rather puerile humour was derived from Willy's name. Ethel's famous lines being either, "Where's my Willy?" or, in a double entendre, "Has anyone seen my Willy". It was originally intended for Ethel's dog to be a Yorkshire Terrier, but as no suitable Yorkie could be found, a pug was used instead. Over the seven years they worked together Willy (the actor) and Franklin became very attached to each other. [" [ Walford Gazette interview with Gretchen Franklin] ", "Walford Gazette". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.] So much so that Franklin even tried to buy Willy at one stage, commenting: "I tried to buy him from the BBC but he's too valuable now, he earns a bomb in personal appearances."cite book |last= Kingsley|first= Hilary|title= The EastEnders Handbook |year=1990|publisher=BBC books|id=ISBN 0-563-36292-8] Franklin was heart-broken in 1992 when the producers made the decision to retire Willy. On-screen Willy became ill and had to be put down. However just over two weeks after his last appearance on the programme the dog who played Willy died. Franklin has commented: "A woman stopped me in the street and said: 'It was like him committing suicide. When he knew he wasn't wanted on that programme no more, he just turned over and died.'" [" [ Gretchen Franklin] ", "Telegraph". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.]

Ethel's friendship with Dot Cotton was another enduring relationship that lasted throughout the characters time in the show and today they are remembered fondly by fans as being an incomparable double-act. [" [ Remembering EastEnders' Ethel] ", "BBC". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.] Their arguing and obvious differences were often used for comic effect in many scenes. However in episode 248 of the show the audience were shown a different side to Ethel and Dot's friendship in the soaps second two-hander episode. The episode aired in July 1987 and featured just the two old ladies (although Dot was Ethel's junior by twenty years or so), and was scripted as a mini-play about nostalgia and growing old. Some viewers found it too unusual, but many others were charmed by the change of pace. The episode gave Franklin and June Brown (Dot) the opportunity to show the sadness behind the often comical characters of Ethel and Dot. The episode was written by Charlie Humphreys and directed by Mike Gibbon, a future producer of the show.cite book |last=Brake|first= Colin|authorlink= Colin Brake|title= |year=1995|publisher=BBC Books|id=ISBN 0-563-37057-2]

The character of Ethel initially remained on the show for 12 years, although her appearances towards the end became more widely spaced and she only returned to the show intermittently. Off-screen Gretchen Franklin retired, however 3 years after her last brief appearance Ethel was reintroduced to the show for one final and highly controversial storyline. The storyline involved her old friend Dot helping her to commit suicide. When Ethel Skinner became ill in September 2000, she asked Dot to help her when the time finally came for her to pass away. Dot had to make a decision that went against her moral and religious beliefs. In the end Dot decided that friendship was more important and so she helped Ethel die peacefully. Written by Simon Ashton and directed by Francesca Joseph the episode ended with a touching scene in which Ethel tells a weeping Dot "you're the best-friend I ever had". The finishing touch was the use of an alternative end title music, replacing the dramatic drum beats with a war time orchestral piece. The ramifications of this storyline were immense for the character of Dot, and the consequences of her actions were examined in detail - which included a crisis of faith. Such was the controversy surrounding this storyline that the University of Glamorgan uses the plot as part of their new approach to the study of British criminal law. Part of the law foundation course involves studying the soap opera and giving students the chance to decide if Dot Cotton's character is guilty of murder. [" [ Pro-Life Times: November 2000] ", "Society for the Protection of Unborn Children". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.]

Ethel's euthanasia is considered to be one of the most moving storylines ever featured in "EastEnders" and it was voted the most emotional soap death in a Radio Times poll of over 4,000 readers." [" [ soap deaths poll] ", "Manchester Showbiz". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.] 16.2 million viewers tuned in to see Ethel's final appearance in the show [" [ Ethel's death] ", "BBC". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.] and 15 million viewers watched her funeral. [" [ EastEnders' Ethel dies, aged 94] ", "BBC". URL last accessed on 2006-10-24.]

The early years

Ethel Skinner was one of the original characters that appeared in the first episode of "EastEnders" in 1985 and her early history has been depicted in EastEnders spin-off 'Civvy Street'.

Ethel lived in Albert Square for most of her life, remaining there through the second world war, and even witnessing the death of her entire family, who were wiped out by a doodlebug. This tragic event had sent a young Ethel into shock and had subsequently turned her slightly loopy. She began dressing outrageously, wearing garish make-up, flirting with anyone in trousers, and knocking back Gin - traits that lasted well into her old-age.

Ethel was a widow, her husband William Skinner had died and she never really recovered from it - she even named her pug dog after him, 'Willy', or "my little Willy" as she would often call him. Ethel had never had children, a fact that she regretted in her old-age and so Willy had become her surrogate child, and she loved him dearly. Willy went everywhere that Ethel went and so she was devastated when he was kidnapped in 1986. She searched for him everywhere and even held a seance to see if she could contact him, but Willy was nowhere to be found. Detective Roy Quick worked on the case and eventually found Willy in the possession of an old Latvian refugee, who had renamed him Rasputin. Willy was returned to an overjoyed Ethel, although she had to pay the man in order to get him to relinquish ownership. Ethel had been life-long friends with Lou Beale and Dot Cotton and the trio had remained close in their old-age. They could often be found reminiscing or gossiping in The Queen Vic, where Ethel would also regularly thrill the punters with her repartee, her version of the cancan, or her plain sense of fun. Out of the three Ethel was the most light-hearted and she was never frightened to stand up to the over-bearing Lou and interfering Dot. She had her run-ins with both over the years, and yet their friendship endured right to the last.

Ethel lived above Doctor Legg's surgery and worked as the cleaner in the Queen Vic. She was somewhat of a troublemaker and would often spread the most insane rumours about and get her words mixed up with hilarious consequences. She was famous for her questionable ability to read-palms and tea-leaves, once even earning a living from it.

After Lou's death in 1988 Ethel and Dot became an inseparable double-act and although the two used to argue constantly, they actually depended on each other a great deal. Despite the fact that Ethel appeared totally barmy, she could be quite astute when she wanted and she was always the first to point out the malicious ways of Dot's villainous son, Nick Cotton. Ethel was never afraid to stand up to Nick, even kneeing him in the groin once when he attempted to mug her. She also correctly figured out that Nick was trying to poison Dot to get at her money, and she refused to back down, despite Dot falling out with her because of her accusations.

Following several falls and a broken hip, Ethel was persuaded to move out of her residence above the surgery and into sheltered housing in 1988. Although she was strongly opposed to this initially, she eventually came to enjoy her new home and would show up in Albert Square regularly.

Ethel had several romances with senior bachelors on Albert Square. Her old boyfriend from the war years, Ernie Mears, returned to Albert Square in 1985 and proposed to her. However, the offer was conditional. Ernie was allergic to dogs and Williy, Ethel's constant companion for the past 9 years, would have to go. Ethel seriously considered Ernie's offer but gently declined. In 1988 she found romance again with a friend of Dr. Legg's, Benny Bloom. Dot loathed Benny and did everything she could to talk Ethel out of dating him. Ethel and Benny discussed marriage, which Ethel agreed to, mainly to spite Dot, who called her a silly fool for wanting to re-marry at her time of life. However, after discovering pets weren't allowed in the manor where Benny lived, Ethel couldn't consider parting with her pug Willy so the engagement was called off. A few months later Ethel heard news that Benny had died and had left her £2000 in his will, although his daughter did try to contest the will for a while.

In August 1989 Ethel met a new love interest named Reggie Thompson. He invited her to go on a coach trip to Clacton for a dancing competition. Ethel was so excited that she showed Reggie a saucy nightie she bought for the trip. When Dot, Marge Green and Mo Butcher found out about the trip, they decided to go as well. Reggie arranged dancing partners for them and the girls practised hard at the community centre for months before the trip. But upon arriving Ethel grew disappointed in Reggie when he started to show interest in another woman named Gladys. On the night of the dancing competition, Ethel found that Reggie had run off with Gladys and she had no partner in the grand ballroom except for her 'little Willy'.

In 1992 Ethel's adored pug Willy succumbed to old-age and she had to make the heart-breaking decision to put him down. The Vic regulars clubbed together to buy Ethel a new dog, but she wouldn't accept it, saying Willy was irreplaceable.

By the mid 90s Ethel was seen much less frequently. She did turn up in Walford occasionally however, usually when a big event was occurring or to celebrate Christmas and New Year with her old friends on the Square. After 1997 Ethel was not seen in Walford for three years, although she was mentioned often, particularly by Dot, who would often visit her off-screen in her sheltered housing.


However, a very frail Ethel returned to Albert Square in 2000, turning up unannounced at Pauline Fowler's house. Ethel had run away from her retirement village and had decided that she was going to come back to the square, to live in the place she loved with her old friends. Ethel was now restricted to a wheelchair and it was left to Dot to cater for her every need, which often left her exhausted. Ethel appeared to have lost none of her zest for life, despite her considerable age, so it was a huge shock to Dot when Ethel revealed that she was suffering from terminal cancer and was not going to live much longer.

Ethel revealed that she had come home to the square to die, but instead of waiting to die in agony, she wanted to choose her final moments so she could die with dignity. She had been storing her morphine tablets for many weeks and it was her plan to take an overdose before the pain became too unbearable, but before being able to execute her plan she had already become too weak and was now unable to administer the drugs without Dot's assistance. Dot was devastated and initially refused to help Ethel, as to help another take their own life went completely against her strict Christian principles. Dot spent many agonising weeks wrestling with her conscience, but she eventually agreed to grant her old friend's final wish. On the night of her 85th birthday (it was actually her 86th, but she'd always lied about her age), after a celebratory party at The Vic, Ethel decided that this was to be her last night. After blowing out the candles of her birthday cake and bidding Dot an emotional farewell, Ethel took her pills, aided by Dot, and died peacefully in her sleep. Ethel's last appearance was in September 2000.

Gretchen Franklin, the actress who played Ethel Skinner, died on 11 July 2005 at the age of 94, almost five years after her character was killed off.


Ethel's original character outline states that she was born in 1920. However, during the series this was altered to 1916 and for many years her birthday fell on 19 February. When Ethel came back to Walford to die in 2000, she revealed to Dot that she had lied about her age for many years. She was actually 86, not 85 (the character was aged two years, in a dramatic technique known as SORAS). Ethel died on what she claimed was the night of her 86th birthday in September 2000, and although Dot knew very well her birthday was in February, she organised a party at Ethel's request to give her one last 'birthday' before she died.


External links

* [ Walford Gazette, Gretchen Franklin Interview]

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