EastEnders’ Dr Legg reveals inspiration behind role ahead of on-screen death

For most of us, he’s simply been the quiet, reassuring figure who, for more than three decades, was always on hand to comfort the often distressed residents of Albert Square.

But his character stood for so much more. Softly spoken Dr Legg was the original East End boy who made good and dedicated his life to the hard-knocks community in Walford he called home.

And tomorrow, the EastEnders stalwart slips away at 98 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, with his most loyal patient, the hypochondriac Dot Branning (June Brown), comforting him.

Harold Legg was one of the original 23 characters to inhabit Albert Square when the BBC1 soap started in 1985.

Until his retirement in 1998 he was a constant: the witness and confidant in a catalogue of suicides, breakdowns, abortions and murders that would force most GPs into early retirement.

He helped Mark Fowler come to terms with HIV, confronted Ethel Skinner’s assisted suicide, and even once failed to diagnose Vicki Fowler’s meningitis .

Since then he’s played cameos. But the poignancy of his final scenes is born of the authenticity of his character, a man of East End roots, who has come home to die. Roots very similar to the actor’s.

Leonard Fenton, 92, who is very much alive, has said his “lucky break” of playing Legg for all these years was like playing himself: a self-christened “old cockney”.

“It was the first time I’d played myself on TV. I’m normally a character actor, but Dr Legg was based on me,” he said.

He, too, grew up in London’s East End, battling the boundaries of a working-class upbringing which never encouraged him to consider acting as a career.

And, as a Jew like his character, he was aware of his family’s brushes with anti-Semitism after initially arriving in London as immigrants from Europe.

Leonard, whose original surname was Feinstein, has spoken of his family’s experiences of hatred in a part of London historically heavily populated with Jewish immigrants and descendants.

More than two million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, due to economic hardship and persecution, especially after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in Russia in 1881.

Many landing here intended to go to America, but about 120,000 stayed.

Thousands were attracted to the East End as a place to live cheaply, and because they could find work in the “rag trade”.

The area became a target for fascist Oswald Mosley’s far-right protests in the 1930s, when Leonard was a child.

He said: “Mosley used to have meetings outside our house, because we were surrounded – it was a very poor area and we were the only Jews in the street – and my mother used to swear at him from the window with a baby in her arms.

“He was talking against the Jews and their bank balance and my mother shouted, ‘Would you like to see my bank balance?’ She was a very brave woman.

“The neighbours used to say, ‘No, no, we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about the others’. So, in a way, I grew up appeasing people.”

Dr Legg’s recent return to the Square has charted his own distress at the new wave of anti-Semitism, reflecting the disturbing rise of real-life hate crime.

Although his character’s history has always largely been kept quiet, the ­original outline describes how his parents changed their name, taking Legg “from the street they used to live in”.

Describing his background, it says: “The tough time came in the mid-30s, when the extreme right and Mosley, on one hand, and persecution of the Jews in Europe, on the other, forced him as a teenager to become positively aware of racism, freedom and persecution.

“He didn’t become a Communist, he didn’t start hating all Germans, but he did stop going to the synagogue.”

Leonard’s grandparents originated from Eastern Europe. His father was born in London, but faced prejudice. Leonard said: “He joined the Army in 1914 with the name Feinstein.

“He was a very mild, even-tempered man, but people looked askance at him: firstly, because it was a German-sounding name, and also the fact that he was Jewish.

“And I always remember him telling me that he was frequently insulted.”

Leonard, who had three sisters and a brother who died young, was interested in the arts but never encouraged by family to pursue them. “I began life as an engineer, and I didn’t even have much encouragement to do that. I was sort of cajoled into it by a headmaster in the East End,” he said.

“I was interested in languages, music, painting, but there was no question of that during the war.

“And the headmaster said, ‘You need a good, solid job’. So I became an engineer.” Studying at King’s College London, he was “unhappy”, but joined the Army as an engineer.

He said: “When I came out of the Army I felt very guilty about wanting to stop it, so I carried on with it for five years, getting more and more depressed with it.”

He took painting and singing lessons at night and left engineering, winning a scholars­hip to drama school. “My teacher knew I hated my job, so he introduced me to the drama school where he taught and I spent two years there,” he said.

Dr Legg’s career choice, meanwhile, was driven by a desire to support his community. His experiences of the war, living through the Blitz, only ­reinforced that, and Dr Legg opened his practice in Walford in 1947.

His character history says: “He saw the air-raid casualties… it reinforced his passion for the underdog.” Those years also brought personal tragedy.

As a trainee medic he fell in love with a nurse, Judith. They wed when he was 21, moving into Albert Square. “She was in the garden when a dog-fight took place overhead.

“The German pilot dropped its bomb in order to get away,” reads his synopsis. “The corner of the Square went. So did she.”

Dr Legg never remarried. Leonard, a dad of four, once remarked: “He would have been a great family man.”

The actor’s career has landed him on screen and stage, working at the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, and with Orson Welles and Samuel Beckett.

But Leonard laughed: “People still request my advice when they get ill.

“There was one amazing case of a woman who went to a friend of mine, who was in group practice, and asked them if she could change to me, and was told, ‘No, he’s an actor’. She got very shirty with him.”

Dr Legg would have known exactly how to deal with her.

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