FOR the past 15 years Max Branning has been EastEnders’ resident lothario, luring a total of 15 women into bed – and gaining hordes of admirers who are watching at home.
And some of those smitten fans, male and female, have had bizarre ways of showing their adoration for actor Jake Wood, who plays the soap swordsman.
Grimacing, he says: “One of the strangest things I received was a set of five pairs of used Y-fronts which arrived in a clear plastic bag.
“I’m not sure why I was sent them or what purpose was intended, but I quickly binned them and scrubbed my hands for quite some time.
“Maybe that’s the power of Max Branning — a bit like the tattoo of my face that someone decided to have on their backside.
“It’s a usual day for me to get 20 weird DMs but you have to take it all with a pinch of salt.
“I think it’s bizarre. I don’t know why people are doing it — maybe just enjoying trying to engage with someone in the public domain.
“I try to step away from it, and I’m a pretty grounded guy. Being at home is more important to me than any of that stuff. I never get carried away with any praise.”
Now the 48-year-old dad of two — married to former care worker Alison for 22 years, whom he describes as “the love of his life” — is leaving the soap, no doubt to the distress of his admirers.
Alas, it’s hard to judge Jake’s good looks for myself, given that his face has frozen on screen for 27 of the 32 minutes of our Zoom chat.
But he is certainly in great shape, and has taken to regularly posting gruelling workouts on his rapidly growing Instagram page.
Dishearteningly, he has also been teetotal for years, which goes some way to explaining the six-pack.
It may also explain why BBC execs saw fit to make him one of Walford’s most prolific lovers, among many other adventures in the show.
Or, as Jake explains: “I’ve slept with 15 women in 15 years. I’ve had four marriages, ten affairs, shared a hot tub with Ian Beale, gone to prison, been throttled by my brother and been buried alive. It’s time for Max to go.”
Despite having an army of fans, over the years Jake has also received incessant abuse about his distinctive ginger hair and stubble, which he believes is akin to racism, sexism and homophobia, and he is calling for an end to the discrimination.
He tells The Sun: “I’ve had absolutely horrific abuse over the years, the whole gamut of abuse.
“People have told me my ginger babies should have been drowned at birth, all of it.
"Every swear word you can imagine, words that have to be asterisked out.
“It’s a subject that’s laughed about and dismissed, but I’ve had people reach out to me and explain how badly bullied they have been and how they have been suicidal, people dyeing their hair to try and fit in. It’s heartbreaking.
“When you break it down, bullying and discrimination is a very real thing.
"This is a subject I am passionate about, and want to start speaking publicly about.
“I may be bald now, but I grew up ginger. I have two ginger children, and I encourage them to be fiercely proud of their red hair.
“It seems like being ginger is the lowest bastion of an acceptable form of prejudice and discrimination.
It’s similar to mocking someone because of their sexuality or gender or skin colour — for me, it’s in that category.
“I was teased constantly growing up, and there’s a very fine line between teasing and bullying.”
Jake’s thoughts mirror comments made last year by former supermodel Lily Cole, who claimed that being bullied for having red hair is “not dissimilar to racial abuse”.
And Simply Red star Mick Hucknall has also previously lashed out about the “prejudice” he has faced about his hair colour over the years.
Around four per cent of the UK population has red hair according to research — around 2.1 million people.
In 2013 a petition to the Government was launched to make discriminating against people because they have ginger hair illegal. But it failed to gain the 10,000 signatures required for a Government response.
There are several forums and websites aimed at giving advice to parents with red-haired children — but as yet, no official charity organisation.
Jake adds: “It (bullying) has a profound effect on some people into adulthood and now I am happy to represent the ginger army. I hope that something changes because of it.”
Meanwhile, though officially the decision for Max to leave EastEnders was “mutual”, it’s clear Jake is sad to have had to say goodbye to his castmates.
After all, surely no one of sound mind would actively choose to quit one of the UK’s most successful shows during a global pandemic, one which has struck the entertainment industry notoriously badly.
But Jake — extremely likeable, despite being an Arsenal fan — has already had two job offers.
He is also keen to do more directing following a successful one-off stint last year.
He adds: “It is always going to be strange leaving any job after 15 years, and I’ve always had a routine, so that’s weird now.
"But it’s been great spending more time with the kids, doing some home-schooling, and I’m looking forward to having a better work-life balance.
“So I am happy with the decision. I think it was the right one, but I am really pleased they’re keeping the door open for me to return. Never say never, you never know.”
By all accounts, Jake was one of the most popular members of the soap, adored by cast and crew alike.
Off screen, he is also hugely popular, and while he avoids red-carpet events, he has a host of celebrity pals.
He was famously close to the late Queen Vic legend Barbara Windsor, and remains good friends with her husband, Scott Mitchell.
In fact, a framed photo of the couple alongside Jake and his wife Alison has pride of place in his sitting room.
He says: “Barbara was a great friend, and a great supporter of mine. I just miss her a lot.
“I speak to Scott regularly and we’ve arranged to meet up once lockdown is over. He knows we are there for him, but he’s got a great support network.
“The hope is that we can have some sort of remembrance memorial for her when things are normal. It’ll be lovely.
“Barbara really supported me when I first started, and gave me great advice.
"She put an arm around me, if you like, and I will be forever grateful for everything she did for me.
“She was very generous. As someone who had experienced every aspect of the business she was always there for you. I think the best bit of advice she gave me was when I first joined.
“She warned me about the sudden exposure, the pitfalls, because suddenly you’re under huge scrutiny.
"Her advice was don’t change anything about who you are or what you do or where you go.
“I took that to heart, and as a family we continued to live life as normal, to navigate life as normal, not take it all too seriously.”
While Jake may have his feet firmly on the ground, he is also good pals with two “proper” celebs — Piers Morgan and Gary Lineker.
After meeting former Sun man Piers in a box at an Arsenal game (urrrgh) Jake says: “I got a lovely text from him after I left (EastEnders), saying how scary it had been when he’d left newspapers, but how many doors it opened for him.”
Gary, it turns out, is an EastEnders super-fan. Jake says with a laugh: “Gary’s a great guy.
"I met his ex Danielle (Bux) at an awards ceremony, and she came up to me, saying, ‘I’ve got a message from my fiancé. He says, ‘If you ever leave EastEnders, he’s never gonna watch it again’.’”
“I said, ‘Thanks very much, that’s lovely. Who’s your fiancé?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, Gary Lineker’. I told her I liked Gary, he was a good player, and maybe we could all go out for dinner some time.
“So we started off having dinners, and it went from there. He’s got some great stories, Gary. All his World Cup stories. He’s good fun.”
15 years of plots and planning for ‘Romeo’ Branning
JUNE 2006: Max makes his debut in Walford, searching for his estranged son Bradley, before going on to start an affair with Bradley’s wife-to-be Stacey Slater.
DECEMBER 2007: Max and Stacey’s affair is rumbled in an explosive Christmas Day episode. He splits with his on-off wife Tanya and eventually leaves the Square.
JUNE 2008: Returns to wreak havoc, framing his brother Jack for a robbery and threatening to take his daughters Lauren and Abi from Tanya – before they rekindle their marriage. He goes on to commit insurance fraud and Tanya leaves for good.
FEBRUARY 2010: Bradley dies in a fall from the Queen Vic roof and Max goes on to start an affair with Stacey’s friend Becca.
JUNE 2010: Starts a relationship with Vanessa Gold but gets back with Tanya.
OCTOBER 2015: Max is framed for the murder of Lucy Beale and is sentenced to 21 years behind bars.
JUNE 2016: Released after Bobby Beale confesses and he returns to Walford.
JANUARY 2017: Max joins a plot to demolish Albert Square and replace it with luxury flats. He is secretly dating Sophie “Fi” Willmott-Brown but has an affair with Carmel Kazemi to get insider information. Fi later reveals she has used him and humiliates him.
DECEMBER 2017: Attempts to murder Ian Beale and begins another affair with Stacey. His daughter Abi later dies after falling from the roof of the Queen Vic pub, while his other daughter Lauren survives the plunge.
JANUARY 2018: Max takes part in a sham wedding to Rainie Cross to help him get custody of his dead daughter Abi’s baby girl, who was born before her mum’s life support machine was turned off. Their relationship later develops into a genuine one.
JULY 2019: Starts a relationship with Stacey’s former best pal Ruby Allen but she later dumps him and moves on with Martin Fowler – who is also Stacey’s ex.
NOVEMBER 2020: Max snogs Linda Carter after the pair grow close when he supports her struggle with alcoholism.
FEBRUARY 2021: His relationship with Linda crumbles and Max hits the bottle before leaving Walford and Albert Square for good.
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