INTERVIEW: Shaun Williamson talks about taking a chance on acting

Former EastEnder Shaun Williamson admits he was in last-chance saloon when he turned to acting.
Picture by Hugo GlendinningPicture by Hugo Glendinning
Picture by Hugo Glendinning

Shaun, who played the soap’s comedy character Barry from 1994-2003, says the acting arrived in his life just when he was at a dangerous cross-roads.

“I left school, and I did all sorts of things,” recalls Barry. “I was a sailor. I was an 18-30 club rep. I was a blue coat. I started as a singer, and then I went into amateur dramatics at the age of 26 because I was told it was the way to find single women!

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“But I found that I actually had some aptitude for acting. I tried to get into all the big drama schools, and I continued with the amateur stuff. Webber Douglas took me when I was 26. I left when I was 30, and I was in EastEnders within six months.

“I was one of the older people there. There were 18-year-olds there who were just struggling to be 18-year-olds. But really I was going nowhere until then. I was drinking too much, and I realised that this was my last chance, and so I totally focused on it for three years.

“It seemed like I was having a bit of fun with all the jobs I had been doing, but in between those jobs I would come back, and I would be stacking shelves in Safeways because I could not find better work. And I would drink a lot. I won’t go too much into that. But I realised that acting was my last chance, and I gave up the drinking.”

Barry, who’ s currently on tour in the National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, which plays The Hawth at Crawley from August 18-23, was delighted to get into EastEnders so soon after training.

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But his character Barry was very much a slow-burner, introduced for four episodes and then brought back for one before returning for another stint: “I don’t think they really knew what to do with the character. They thought that he was not quite being the Barry that they envisaged, but they liked what we were doing, so they lobotomised Barry and brought him back as full-on comedy.”

Barry was the guy who got everything wrong, the man behind all the plot disasters – and Shaun rapidly reels off an impressive list of them.

“I was the one slipping on the banana skins, but that gave me longevity in the programme. I had taken over from a previous Barry, Paul Bradley who was also the lovable clumsy character. They wanted that character in the series, the chubby loser.”

And Shaun admits he has continued to be cast similarly – though he quickly points out that last year he did a film with Adrien Brody in Hungary in which he, Shaun, played a spymaster. Called Houdini, it will be out in the autumn – and Shaun is grateful for a casting done in complete ignorance of Barry’s existence.

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“The German director took me at face value at the audition.”

So does Barry follow him? “Well, he does and he doesn’t. I am never seen for Midsomer Murders or Downton Abbey. Any period things, I would never get a sniff, and that’s frustrating.

“In that way it hamstrings you a little bit. But you have got to keep it in perspective. There are plenty of actors sitting at home not getting any auditions at all!”

Now seen by more than a million people worldwide, One Man, Two Guvnors is offered as a glorious celebration of British comedy – a laugh-out-loud mix of satire, songs, slapstick and glittering one-liners, moving way beyond its starting point, The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni.

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Fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe.

But Roscoe is really Rachel, posing as her own dead brother – who’s been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers. Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a job with one Stanley Stubbers – but to prevent discovery, he must keep his two guvnors apart. Simple...

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