Interview: Shaun Williamson in Porridge
HE'S been a postman, worked on the wines and spirits aisle at Safeway and most famously played lovable buffoon Barry Evans in EastEnders.
Now actor Shaun Williamson has turned his attention to the theatre in the first-ever stage production of Porridge, coming to Blackpool next week.
Shaun plays Fletcher, the character made famous by Ronnie Barker. And it’s his dream role.
“I used to watch the show religiously every week with my dad in the mid ’70s,” he said.
“Then the next day at school me and my mates would come out with all the lines because they were always a bit naughty. We loved it.”
The iconic prison comedy will run at Blackpool Grand Theatre from October 5 to 10.
It’s the first time the smash-hit TV sitcom has been brought to the stage, with the production penned by original writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
Of course, playing such a well-loved character is a big responsibility.
“It is a responsibility, but a great part is a great part,” said Shaun. “You just have to do your own thing really. We trusted that the script would be good, and it’s terrific. It’s the sort of writing that's not really going on these days. Sitcoms have changed and this is from the golden age of sitcoms. It stood the test of time.
“It is difficult though. You almost try to do an impression without doing an impression. You’ve got to stay in the ball of the Ronnie Barker because otherwise the audience would be disappointed.”
Well-known for his role as Barry Evans in EastEnders (1994-2003), Shaun Williamson got into acting late after joining an amateur dramatics group and realising he had talent.
“I got into professional acting when I was 30 so I knew there was more to life than acting,” said Shaun.
“I actually loved my former job being a postman, and if it hadn’t all become mechanised then I'd probably still be there, to be honest.
“That’s why you’ll never see me in the pages of Heat magazine falling out of a club. I did all my growing up and made all my mistakes when I was unknown. If I'd have been well-known when I was 20 though, I'd have been dangerous.”
This down-to-earth attitude served Shaun well when he played a comically unemployable version of himself in Ricky Gervais' BBC sitcom Extras.
“Extras opened a whole new world up to me because it’s so cool to be in anything that's got Ricky Gervais in at the moment,” said Shaun.
“I didn't refuse to do anything Ricky suggested. In fact, I was giving him tips on how to make it worse! Bigger names than me have made themselves look stupid and anyone who comes into his orbit doesn't suffer. Just look at all the people he turned into stars from The Office: Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman, Lucy Davies and Ashley Jensen. It turned them all into huge stars. Anything that he touches at the moment turns to gold. There's a film coming out at the moment he's doing called The Invention of Lying and I've got a small part in that. So he's been great for me.”
But despite enjoying career success, Shaun will always been known as “Barry” to the great British public.
“I get called Barry in the street all the time but I don't mind it — it's better to be recognised than to be ignored. And most people are very well-meaning and just want to say hello. I was lucky that Barry was the comedy character. He got all the lovely lines, which was a nice break from all the murder and mayhem.”
So what's next for Barry . . . I mean Shaun?
“Who knows? I just wait for the phone to go,” he said. “I've got an agent that I trust so I just wait for her to phone up and tell me what's going on really. I'm the most unambitious person ever. I can't be doing with all that plotting and phoning around. I just wait to see what's around.”
l See Shaun Williamson in Porridge at Blackpool Grand Theatre from October 5 to 10. For tickets call box office on 01253 290190 or visit www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk