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Loveable rogue - Shaun Williamson in the famous role of Fletch in Porridge

Loveable rogue - Shaun Williamson in the famous role of Fletch in Porridge

Loveable rogue - Shaun Williamson in the famous role of Fletch in Porridge

Interviewing Shaun Williamson without thinking of his EastEnders alter-ego Barry Evans is the journalistic equivalent of trying to eat a doughnut without licking your lips.

For almost a decade the hapless wheeler-dealer was a mainstay of Albert Square, and even provided one of British soap’s most memorable screen deaths when he was pushed off a Scottish mountaintop by his murderous wife Janine.

For many actors the loss of a regular, high-profile job on a successful soap might be something of a worry. For Barry (sorry...Shaun!) his 2003 exit was no less daunting with a young family to support.

“I was lucky, as I had done 850 episodes and knew I was leaving to some well-paid work,” says the 45-year-old. “But I did wonder after that what was going to happen. There is always that feeling, but I haven't stopped!”

His roles post-Albert Square have included a prosthetic makeover to transform him into a woman for Gender Swap, a short-lived ITV gameshow and the ubiquitous panto.

“I've got an answerphone that just says ‘I'll do it',” he laughs.

“Well, I'm a bit more discerning than that, but one of the great things about this business is that you never know what's round the corner. This time last year I had nothing in the diary for the whole year. Now I'm totally booked up this year. One of the perverse pleasures is not knowing what's coming next.”

Although no stranger to the odd bad guy role either (he recently played a nasty gangster in The Bill), it is as one of television’s more loveable rogues that he will be taking to the stage in Belfast next week for the theatre version of Porridge. It will see Shaun transform into “habitual criminal” Norman Stanley Fletcher.

The show has already garnered positive reviews for its UK tour, no mean feat for a rehash of one of TV’s greatest hits.

“At first I thought it's a bit of an ask, but I knew that the original writers, Dick Clement and Ian La |Frenais, were on board, and I knew they wouldn't let it be shoddy,” says Shaun.

“It's their baby, so we were in good hands. They have worked hard to turn it into a play. The scripts are brilliant so I just let them speak for themselves.”

The writers have also stuck closely to the original storylines, including some of the show’s best-loved plots.

“The first act is an episode that featured a boxing match, the second is one that featured an escape tunnel,” explains Shaun.

“They've packed in every great gag. We've had unbelievable reviews, as well as a few dissenters, but they were more upset that it wasn't new material.”

Emulating the talents of one of Britain's greatest comedians, Ronnie Barker, was also a challenge, Shaun admits. “I do a very slight impression of Barker,” he says. “I use my own voice, but I do perhaps a more physical impression, because I am about the same age and weight now as he was.”

It will also mark his first foray into stage drama proper, as opposed to the numerous musicals and pantos in which he has starred.

A career in film might also beckon for Shaun, it seems, after being offered a small part in Ricky Gervais’s latest movie The Invention of Lying. The two had previously worked together on Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant’s Extras which, in a neatly post-modern twist, saw Shaun playing a rather more sad-sack version of himself.

“Nothing was going to stop me working with those guys,” says Shaun. “They're clever men and I count myself blessed to have worked with them.”

The role did little to dispel the ghost of Barry, Shaun admits, and seven years after the death of his alter-ego he still finds himself frequently being ‘Barry-ed’ in public.

“I've a full goatee at the moment and even when I go out with a baseball cap on people still shout ‘Barry!’ at me,” he laughs.

“But it's better to be recognised than ignored. There are times when you don't need it, like when you see a drunken stag or hen party wandering towards you at two in the morning. But people are lovely as long as they aren't drunk and disorderly.”

Few characters in the long-running soap — which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year — have gone through such transformations as Barry, yet it is for his buffoonery and disastrous marriages that he is best remembered.

“At the start it was a bit of a spit and a cough, it took three years for the character to get going. I was a bit of a dodgy bloke — I knocked about with David Wicks, I set fire to the car lot, I gave Cindy the number for the hit man who shot Ian Beale. People forget this now.

“But when the character of Nigel Bates left they needed a fat funnyman so they lobotomised me and shifted me over!

“Then there was the big finish, up the mountain in Scotland — people missed me because I provided the comedy.”

Barry may be gone, but his nemesis, the husband-killing hussy Janine Butcher, has returned to the square to wreak havoc.

“I know!” he laughs. “She's still killing people and getting into trouble. You need a good villain and she's brilliant.”

Although he has no desire to return to the Square (albeit as a ghost!) the lure of soap opera is still there for Shaun.

“I would do another one if I could play the villain,” he says.

“Todd Carty (who played Mark Fowler) left Eastenders to play an evil character in The Bill, which was fantastic for him. I played a villain in The Bill but I'd love to do something more regular. It would be a great thing for me, because I'm always being cast as a loveable cockney mug.”

Shaun is also no stranger to Northern Ireland (his late father was from Enniskillen), although he almost didn't return ever again after an unfortunate misunderstanding in the immediate wake of the Omagh bombing in 1998, when he was photographed at the scene of the tragedy.

“I was over there with my dad doing a feature for a Sunday paper, a light bright piece,” he explains with genuine sadness. “My cousin is from Omagh and the bomb went off. The next day we went to Omagh to check on my cousin's flat and wandered into the town centre, which was just awful. The photographer with us was running round taking snaps, which was totally inappropriate and then the reporter I was with got into an argument with an Irish reporter. I was stuck in the middle of these two guys having a fight at the scene of this tragedy.

“People were wondering what the hell I was doing. They thought I had come over to cash in on my Irishness or something. It was just awful. Those poor people had lost their families and it was made to look like I had gone there to cash in.

“I didn't go back for six years, which was a shame because I love the place! I hope the people of Omagh don't have any ill-will against me.”

It is perhaps those Irish roots which have also helped give the star that sense of determination in a career which almost didn’t happen.

“I was stacking shelves in a supermarket on the night crew, I even became the wines and spirits manager,” he says.

“Before I went for my final audition for drama school, I said that if they turned me down I was going to go on the supermarket management scheme. So I was one decision away from being a supermarket manager now!”

His career was also the focus of an episode of the now-defunct adulation-fest This Is Your Life in 2001, although Shaun is typically modest about being chosen for the show.

“You’ve got to put these things in context,” he says.

“They always had to keep their quota of soap people up, so that the audience would stay watching it.

“I didn't really deserve it. I had been in EastEnders for only six years — and I've done so much more since then.”

Porridge is at the Grand Opera House from January 26-30 (www.goh.co.uk )

Belfast Telegraph