Comedy favourite Shaun Williamson joined us at NMP Live for an exclusive interview on his love of being involved in corporate events, and what it's like working with comedy giants Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Shaun Williamson
Did you enjoy performing from a young age?
I can’t remember being an extrovert or a natural performer when I was a child. I think I was lively. I was born in Chatham in 1964. If you want to know what Chatham was like in 1964 go there now. It’s like that film 28 Days Later because most towns have a twin; I think they were twinned after the Second World War to promote peace, and in Chatham we got Chernobyl, which was nice.
So, I was born in Kent, raised in Kent, I still live in Kent. I think everyone knows this as any time I go anywhere people shout the word at me.
We were reasonably poor. I had to wear hand-me-downs. If anyone remembers hand-me-downs? Before credit cards, it was when your elder siblings outgrew their clothes and they got handed down to you. I had four sisters. I will never forget – I went to school once and I was wearing the same dress as the teacher! He wasn’t a happy man either!
I had a reasonable education. I’m quite familiar with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know why. I think it was a very normal childhood. People often say to me it is interesting where the extrovert streak comes from, because I don’t think I am. I’m quite shy and when someone shouts action it sort of kicks in.
People say is there any history of showbiz in your family? Not really. My granddad was an Elvis Presley impersonator, but there wasn't much call for that in 1936, so he struggled. He is still working though. He is 98 and he stains furniture. He can’t help it, he’s 98 – give him a break!
Then there was my nan. I lost my nan recently but she went in a way that I think we would all like to go. She sat in a chair, closed her eyes and fell asleep and she never woke up again, and I thought that is a lovely way to go. Mind you, the dentist wasn't happy.
So no, I don’t know where it came from really, but it’s in there somewhere, the extrovert.
What was the best thing about playing Barry and being in EastEnders?
To me, one of the best things about, not so much playing Barry, but being in a top soap, is that I love to sing. I love quizzes. I have been very lucky, I have won Mastermind, I have won Pointless 3 times, I have won Eggheads; I love quizzing, and it is one of my passions.
So, what being in a soap enabled me to do is I have always been offered work; “do you want to come on these quiz shows, or do you want to sing on Children In Need, or do you want to do this?” and that in turn led to getting some quite nice private work. That is when the after dinner speaking took off.
Being in the show I wasn't able to do a great deal of it because I wasn't able to say yes, I can do a month Thursday, because you wouldn't know if you were doing a night shoot. So, what it gave it took away in some ways, but that is what I really enjoyed about being in it, was almost doing the side work as much as the acting.
And then, of course, it came to an end. The producer came up to me one day and said “Shaun, you have been here 10 years. Thanks for some great work, but I’m afraid it is nearly Christmas and that only means one thing. We need a death and it’s your turn. But don’t worry; it’s going to be a cliff-hanger!"
So, there I was, at the bottom of a hill in Scotland, battered, bruised and broken, and at the top of the hill, looking down at me, the dastardly Janine. At the time there was a bit of controversy, did he fall or was he pushed? Did she mean to push me away from her, and I tripped and fell over my own feet, or did she mean to push me off? Not many people think I tripped and fell over my own feet. About 40% of people usually say that she meant to push you, and the other 50% couldn’t give a damn really.
Did you have any work lined up when you left EastEnders?
I had some good work lined up when I left. I went straight into a panto, which doesn’t sound like a lot but whilst I was doing it I was still on screen, because you are on screen several weeks after you leave, so it was well paid.
Then I did do some muppet work that I’m not proud of. I did some good things; I taught in a school for 2 weeks as part of an experiment with Janet Street Porter and Tamara Beckwith, but it was really eye opening how hard it is to be a teacher. How they let us loose with real kids, unbelievable! We marked the homework, did everything, and took sports.
But, I also did Celebrity Sex Change (Gender Swap) with Carol Smillie where I became a woman and she became a man. This involved 5 hours of getting done up in latex and I still just looked like a bloated transvestite version of myself.
And then I got the phone call. I was out in the garden and my wife came out and said Ricky Gervais is on the phone. ‘Don’t think so!’ She said it is, ‘it’s him!’ Now, at the time Steve Penk used to do these fake phone calls. He was a great mimic and he used to phone people up and wind them up. In fact Les Dennis famously hung up on Ricky. I thought if that was an impersonator it’s good, so I listened to him.
What Ricky does is he phones you personally. He gets your number, God knows where from, and it’s very clever because by the time he hangs up you have sworn to do his show and by the time they phone your agent he is like “I could have got you more money!” It wasn't about money, obviously, I loved The Office. He was one of the hottest things on television, him and Stephen Merchant, and I thought yeah, I will do it.
What was it like working with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant?
Working with them was great. When you leave a soap you need something to keep the ball in the air and the two series of Extras, and the Christmas Special, and the Life’s Too Short; 4 episodes and the Easter special, and they put me in The Invention of Lying as well, only a small part, it really kept the ball in the air for another 3 years. I still get royalty cheques from it. I can never really thank them enough for it.
They warned me that I was going to get ribbed and I said go for it, and unfortunately, they did. So, whether it was me sitting in the corner of an office shining Stephen’s shoes, or having to plunge the toilet, compared to what they did to some other people I got off quite lightly, but I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.
I remember the first series of Extras; I was in 4 episodes, but they were all in the office with Stephen so we filmed it in two days. I thought, well, that was fun, and then when series 2 dropped on the mat I was in all 6 but out of the office and working with people like David Bowie, I got to be in the same scenes as Bowie and it was great.
They never really conferred with me about what was going to go in to the script. I think when you have got some people as good as Ricky and Stephen you leave it up to them; but what they were very good at was they said that if you want to improvise in the middle of a scene and chuck something in then go for it. Now, you’re very rarely going to think of something better than their script but there was a couple of times when I did come up with stuff that they kept in.
Unfortunately Ricky has this habit where he just screams with laughter; he can’t even hold it to the end of the scene, so the couple of times that I managed to sneak something in, he just howled with laughter and then we had to stop and do it again.
That’s what is endearing about him. If anyone has seen the outtakes from the Extras episodes, I think he wrecks about 26 takes with Patrick Stewart. They turn up on set, they know exactly what they want to do, and let’s say you are meant to be done by 5:30, you are done by 3.
Amid all this anarchy there is a structure that works, and is in a way highly professional, and they know what they want and they get it done. So, it is great working with them.
When did you first start after dinner speaking?
My first engagement in after dinner speaking came through nepotism, it was through a cousin of mine who worked for a bank. He said that they have found out you are related to me and have asked if you would like to come along and do a speech. I said I would love to and asked how much. He said and I asked ‘how much?! Yeah, I will be there!’ It was a bank, you know.
So then I thought, what am I going to do now? I said to him to tell them I have done dozens, but I had never done one. For the first and only time, I employed a comic speech writer who wrote me a speech. A lot of it was pertinent to the bank, so after that it was useless, but there were certain snippets; the beginning, the end, the middle, that I still use because it is a structure, a framework, and I still work around this framework of the very first speech I ever did.
Of course you put your own product knowledge in, whether it is a bank, or a building society, or school; you put your own product knowledge in the middle.
I sort of took to it like a duck to water, I just really enjoy them. I think I enjoy doing after dinner speeches more than anything, apart from singing. So, often I will say to a client, “Do you want me to walk on to Mustang Sally? and if they are Ricky Gervais fans they get the joke from Extras and say yes, they would love that.
So, that’s what I love doing. That is my strength. I walk on, singing a song, give it a big 10 minutes opener, then maybe string an awards ceremony together, with little drips and drabs of the stand-up comedy going in between the awards, big finish at the end, another song, then to the bar!
I love it, it gets you all over the country, you’re very privileged, you’re well paid, you get to meet some very nice people, and it’s about as much fun as you can have, I think, doing one of those.
How do you prepare yourself to perform at an event or dinner?
As soon as I turn up at a venue to do an after dinner speech I go in to what I would call Shaun/Barry mode. Because I am a little bit shy you do sort of act the evening, but I don’t mean that in a negative way.
Don’t underestimate how it feels sometimes to walk in to a room, and there is 150/200 people, and you are the attraction. It can be quite daunting, so you have to have that front to get around and meet everyone.
Luckily I like people. You hear stories about people who turn up, would rather not eat, do their speech and then go home afterwards, and fair enough, a lot of us are shy, but I can’t do that. I want to be there, I want to eat with them, and I rarely don’t go to the bar afterwards. I was at one recently until gone 2 in the morning.
I just believe that if you turn up, and you are part of a bank’s do, be part of the bank for the night. Be part of the staff, be part of the crew. It’s their big night - be part of it!
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