Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Shaun Williamson, actor

'I was quite a shy kid – still am'
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The Independent Online

Shaun Williamson, 43, played Barry Evans in 'EastEnders' from 1994 to 2003. He has also appeared in 'Extras', and in 'Rapunzel', part of the BBC1 'Fairy Tales' series (just released as an Acorn DVD). His stage work includes 'The Rocky Horror Show', 'Guys and Dolls' and 'Saturday Night Fever'

There was no kindergarten in Parkwood, our rather tough Maidstone council estate, so the first day at primary school was that much more traumatic. I'd never been parted from my mum: "Where are you going?" I said to her.

Holy Family Infants Primary was a Catholic school, and there were a couple of nuns on the teaching staff. Henry O'Shea was a wonderful headmaster, a rugby-playing Welshman who stormed around reciting poetry – Blake's "The Tyger", in particular. You shat yourself if you were sent to him, but he was a good bloke, not a malevolent presence. He was on my This is Your Life.

I don't think I ever liked school. I was quite a shy kid, still am. I was never sporty, a bit chubby. I think I was reasonably popular, but little things used to worry me. (My seven-year-old is the same. I say, "Son, it really doesn't matter. Tomorrow, it won't be a problem".) During the dress rehearsal for a school production, I lost the bobble hat my mother gave me. I wore someone else's but didn't want my mother to see; I had to hold up a banner saying "Seven swans a-swimming", and I hid behind it.

I can't remember anything about the 11-plus. The ones who passed went to grammar schools and I went to St Simon Stock Secondary Modern (I assume he was a martyr, bless him) in Oakwood Park, Maidstone. I had a strong aptitude for English and history. Anything to do with figures or science, I switched off. I'm more interested in them now, though.

When we were thinking of buying a house in France a few years ago, I found myself paying someone £20 an hour to teach me French. I wish I'd known that at school; I remember that the French teacher had big tits and wore tight trousers, which went down well, but otherwise I wasn't remotely interested. "Monsieur Dupont est dans le jardin." Is he?

The school was full of nice, well-meaning teachers, but I started playing truant and bunking off to the record shops in the town centre. I was caught and put "on report" for five months; I had to be signed in at every lesson. The head of Fourth Year was very progressive and made all the bad boys prefects, to give us a bit of responsibility. The kids would buy their five dinner tickets a week; we told them to write their names on them in pencil, then we'd rub it out and sell the tickets again at a lower price. We totally abused the poor man's trust. I was only a prefect for about a week but I made a fortune.

I was the first pupil in my year to get a job. The school let me leave two-and-a-half months before the exams, so long as I came back to take them. I remember being a total twat: I walked into the exam room and put my name on the paper and walked out. Ever since, I've been an avid quizzer – pub quizzes – and reader, to make up for a perceived gap in my knowledge.

At 27, I was going to be a supermarket manager, but got into the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. I knew this was my last chance, telling myself: "You've wasted one education; don't waste this!" It was fantastic, all of it. I think I got the most out of it because I was a bit older; the 18-year-olds were struggling with just being 18!

When I left, my first job was as a paramedic with eight lines in EastEnders, and after six months I went back as Barry. I was Barry for nine years, and then my wife pushed me off a cliff.