Shaun Williamson on quizzing, meeting his secret son and why he's not expecting a call from Line of Duty

Shaun Williamson has written a new book about competitive quizzing. Picture: PAShaun Williamson has written a new book about competitive quizzing. Picture: PA
Shaun Williamson has written a new book about competitive quizzing. Picture: PA
Ex-EastEnders actor Barry Williamson has reinvented himself as a quiz ace and has now written a book about his general knowledge skills. Hannah Stephenson speaks to him about that - and much more besides.

EastEnders’ hapless buffoon Barry Evans would have been hopeless in a pub quiz – but you’d certainly want his alter ego, actor Shaun Williamson, on your team.

“The only good thing for me that came out of lockdown was trying to find out if there is a national quiz obsession and if people are as excited as I am,” says the former soap star who also sent himself up on Ricky Gervais’ hit comedy Extras and Life’s Too Short.

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His quizzing victories include two Pointless trophies and he was a winner in the first series of Celebrity Mastermind in 2003 (his specialist subject was Richard Burton).

“Quizzing combines our two national passions of drinking and wanting to be right,” he declares.

Williamson, 54, has spent time in lockdown completing his quizzing memoir A Matter Of Facts, which charts his performance in the World Quiz Grand Prix and sees him move upwards in British quiz rankings.

Quiz questions, facts, plus his experience and knowledge are interspersed with tales of his life on and off screen, his relationship with alcohol and the discovery that he had a secret son.

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He’s able to retain social histories and is an avid reader of autobiographies. His weaknesses, he says, are figures and science. The book shows how he has improved his skills through memory training, practice and even hypnosis. And it gave him something to do during lockdown.

“Lockdown wiped out my income. This was the first year we could have broken even, but that’s gone down the Swanee because a lot of my income came from live performances. I do stand-up and singing on cruise ships, at festivals and holiday camps.

“I’m luckier than some actors because I’ve got savings, but this profession has been left high and dry.”

Today, he lives in Kent with his second wife, Adele, who works in childcare, and is still recognised as amiable loser Barry Evans, the EastEnders character he played for 10 years before moving on to theatre and panto as well as TV shows including Celebrity Big Brother and Britain’s Brightest Celebrity Family.

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He left EastEnders in 2004 and admits the legacy of Barry has perhaps precluded him from meatier roles.

“You make a conscious decision when you leave a soap that you either stay on the path of being a serious dramatic actor or you become a TV personality and I erred towards the latter.

“That means they won’t hire me to be the serial killer in the next series of Line Of Duty because they would feel I lack credibility in that sort of role. But it does mean you get lots of juicy well-paid work – I did Five Go Barging last year and what a craic to be on a barge for two weeks with John Prescott!

“No-one’s going to pay me to be Uncle Vanya in Chekhov and there is something a little bit tragic about that, but that’s just the way it goes.”

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He married Adele in 2018. What’s married life like second time around?

“Great,” he says simply. “Melanie (his first wife and former manager) was a very important part of my life. We had 25 years together and two beautiful children (Joe and Sophie) so it’s terrible when these things end. Sometimes things just come to a natural conclusion. We keep in touch.”

He met Adele through mutual friends. “She’s funny, very protective of me and very caring and supportive,” he says.

Yet only seven years ago Williamson’s life was unsettled when he discovered that he had another son, Gary, from a relationship he’d had with a circus performer 32 years earlier, when he was just 22.

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“After we split up, she told me she was pregnant. I was going to America to work but told her when I returned I would help out. When I got back, she had married a man who had gone on the birth certificate as the father.

“It was easy in my twisted mind to think ‘It’s his’, but I knew in the back of my mind that this would come to the fore one day.”

When Melanie contacted him to say she’d received an email from an old friend from the circus who wanted to get back in touch with him, he knew. Gary, who was living in Ireland at the time, was looking for a reconciliation.

They met in a hotel in Belfast. Williamson admits he was full of trepidation.

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“I felt really nervous – you’re not sure whether he’s going to be aggressive or resentful. All those nerves were going on. But he was an absolutely charming lad and is a great stepbrother to Joe and Sophie.

“It’s amazing how he’s slotted in to the family. He’s a top bloke. I’m very proud of him. You make a lot of mistakes when you’re younger and hopefully you stop making them when you’re middle aged. In a selfish way, it drew that chapter to a close. It was a great relief and now we’re great mates.”

It’s now 16 years since EastEnders’ Barry Evans was murdered – dramatically pushed by his wife Janine Butcher over a cliff – but Williamson hasn’t ruled out appearing in another soap.

“I love Emmerdale and Coronation Street. I think the acting in these shows is as good as it’s ever been. They are just not getting the figures because people have got more leisure options, more channels.

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“I caught the tail end of it in the mid-1990s when there were only four channels. We’d get 20 million people tune in on a Tuesday night when there wasn’t even a murder. That’s why the Barry thing has carried on because anyone over 30 just remembers him because there was only a documentary about cheese on the other side.”

He keeps in touch with Lucy Speed, who played Barry’s first wife Natalie, Tony Caunter, who played his dad Roy, and Dean Gaffney (Robbie Jackson).

He has gained a new generation of fans who have seen him as a satirical parody of himself in Extras.

“You need to keep the ball in the air when you leave a soap, otherwise you go through this dangerous period when, if you don’t get something quickly, people perceive you as being a one-hit wonder.

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“When the call came, Ricky said, ‘You’re going to get the mickey taken out of you’ and I said, ‘Go for it!’ I even gave them some of the ammunition in the end.

“When the second series dropped on the mat, I was in all six episodes, one with David Bowie – it was amazing. Then they put me in a Christmas special when me and Gaffney were in a Carphone Warehouse because they couldn’t get a job. It was very funny, done with a heart.”

He went on to appear in Life’s Too Short with Warwick Davis.

He’s already started a second book about health, alcohol and fitness and his quest to get from 15½ stones to below 13, but he’ll keep quizzing too, he says.

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“The top quizzers just have a weird brain. Something magic happens, which leads to the retention of facts.”

A Matter Of Facts by Shaun Williamson is published by Cassell, priced £16.99. Available now

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