Shaun Williamson is More Than an Extra

The former Eastender straps on his dancing shoes for Rhinestone Mondays at the Grand Opera House

Shaun Williamson is looking forward to visiting Belfast again. He has family from Enniskillen (‘although most of them are dead now’) and will be grabbing a pint with his friend, prizefighter Martin Rogan.

The reason Williamson will be at the Grand Opera House is to play Brian in Rhinestone Mondays, but people will still point him out on the street as Barry from Eastenders.

It is a syndrome common to ex-soap stars. In Williamson’s case, however, such notoriety is perhaps due less to his actual stint on the BBC show and more to his role on Ricky Gervais’ post-Office sitcom, Extras.

‘I owe a lot to Ricky,’ Williamson admits. ‘After you leave a soap, you have to keep your ball in the air. He helped me do that.’ And occasionally still does, in fact, with Williamson having appeared briefly in Gervais’ Hollywood comedy, The Invention of Lying.

Grateful or not, it can’t have been easy playing himself as a hapless actor whose name no-one could remember in Extras – the fate that most actors leaving soaps struggle to avoid. Williamson laughs. ‘Not at all. It is easy playing a loser when it’s on one of the hottest comedy shows around.’

The idea of being typecast doesn’t worry him either. Williamson admits that will be happy to have had a long career playing loveable losers. Characters like Fletch in the recent stageplay of Porridge, gentleman hacker Martin Fallon on New Tricks and Digby Digworth, the inept journalist who Williamson plays on popular children’s TV programme, Scoop.

‘I am immensely proud of Scoop,’ Williamson says, sounding bouncy even down a phone line. ‘It is one of the biggest kid's shows on TV. It’s passed Tracy Beaker in popularity!’ Best of all for dad-of-two Williamson is that, unlike Eastenders or Extras, Scoop is something he can let his children watch. ‘No swearing,’ he says. ‘No violence. I remember shows like this from when I was a kid.’

From the sounds of it, his character in Rhinestone Mondays might also come under the loveable loser umbrella. Based in a generic England failing sports and social club, Rhinestone Mondays follows the romantic adventures and petty rivalries of a linedancing group.

Williamson plays the club owner, Brian, a man with an eye for the main chance (or dance, in this case). Determined to keep the linedancers coming back for more, he fills the club with plastic cacti and dresses like a Wild West bartender.

For Williamson, a life-long fan of country music stars like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, it was the music that attracted him to the role. However, he says it is the dancing – rather than the singing or the acting – that gives him the most pleasure.

‘I dance like a brick!’ he admits frankly. ‘I mean, I can dance. The last time I was in Belfast was with Saturday Night Fever, so people have seen me dance. I’m just not good at it, so it is really satisfying when I get it right.’ Which he invariably does, as all great actors do.

Rhinestone Mondays is at the Grand Opera House from October 11 – 15. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On section for more information.