“Johnny Allen can’t be alive... unless his death was a dream!” Billy Murray on his EastEnders legacy and still being a leading man at the age of 80
The actor speaks exclusively to Johnathon Hughes about his new film Nemesis and how the Krays helped launch his career.
It’s been 15 years since Billy Murray made his dramatic exit from EastEnders as gangster Johnny Allen, but it seems you can’t keep a good villain down – despite being killed off, some hardcore fans are convinced the character could be rising from the dead. What does the man who immortalised him have to say about that?
“I keep getting asked on social media when I’m going back, people are adamant it’s happening because they show my picture on Ruby’s desk all the time,” Murray tells RadioTimes.com in an exclusive interview. “He can’t be alive! I have to refute it each time. He could maybe come back as a twin brother, or step out of the shower like Bobby Ewing in Dallas if his death turned out to be a dream. Though I don’t look good in the shower any more so I’m ruling that one out!”
His presence is still strongly felt in the Square: Johnny lives on through his orphaned daughter Ruby, played by Louisa Lytton, who returned to the show in 2018 after an absence of over a decade, all grown up and ready to take on her dastardly dad’s mantle as someone not to be messed with.
Murray admits he doesn’t watch the soap much these days, but is amused to hear his on-screen offspring has become a chip off the old block. Ruby’s recent storylines include stealing her best friend’s husband, lying she was pregnant to trap him, discovering she actually was pregnant only to suffer a miscarriage, then falsely blaming aforementioned best mate for causing her tragic loss during a scuffle.
“It’s in the genes!” laughs the actor. “I brought her up well, didn’t I? I’m glad Louisa’s doing well back in the show, and I hear Ruby’s become very wealthy and powerful. She must know where I hid all the money!”
Johnny, along with corrupt cop Don Beech in much-missed police drama The Bill, is one of the most famous roles in Murray’s long TV and film career that began in the early 1960s, and typical of the kind of parts he’s most associated with.
Born and raised in London’s east end, Murray has always brought authenticity to characters from the shadier side of life. As a youth, he was friends with Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who famously kick-started his career by paying for his first term of acting lessons at the East 15 drama school.
“When I went to pay the money back they said ‘Don’t worry about it,’” he recalls. “But I’ve been paying it back ever since, all these years later I’m still mentioning their names and what they did for me!”
It’s not just baddies you’ll find in Murray’s impressive back catalogue. The actor was pipped to the post by David Jason for the part of Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses… in 1981, and was a TV regular in a raft of popular shows – everything from avant-garde musical hit Rock Follies, to period drama A Family at War to iconic cops and robbers favourite The Sweeney – before settling into the tough guy lane when he began a 10 year-stretch as The Bill’s Beech from 1995 – still the actor’s favourite role, and perhaps the one that still defines him. “To hold an audience’s attention with the same character for a decade, I feel very good about that.
“As an actor, you look in the mirror and what looks back at you goes to work. Time goes by, but you can’t change that. People like me in the darker roles, and casting directors see me being good in something then think of me if they’re casting for a similar project. That’s just what happens.”
Now almost 80 years old, and imbued with well-earned gravitas and legendary status in the genre, Murray remains the go-to guy for big screen gangsters – his latest film Nemesis (released on 29th March) is an intense thriller about a crime kingpin’s past coming back to haunt him. Gathering his family for a dinner party, unaware of his guests’ hidden agendas, the evening descends into a violent, tense, high stakes home invasion nightmare that is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
“It was inspired by a cult film called The Penthouse from 1967,” explains Murray. “It’s all set in one location, an apartment, where a couple are terrorised by a couple of thugs. It was very ahead of it’s time. The producer, Jonathan Sothcott, and I discussed doing something with the idea and he got a script together about two years ago.”
Incredibly, Nemesis was shot in London in the midst of 2020’s pandemic, just as government-approved regulations for the film and TV were introduced to get the industry going again after Britain’s first lockdown.
“We worked through all that, did everything right, distanced where we could. We were inspected throughout and it was OK. Our producer pulled off a miracle, I really admire him. Yes it was restrictive, and restricting, in some ways but we got through it.”
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The cast is a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces from the genre, including Nick Moran, Julian Glover and Frank Harper, plus Ambra Moore, granddaughter of the late Sir Roger Moore who as Murray’s daughter. “She was very humble and didn’t flaunt her family connection at all. Russell Kane is in the movie, he’s a big James Bond fan and had no idea he was working with Roger Moore’s granddaughter until later on!”
Gamers will also know Murray’s distinctive tones from the Call of Duty series, in which he voiced Captain John Price in three instalments between 2007 and 2011. “For gamers, Captain Price is a bigger deal than Brad Pitt,” he reflects. “That was an amazing experience, and in a way is my most iconic role because Call of Duty is so big. I’m not doing the latest ones, I’d have to throw myself around on a blue screen in full combat gear and there’s no way I could do all that. I’m far too old.
“Someone younger and more capable is doing it now [British actor Barry Sloane] and doing a very good job, and you can quote me on that. I wasn’t offered it but they know I’m too old. You have to move on, and sometimes be moved on as well.”
Murray is thrilled to still be a leading man as he approaches his milestone age in October, and is effusive about the fast-paced TV in which he established his reputation.
“Being in a soap or continuing drama is one of the hardest jobs on TV. De Niro or Pacino couldn’t do what Steve McFadden or Danny Dyer do in EastEnders. None of those big names could walk in and do it because they’d want rehearsals and you there’s no time for for that, and it’s all shot out of sequence.
“I look back at those shows fondly. Someone posted my very first scene from The Bill on Twitter recently and I could remember every single word like it was yesterday.”
Sadly for Beech fans, as with his EastEnders alter ego, Murray is ruling out reviving the character, and also believes the time has passed for a Bill reboot despite many fan campaigns.
“Well, I live on a farm now so I’ve to mow the lawns and look after all that. I also collect cars and make sure they’re running OK, and have grandchildren who I adore. So to be honest I’ve got enough on my plate these days!”
Nemesis is released on DVD and digital download on 29th March 2021. If you're looking for something to watch tonight, head to our TV Guide.
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