It's been nearly 20 years since Shaun Williamson left EastEnders and people are still calling him "Barry" – including, sometimes, himself. In fact, the actor is currently preparing to tour the country with Barrioke, a night of entertainment described as a "feel-good karaoke party". But while a decade in Albert Square launched his career, we shouldn't underestimate the role that Extras played in keeping "Barry from EastEnders" in the public consciousness. After all, it was in the season 1 finale that Williamson first belted out his rendition of Mustang Sally – proclaiming that "microphones are for wimps" – which has since become one of his signature tracks.


The acclaimed sitcom hit screens in 2005, scooping up Williamson fresh from his soap opera exit, in which his character was pushed off a cliff by cold-hearted lover, Janine (Charlie Brooks). Co-creator Ricky Gervais had first contacted him about the role, phoning "out of the blue" in what Williamson initially thought to be a "wind-up call". Not long after, he was in the comic's London office, shared with Extras co-creator Stephen Merchant, and the duo took him through their first six episodes – which included an Oscar-hungry Kate Winslet and a farcical feud between Ross Kemp and Vinnie Jones.

The role painted Williamson as one of two clients belonging to utterly useless talent agent Darren Lamb (Merchant), with the other being Andy Millman (Gervais), an aspiring actor relegated to background work. Given that he had only recently left EastEnders when Extras came out, it was perhaps a bit unfair to already be ribbing his career so relentlessly. But he was more than happy to accept some jokes at his expense – especially as he wouldn't be the only one.

"They said, 'Well, you will get the mickey taken out of you, but everyone's going to get the mickey taken out of them'," Williamson told "I thought, I’ve got to be part of this. So I said yes, and it was the best decision I've ever made in my life."

By the time of the Extras Christmas special – the feature-length finale, which turns 15 this year – he was actively giving Gervais and Merchant "ammunition" for their gags. For example, a line in which Darren tells Shaun to "keep your hair transplant on" came directly from Williamson's tip-off that he had undergone the procedure in real-life. The barb is one of many hysterical interactions between Merchant's hapless agent and his most-loved client, albeit one whose name he consistently gets wrong – insisting on calling him "Barry" or "Baz" in every scene.

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Williamson explained: "Their relationship does come from a place of great affection. Barry desperately needs the work, whether it's scraping s**t off his shoes or a bit of artexing sometimes – when Darren found him, he was sleeping in his car. But also Darren needs him because, even though it's Barry from EastEnders, it's the one client that people would know. They need each other, really."

That much becomes clear when Andy drops Darren as his agent, following the inexplicable success of his critically panned sitcom When the Whistle Blows. The devastating knock is the last nudge Darren needs to leave the cutthroat world of entertainment and head back to the Carphone Warehouse, taking Shaun and fellow soap alum Dean Gaffney with him. Fortunately, it works out remarkably well for the trio, who find some contentedness in pleasing customers, grooving to ringtones and chatting about the latest gossip.

Events unfold less favourably for Andy himself, whose hubris drives him to cancel his sitcom and burn bridges with the BBC, expecting his hotshot new representation to land him gigs in Hollywood. As it turns out, that's little more than a fantasy. As his star begins to rapidly fade in the months that follow, Andy finds that the press, the public and his very own agent are increasingly disinterested in having anything to do with him. Williamson praises the accuracy and authenticity of the storyline, which feels only more relevant today as our obsession with celebrity persists.

The Extras Christmas special features cameos from George Michael, Clive Owen, David Tennant and Gordon Ramsay
The Extras Christmas special features cameos from George Michael, Clive Owen, David Tennant and Gordon Ramsay BBC/BritBox

"It's a brutal business," he said. "Of course, he has his moment of fame in the sitcom – which I have to admit, and I don't care what anyone thinks, I would watch – and some actors realise that is their forte. They know their strength. And the thing is that Andy doesn’t. He's pushing it like, I suppose, all actors should do, but he's not quite getting it that drama maybe isn’t his forte.

"It happens in real life, it happens all the time," Williamson continued. "People think 'Well, I'm gonna go for this' and they leave something that's really solid and profitable for them and try to push it a bit and discover that it's a tough old business… I know I've found my level and I'm here if anyone wants me for a bit of Chekhov, but I know where I can maximise what I do."

Andy's career downturn ends somewhere he never wanted to be: Celebrity Big Brother. The fictional series imagined by Extras featured cameos from X Factor contestant Chico, Steps singer Lisa Scott-Lee, broadcaster June Sarpong and the late Lionel Blair, who went on to do the real show in 2014, aged 85. Williamson admires "visionaries" Gervais and Merchant for their clairvoyant prediction of the future, but is in no way judging – after all, he himself signed up for the show in 2017 and was under no illusions about why he was there.

Ricky Gervais stars in the Extras Christmas special
Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) enters the Big Brother house in the Extras Christmas special BBC

"I was newly divorced and I just really needed money to get remarried and put a deposit on a house, so that's what I was doing," he explained. "You understand that you’re prostituting yourself and you’ve just got to get on with it. And it is funny that there's people in there that think it's furthering their career because it f**king ain’t. The only people whose career it will further is if you are from reality TV; if you're a singer or an actor, of course it’s not."

Ultimately, Andy dramatically quits the show with a fiery speech that indicts people desperate for fame at any cost and the press who encourage them. Superbly performed by Gervais, the moment has added emotional heft as a reconciliatory gesture between Andy and his daft but well-meaning friend, Maggie (Ashley Jensen), after their relationship was nearly destroyed by his blindly self-centred actions. Oblivious as ever, agent Darren misinterprets the monologue completely, believing the apology to be directed at him; a comforting delusion that Shaun decides not to shatter.

It's the last of several sage judgements from the character in this special, where he also quotes profound musings from Henri Matisse and John Updike, with Williamson enjoying that the writers made him a "working-class philosopher". He describes the climactic Big Brother scene as a "brilliant" way to cap off the show, which ends with Andy ditching a bustling press conference to go on an adventure with Maggie, who was earlier lamenting having never left the country. Kudos to Ashley Jensen for her heartbreaking performance in this special, depicting a struggle with poverty and loneliness that plays in stark contrast to Andy's trivial wrestle with stardom.

"You have to come from a place of tragedy to try and fit the end," said Williamson, citing The Office and Only Fools as fellow sitcoms that have dabbled in genuine drama. "And of course, we all wanted Maggie and Andy to get together, but it was still quite platonic at the end, I think.

Stephen Merchant, Dean Gaffney and Shaun Williamson in the Extras Christmas special
Stephen Merchant, Dean Gaffney and Shaun Williamson in the Extras Christmas special BBC

"I think it is a classic," he continued. "It's one of those things that will obviously still be watched when I'm dead, which is quite nice, really. I was lucky enough to have some great moments in EastEnders that I think will be shown whenever they play outtakes or clips, but to be in something this solid that I know will still be shown in 20 to 30 years’ time is great."

Williamson reunited with Gervais and Merchant for their Extras follow-up Life's Too Short, while he also appeared in the former's 2009 feature film The Invention of Lying. "I owe them a hell of a lot," he tells, praising their loyalty to people that has often stretched across many years and multiple projects. Eagle-eyed viewers of this Christmas special will spot cameos from Karl Pilkington (who later became the duo's Idiot Abroad) and Kerry Godliman (eventual star of Gervais's Derek and After Life).

In terms of his career, Williamson said that Extras "kept the ball in the air really nicely [after EastEnders], because if you leave a soap you've got to have something to go onto, otherwise people really do think you're a one-trick pony". And the benefits of his role on the show are still being felt to this day.

"I think a lot of writers, producers and directors were probably quite young and at uni at the time – and loved Extras. So the amount of jobs I've got from it has just been unbelievable," he added. "People want to work with you to talk about Ricky!"

As for his counterpart on the show, Williamson imagines: "They lost the Carphone Warehouse during the pandemic. And I think they're both now just doing odd jobs and living together in a little flat. In the evenings, they’ll watch telly and critique it – Darren would be talking about who he’d have as a client. They're in their own little world, but still plotting comebacks – still working on one-person shows for me."

Surely, nothing could beat his Romeo and Juliet.

Extras is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Comedy coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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