Gary Beadle: how I took on the curse of EastEnders – and won

Albert Square’s bad boy was told leaving would end his career. But he has no regrets. He relives his journey from Bugsy Malone to existential Cormac McCarthy play

Gary Beadle fell in love with Bugsy Malone when he was a boy growing up in Bermondsey, an area south of the Thames with a rough reputation. “We used to sneak into the cinema and watch it,” he remembers. “So we devised a play. We did it in the community hall. I played Fizzy the caretaker. My brother played Tallulah.” He laughs. “Says it all, right? It was art.”

Rikki, his older brother, decided to invite the film’s director, Alan Parker. “In those days, you could go through the Yellow Pages and find people. My brother went through every Alan Parker, found his offices, called him, and invited him. He was going to come but he couldn’t because he was a big star. His personal assistant came. She fell in love with myself, my brother and my younger sister.”

She recommended the siblings for Anna Scher’s theatre school in Islington. Its alumni list, especially for actors from working-class backgrounds, is long: Kathy Burke and Dexter Fletcher in its earlier days, Daniel Kaluuya and Adam Deacon more recently. “Anna Scher had a waiting list of four years but we were fast-tracked by this PA who said, ‘You’ve got to take these kids from the street. If you don’t take them in, you’re going to lose them.’”

Beadle has been working steadily ever since, and Rikki Beadle-Blair, now an acclaimed director, never misses a performance. “Rikki is my idol,” says Beadle. “He’s the genius of the family, the whole reason I’m an actor.”

Bad news … Beadle with Charlie Brooks in EastEnders.
Bad news … Beadle with Charlie Brooks in EastEnders. Photograph: Adam Pensotti/BBC

Beadle, who taught himself to read and write “quite late”, says he “never had that proper education. But what I did have was freedom of expression. I could be what I wanted and so could my brother.” He grins. “My brother’s as camp as Christmas. Never was in the closet. He was who he was. He was born that way. We were lucky. We lived in a really rough part of south-east London, but we created this bubble, and I think being taken to museums and art exhibitions by really cool, hippy teachers, who just wanted to do their bit, was the best thing.”

We are in the foyer of the newly opened Boulevard theatre in Soho, London. Beadle is in rehearsals for Terry Johnson’s production of The Sunset Limited, a tense two-hander by the novelist Cormac McCarthy. The premise is simple: two men, known only as White and Black, meet on a New York subway platform and begin to talk. “It’s very quick, sharp, witty,” says Beadle. “A meeting of minds, philosophies and beliefs. But it’s laced with humour, pace and emotional journeys. And little rabbit holes where you’re like, ‘Whoa, we’re going here?’ Then – bang – it all makes sense. More than anything, it’s funny. But, essentially, it’s about spirituality versus intellect.”

It took Beadle many years to call himself an actor. “I’d deny it. I never ever said I was an actor. Where I come from, to be an actor meant you were a bit soft. You’re supposed to be a plumber, a brickie, work on the docks or something. When I got to 15, 16, and I had to make a decision, I was still in denial. I thought the best I could be was a cinema manager. I swear to God.”

He takes a rare pause. “There’s a romance about this business, it can break your heart. There’s times where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been doing this most of my life, but I don’t think I can act. I’ve been lying to myself all along.’ So I had to reinvent myself. And I did that through theatre, which is where I started.”

A string of stage roles … The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco at the Gate, London, in 2015.
A string of stage roles … The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco at the Gate, London, in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

For those of us who saw him on EastEnders, the differences between Beadle and his old character, Paul Trueman, are striking. While Trueman was the cunning bad boy of Albert Square who kept his cards close to his chest, Beadle is friendly, funny and candid. It’s rare to meet someone who speaks so quickly but never stumbles, and his many tangents always come back around. EastEnders was Beadle’s longest gig, lasting more than three and a half years. He hasn’t looked back.

“When I walked away from EastEnders, they weren’t happy about it but I wanted to move on.” The challenge that comes after leaving such a high-profile job appealed to him. “The test was, ‘Can you do EastEnders and then work again afterwards?’ Apparently, everyone who does it never works again. I liked the odds on that. I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can pull it off.’” Since he left in 2004, Beadle has worked at the National, Almeida and Royal Court theatres, and had roles on various TV dramas including Patrick Melrose. Recently, he has been filming for Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s TV series set in London’s Caribbean community from the late 60s to the early 80s.

Beadle has always acted, but music nearly tempted him away. He discovered hip-hop while working in New York and began making instrumentals and writing lyrics with a friend when he returned to the UK. They were called the City Limits Crew and even supported Run-DMC on tour. “It got to a point where I had to make a decision and say, ‘Look, I’m going to leave this and just do my acting.’”

Music remains a big part of his life, though. “I don’t know if you know a band called WSTRN?” he asks. I have – they won a Mobo for best newcomer in 2016. “Louis Rei,” he says, referring to one of the band members. “That’s my son. I’m proud of him, but I can’t cramp his style, baby. I just watch from afar and think, ‘God, that’s what I wanted to do.’”

He trails off. “All musos want to be actors and all actors want to be musos.” Would he do music again? Or a musical? “No, I can’t sing, babes. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t want to be in the back harmonising. What’s the point? Solo or nothing. It sounds really up my own hole, but it’s true. I want to be the best. No? OK then, I’ll just watch other people.”

Is that why he stuck with acting? He felt like he could be the best? “I try, darling. There’s a chance.”

• The Sunset Limited is at the Boulevard theatre, London, until 29 February.


Bridget Minamore

The GuardianTramp

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