Home Tv & Show EastEnders' Billy Murray recalls playing hard man Johnny Allen on BBC soap

EastEnders' Billy Murray recalls playing hard man Johnny Allen on BBC soap

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Billy Murray

Billy Murray insists there’s no resurrection on the card for Johnny Allen (Image: NC )

There’s only one problem, the debonair gangster is, in Cockney parlance, “brown bread”. “There is no Easter resurrection on the cards for Johnny Allen,” actor Billy Murray insists. “Ever since my screen daughter Ruby’s latest storyline kicked in, people keep asking when Johnny is coming back. I get it every day because they keep showing the photo of me on Ruby’s desk. “I tell them Johnny was killed off” – via a heart attack in prison – “but they don’t buy it. After all, the producers brought Den back from the dead, and Kathy Beale…”

It would be the greatest comeback since Lazarus…or at least since Dirty Den. EastEnders fans are convinced that, any day now, Johnny Allen will be back stalking the mean streets of Walford.

Billy, 79, a genuine Cockney, adds, “Being in EastEnders was the hardest work I ever did. Even working as a scaler in the docks, cleaning the sludge out of oil tankers, wasn’t as knackering.

“I admire soap actors; they really have it tough. You learn your words at night, go in the next day and there’s a five-page rewrite waiting for you – to be shot that day. Pacino wouldn’t do that!

“I made an American film called One In The Chamber with Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren came on set with his own director, his own acting coach, his own fighting coach…can you imagine him doing EastEnders? I couldn’t do it now.

“I’m 80 this year, it’s too much. That’s why I don’t do Call Of Duty anymore” – Billy played special forces sniper Captain John Price in three different variations of the best-selling video-game.

Johnny tells his daughter Ruby that she needs to learn about gratitude

Johnny tells his daughter Ruby that she needs to learn about gratitude (Image: Adam Pensotti/BBC)

“It’s filmed against a green screen, so you dress up and throw yourself around…at my age, getting out of bed is difficult.”

Murray has portrayed hard-men all of his career and plays underworld kingpin John Morgan in his latest film, Nemesis. But no role has matched the impact of Johnny Allen, not even playing bent detective Don Beech in ITV’s The Bill for nine years.

Johnny casts his villainous shadow over Billy’s life to this day. “Only last night I had six calls between 11.30pm and 1.30 from some family in Ireland just wanting me to say a Johnny Allen quote down the phone,” he groans.

“People are generally fine; they just want to tell me they loved the show. It can be disconcerting out of lockdown when I’m shovelling spaghetti into my mouth and they want a selfie. I don’t mind though.”

Allen was written out by BBC bosses in 2006. “The new producer turned up on set and announced ‘This show is not about gangsters, it’s about the real East End’…so Johnny was killed off,” recalls Billy.

Billy and his daughter Jaime Murray

Billy and his daughter Jaime Murray arrive at the National Television Awards in 2005 (Image: Getty )

He laughs. “Have they watched it lately? They’ve got more gangsters than ever…

“Ruby has become quite ruthless. Johnny would approve. Louisa Lytton is a fine actress.”

Villainy has long been rife in east London, but few actors encountered it as directly as Murray.

The Kray Twins, who he met as a teenager boxer, paid to put him through drama school.

At the time he seemed destined to follow in their felonious footsteps.

“In my teens, I set aside seven years of my life for prison,” he says. “I believed thieving was the only way I’d make money. Then a very good friend got 15 years for an armed robbery he never did – although he probably deserved it for all the things he had done. I got a letter from him saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t end up in here. It’s not worth it’.”

William Albert Murray, a soft-spoken man with inner steel, is the eldest son of an Irish builder turned club bouncer.

He was born on October 6, 1941, in Forest Gate, east London.

After leaving school, he stacked shelves in the Canning Town Co-op then became a messenger in the docks. He had soccer trials for West Ham United and boxed from the age of 12 to 20.

Out of the ring, he was a self-confessed tearaway.

“If I hadn’t had a fight on a Friday night, I hadn’t had a good time,” he says. “That’s how it was. But it’s surprising how many people from back then made a success of their lives.”

Billy

Billy is a self-made millionaire through shrewd property investments (Image: Getty)

At sixteen he had his first court appearance for a fight in a Southend pub. “I was a Mod,” he says. “Quadrophenia was based on us.”

He was a roadie for the Small Faces, and still counts Mod icons Kenney Jones, Jimmy Winston and The Who’s Roger Daltrey among his closest friends.

Billy made his big-screen debut as an extra in the 1963 British comedy drama Two Left Feet. Getting to know actors changed his life.

“Tom Courtenay had a real working-class accent and I thought if he can do it, perhaps I could,” he recalls. “He got me an audition at Rada but I didn’t go in. I was intimidated by the place, so I went to East 15 drama college for three years instead and then did rep. I paid my acting dues.”

Being a defence witness for Charlie Kray in the 1990s was “my way of paying my debt to the Krays,” he says. “I told the truth about the Charlie I knew, who was a gentleman and a good boxer. I used to spar with him. In his younger days, he looked like Steve McQueen. The worst thing that befell him was having the name Kray.”

In 1998, Murray was accused of assaulting two self-confessed drug pushers who targeted teens.

Although he was acquitted, he was banned before the trial from returning to Essex – his 200-year-old mansion home is in Brentwood – and secretly lived rough on the set of The Bill.

Billy’s new film Nemesis, co-starring Nick Moran, was his idea, partly inspired by Peter Collinson’s 1967 movie The Penthouse. Although ostensibly about gangsters, Nemesis is actually a horror film. It’s just been picked up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in America.

Murray’s notable screen roles include playing Joey Davis in McVicar. He missed out on playing Charlie in The Long Good Friday as filming clashed with his Rock Follies tour.

Over the last ten years he’s appeared in fourteen films including We Steal The Old Way and Strippers Vs Werewolves – “a bit of fun,” he grins.

Billy has four grown-up children from two marriages.

His middle daughter Jaime, famous for her roles in Hustle and Dexter, is married to US lawyer/manager Bernie Cahill and lives in Palm Springs.

Murray is the first to admit he’s not easy to live with, describing himself as “an old-fashioned man with old-fashioned values”.

He is much calmer these days, he says. “I get up and something might irritate me for a couple of hours, like public clocks displaying the wrong time. But I get over it.”

The actor with his wife Elaine

The actor with his wife Elaine during her 70th birthday party lunch in Camden (Image: SOPA Images)

Royal detractors in the wake of the Markle/Oprah circus do wind him up however. “All this ‘what does the Queen do?’ nonsense annoys me. Have a look! She does a lot! She brings in billions. Harry is being manipulated, but William has come out of this well, as has our future queen.”

Billy, whose hobbies include collecting classic cars, is a self-made millionaire through shrewd property investments including his Docklands apartment.

He has more films in the pipeline. What’s his dream role, I wonder?

“To play Small Faces manager Don Arden” – Sharon Osbourne’s father – “in the film of Wilf Pine’s story, The Englishman & The Mafia,” he says. He knew late villain Pine, once the manager of Black Sabbath, well.

I ask when he’ll write his autobiography. Billy smiles and replies “Three more people have to die.”

He might be joking but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

• Nemesis is out now on digital platforms and DVD.



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