Great Britain

If it wasn’t for acting I would have been a jailbird the rest of my life, says EastEnders’ Sid Owen

AFTER a troubled childhood, EastEnders star Sid Owen found salvation in acting.

His mum Joan died from cancer when he was just seven while his violent, alcoholic dad ended up behind bars.

Here in our second extract of his book Rags To Ricky, he tells of his rise to stardom.

I WAS about six years old when I first saw the film Bugsy Malone. In hindsight, it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life.

It was the first time I was aware that children could be in a proper film. I was completely transfixed.

A whole film. All kids. About thieves and gangsters, as well.

A kind of old-time, glamorised version of my real life, without all the shy stuff! I was a seriously hyperactive child.

These days I would probably have been diagnosed with ADHD, post-traumatic stress, childhood abandonment issues, all that stuff.

And they’d have maybe found a proper way of dealing with me and calmed me down.

Instead, I was put in the special class at primary school for the naughty kids.

Many times I’d be dragged down the stairs to her office by my headmistress Ms Thomas and I’d be punching or kicking her, acting like a lunatic.

Poor woman.

Me and my brothers still basically lived on the streets. Everyone knew us.

We grew up with some heavy London underworld around us and because Mum had been well thought of and respected, there were always people looking out for us.

I was constantly in trouble. I didn’t give a f. I was wild, directionless and angry but beneath all the bravado was a scared, lonely and deeply insecure outsider who craved affection and acceptance.

I found an excuse to fight with anyone I wasn’t sure of, anyone who looked at me the wrong way.

NO MORE BREAK-INS FROM THEN ON

I experimented with alcohol from a young age. We’d smoke too.

I got arrested aged just ten when I broke into the school with a friend.

When we got in through a skylight, we didn’t even know what we were going to nick, just thought we’d take whatever we found.

Then we saw bikes and thought we’d get them and some sweets and cycle away.

We forgot how tricky it would be to climb over the fence with the bikes but somehow we managed it.

At the police station I was told: “This is a formal warning and if you do anything like this again, we’ll throw the book at you.”

It hit home that if I did anything like that again I’d be going to borstal, taken away from everyone and everything I knew.

Suddenly it became horribly real and didn’t seem much like fun. From then on, any thieving I did was petty. No more break-ins.

I kept to stuff I knew I could handle — like shoplifting. Nothing criminal beyond that.

Somehow, I managed not to get caught. I happened to be very good at it.

Sometimes we wandered around the shops: Hamleys, the toy shop on Regent Street; C&A; Selfridges; Harrods.

In C&A, I would grab a ski jacket because they were by the fire exits, at the bottom of the stairwell.

I’d put a ski jacket on and walk out.

The more I got into acting, the less I shoplifted — until it pretty much stopped altogether.

They say that if your dad’s been in prison, the likelihood of you going to prison is much higher and when you’ve grown up with family who’ve been in and out the nick like it’s an occupational hazard, it’s pretty hard to be one of the only ones who doesn’t end up inside.

If I’d not kept going with acting, I would have been a jailbird the rest of my life. Absolutely 100 per cent.

I became obsessed with joining Anna Scher’s drama group for kids in Islington, not far from our estate, after my friends Danny and Joanne got in.

The drama group had a policy that meant poor kids could enrol for 25p a week but there was a waiting list just to get an audition so they could see what you were about before taking you on.

I got my name on the list right away. I was so desperate to join, I’d go every week to find out if I’d reached the top.

Sid Owen's path to stardom

1972: Born in Islington, North London

1979: Mum Joan dies of cervical cancer aged 35

1982: Committed his first burglary

1980: Secures his first professional acting role in TV series The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist

1982: Given a formal police warning after being arrested for breaking into a school

1985: Wins a role in big-budget Hollywood movie Revolution alongside Al Pacino

1988: Joins Albert Square as Ricky Butcher aged 16

In the end, I drove Anna so mad that I got in. And I never looked back from then on.

I discovered I loved acting, even the hard graft.

We would learn monologues, plays, improvisation techniques, all that kind of stuff.

Because I was so hyper and easily distracted, sometimes I must have driven the teachers round the bend.

Luckily, they seemed to like something about me — enough to keep me on, anyway.

One day, at the end of class, Anna took me to one side and said: “There are some people coming for an audition. Can you make sure and be here next week?”

The casting agents came along, watched the class and chose who they wanted. Luckily, I was one of the ones to get picked.

I even got three days off school — officially — and got paid. Happy days! I wasn’t going to win any attendance prizes anyway.

So I’d landed my first professional role in a TV series called The Further Adventures Of Oliver Twist.

It was 1980 and I was eight years old.

It was just a small part, basically hanging about looking poor and shifty.

Can’t think why they thought I’d fit!

PACINO INVITED US TO STAY

In 1985, a few weeks after my 13th birthday, an opportunity came up for a part in an epic, big-budget film called Revolution.

At the audition the feed line was, “I have to tell you your mum’s died”, so the reaction they wanted was lots of emotion.

Of course, that line brought it all back for me — how it was losing my mum all those years before. And I felt it for real.

That was probably what got me the job, because I did a bloody good job of crying.

I was cast as Ned, the son of Al Pacino’s character Tom Dobb.

Drama lessons don’t come much better than working with Al Pacino.

By then, he was known for films like The Godfather, Serpico and Scarface, and had picked up several Oscar nominations.

When I started on Revolution, there was a lot for us to work through together to make our father-and-son relationship convincing, so we got into a routine where every day I’d go to his trailer and we’d run lines, whatever we were doing that day.

He knew I had no parents and was from a difficult background, though we didn’t really talk about it.

He didn’t have kids of his own then and I found out later he had considered adopting me.

One time he said: “Come out to New York when this is finished.”

We kept in touch and years later, I took my first serious girlfriend, Amanda, to New York where he invited us to stay with him and his partner at the time, Diane Keaton.

We still catch up every now and then.

NICK BERRY HAD AN E-TYPE

When I heard, aged 16, I had an audition for EastEnders, it almost knocked me off my feet.

My brothers were over the moon for me.

I was so happy and grateful, even though at the same time I was thinking: “F**k. Now I’ve got to do the job — and keep it.”

It was a bit daunting.

One thing about our community was that everyone was thrilled to hear my news, going, ‘He’s one of ours’. There was a real sense of pride.

Nick Berry played Simon “Wicksy” Wicks, and was such a lovely, modest guy.

Right from the start he made me feel so welcome and sort of protected me.

As soon as he discovered I was living in a squat in Islington, quite close to the posher bit where he’d bought a flat, he offered to drive me up to work and back again.

Nick used to be really into classic cars and I’ll never forget the first time he turned up outside the squat in a gleaming Jaguar E-Type, ready to drive me to work.

He was a big star, a proper household name, and when we arrived at the studio gates there were hordes of fans waiting.

As soon as they spotted him the screams went up: “Wicksy!” “Nick!” “I love you, Nick!” The car was mobbed.

Screaming girls waving banners and posters, begging for autographs.

I had never seen anything like it. It was like Beatlemania or something. I watched, open-mouthed, thinking, ‘F**ing hell!’

Years later, Nick said he could tell immediately that something was missing from my background.

He was from a stable family himself and quickly understood it was the kind of thing I yearned for.

It made him feel a bit more protective towards me when I was starting out on EastEnders and still very young.

Another reason the cast were more protective than normal was because EastEnders actors suddenly got famous.

So they did what they could to shield me. We became very tight-knit and close.

Mike Reid - who played my father Frank Butcher - was so good to me and made everyone around him laugh.

He was such a funny guy and took a shine to me straight away.

I would ham up my lovably dim and dippy Ricky and he would shout, ‘Rickaay!’.

None of us knew just how much that would catch on, especially when it came from Patsy Palmer playing Bianca later.

I’d found a new family, with new mums and dads, in EastEnders.

From Rags To Ricky by Sid Owen, published by Macmillan on Thursday, priced £18.99.

Relive Ricky and Diane's first appearance from the hit BBC soap from way back in 1988

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