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East End Welsh boy; He was responsible for the only Welsh accent to ever be heard in Walford. Rachel Mainwaring talks to actor Richard Elis about his time on the Square as EastEnders celebrates its 25th birthday.

ACTOR Richard Elis was only supposed to be in EastEnders for three episodes.

But the Ammanford drama graduate, in his first job out of college, ended up staying as loveable rogue Huw Edwards for three years.

And, despite leaving the popular BBC One more than a decade ago, Richard obviously has very fond memories of starring in one of the UK's most loved soaps, which celebrates its 25th birthday with a special live episode on Friday.

He played long-haired, likeable Huw, the first and only main Welsh character to ever appear in the BBC soap in its 25-year history.

And Richard, who now lives in Cardiff with his actress wife Tonya and three-year-old daughter Alys, said starring in a soap just days after graduating from the Welsh College of Music and Drama was a dream for any young actor.

He remembers the EastEnders set as a fantastic place to learn his trade as an actor, despite the daunting reality that hit him when he first walked on set.

Richard, 35, said: "I don't think I really realised the enormity of it at the time as it all happened so quickly, I didn't have time to panic or worry about what I was letting myself in for.

"At the end of the day, I had literally just graduated from college and had no idea that I was going to be playing the role for any longer than three episodes so I suppose I didn't really have time to be nervous.

"One day I was a student about to leave college in Cardiff and then I'm on the set of EastEndeers with Barbara Windsor showing me round.

"Then within a few weeks I'm making bacon sandwiches and cups of tea in Ian Beale's cafe and mixing cocktails in the bar. It was bonkers."

Richard, who recently starred in S4C's critically-acclaimed drama Ar Y Tracs, was in his final days at drama school when he had to prepare for an audition after he was told he had just two minutes to impress some London casting agents.

He said: "The Welsh College of Music and Drama do a showcase for London agents every year and we basically had two minutes on stage to impress them.

"I got into an extract and Jonathan McLeash, the EastEnders' casting director, asked if I would come to London to do an audition.

"It was a bit nerve-wracking because it was my first professional casting audition but I don't think I was really conscious of the fact it was for EastEnders, and didn't really think about the fact that I could actually end up on one of TV's most popular shows.

"Anyway, I went to London to do the audition and did a bit of a comedy monologue about a guy working in a chip shop in Cardiff. Then three or four hours later I was just catching train back from Paddington when my phone rang and I was told I'd been cast as a Welshman called Huw. It was mind-blowing and I was obviously delighted.

"I'd done the audition in my own West Walian accent and I suppose it was even better that I'd be able to play Huw as a Welshman, although I don't think they'd been specifically looking for anyone Welsh."

But modest Richard kept his feet firmly on the ground and refused to get too excited about the role, believing the gig was only a short-term proposition anyway.

But the actor actually stayed for just over three years, working his way up from a squatter and likeable layabout to barman, cocktail waiter and cafe worker. He even did a few shifts at Pauline Fowler's launderette too.

He said: "I've pulled a pint in the Queen Vic, made a bacon buttie in Ian Beale's cafe and worked in the launderette, and there's not many people who can say they worked in all of the famous Albert Square establishments.

"It was a brilliant time. I was 24 years old, in my first acting job and starring alongside people like Todd Carty, Adam Woodyatt and Barbara Windsor but I don't look back on it too sentimentally. It was a job in the end.

"Yes, a really great job, but I just thought it was like this for everyone."

Richard's pony-tailed character Huw was best friends with fellow squatter Lenny Wallace, played by Des Coleman, and the pair loved nothing better than winding up Ian Beale.

Richard, who is married to Pobol Y Cwm actress Tonya Smith, who plays Yvonne in the Welsh soap, said: "Huw would constantly wind up Ian and so, consequently, it was a really fun role. Ian would get very irritated by it and (Adam Woodyatt) is a great actor so was able to really portray the fact that Huw was winding him up.

"My first lines on the show were spoken to Tiffany, played by Martine McCutcheon. I was working in the nightclub and she came in and said, 'What cocktails do you do?' and I said, 'I'm Huw, I will make anything you want' and threw a cocktail together. I thought I was only going to be in three episodes so wanted to make the most of every single line I got to say."

Huw and his best mate Lenny first moved to the Square in May 1996 and rented 55 Victoria Road from Mark and Ruth Fowler.

The house was situated next to Ian's and they managed to make an enemy of him by continually playing their music extremely loudly in the evening and running a pirate radio station from the premises.

Ian tried to get them evicted several times, once calling the council to complain about noise pollution, and Lenny and Huw did everything they could to annoy him.

Richard said: "It was great fun, more fun because I got to play a Welshman but for me, as an actor just out of college, the whole experience was amazing.

"My favourite scenes were probably those with Todd Carty, who played Mark Fowler. I had grown up watching him as Tucker in Grange Hill and Tucker's Luck and it was when I was working with him that I thought, 'This is the big time, I'm working alongside Todd Carty!' "I made some brilliant friends, particularly Mark Homer, who played Tony Hills in the soap. We are still very close and see each other regularly. He's got a young daughter now like me.

"In fact, I remember taking Mark to a Manic Street Preachers gig in the Albert Hall and, because there were so many Welsh people there supporting the band, when they saw us they started pointing at me and chanting, 'Huw, Huw, Huw'.

"He couldn't believe it but I explained that's what the patriotism is like in Wales, they get behind you.

"And being the only Welsh accent on a London soap made me stand out more I suppose. I think being so obviously Welsh on the show made Huw stand out as a character."

It was while he was on EastEnders that Richard proposed to wife Tonya and he has Steve McFadden, who plays Phil Mitchell, to thank for organising his stag night.

He said: "He was such a lovely bloke. Tonya and I have been together since college and got married while I was on the show.

"For my stag night, we went to Kettners Champagne bar and then on to the Voodoo Lounge in Leicester Square. He organised the whole thing. It was brilliant and, although it's hard to keep in touch with all the former cast and crew, I was really touched by the effort he made. It was a good night.

"He is a really lovely bloke. In fact, all the Mitchells were great. Barbara Windsor was particularly kind to me, especially on my first day. She showed me round and really put me at ease."

But, despite a dream job for a new drama graduate, Richard decided to quit in order not to get typecast as a loveable lout.

The actor, who is a patron for Cancer Research Wales, has gone on to star in numerous theatre productions as well as roles in ITV Wales soap Nuts and Bolts, The Bill, Casualty and Doctors and has absolutely no regrets about leaving EastEnders.

He said: "It was obviously a fantastic learning curve for me as an actor but I've never been sentimental.

"My agent at the time told me that if you are in a soap for three years, it takes three years for the viewers to forget you, whereas if you are in one for five years, it takes another 10 years before they forget you.

"I just felt it was time to go. "It was great to be on it but it was just a job to me. I've done various things since and I've also started doing lots of commercials for Wicked, Bisto, McLeans, Sky, Peugeot, Renault and even a Dutch milk company in Holland.

"It means I travel to places like Budapest and Holland but it's quite lucrative for only a couple of weeks' work a year. I've also got a lovely daughter now who I dote on. I'm completely and utterly in love with her.

"Fatherhood is certainly my favourite role. She is three and doesn't really have any concept of what I do but I suppose as she grows older she might be impressed that daddy was on EastEnders once."

Richard still tunes into EastEnders now and again and was very impressed with the recent Archie Mitchell murder storyline, which culminates in the live episode on Friday, when viewers finally find out who clobbered him on Christmas Day with the Queen Victoria bust.

He has been invited to the Elstree studios to watch the live edition with fellow members of the cast and crew but he's not sure if he'll go.

He said: "I've just got a small role in Pobol Y Cwm coming up so it depends on if I'll be filming for that.

"The party afterwards is in the bar at Elstree and from what I remember it wasn't exactly posh - a bit like a work's canteen!

"I've had lots of calls from my old EastEnders mates so maybe eight or nine of us will go, but I'm not really sure. It's a bit like going to an old school reunion I suppose.

"I'll probably watch the live episode though. It'll be interesting to see how it works."

EastEnders Live, BBC One, Friday, 8.30pm. EastEnders: The Greatest Cliffhangers, BBC Three, Tuesday, 8pm.

EastEnders Live: The Aftermath, BBC Three, Friday, 8.30pm. Soaps roundup - page 29


Richard Elis with daughter Alys PICTURE: Liz Pearce
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 13, 2010
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Next Article:AUTHOR'S NOTES; A tragedy in Huw Jenkins' life led him to treat every day as a gift that must be lived to the full.

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