EastEnders legend Sid Owen believes he might have ended up dead if he had not discovered acting.
The star is convinced that without a career playing Ricky Butcher on the soap, it is likely he would have turned to a life of crime and landed in an early grave. As a youngster in north London in the 1970s, he was surrounded by trouble.
Sid, 51, says: “I grew up on a massive council estate. All my family, friends and neighbours were involved in crime. That was all I knew. I grew up as a petty thief. I did that because my three older brothers were doing it.
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“It stems from where you grow up and your background and being on the poverty line. And I lost my mum at six… my dad was in prison. So I could have easily lost the plot. I could have easily gone down the wrong path.”
Sid’s lifeline came when he started having lessons at performing arts school Anna Scher Theatre in Islington, London. It made him realise he did not want to go down the same road as many of his relatives.
“Acting classes were my saviour. I enjoyed them,” he recalls. "If I hadn’t discovered acting, I’d probably
be in prison or dead. People that are involved in dodgy money, they live life in the fast lane. They go down the wrong route. Things could have easily turned out very differently.
“Thank God I went on my own path and stayed out of crime in the area where I grew up. I shied away from it.” Sid cut himself off from loved ones to make sure he stayed on the straight and narrow – and only visited his dad in prison once.
“I was told really bad things about him,” he says. “He wasn’t a nice man. I told myself that was it and I chose not to speak to him again. He tried to get in touch later on once I was on TV, but I brushed it aside.”
After years of keeping on the right side of the law, Sid has been put behind bars for a new TV show. Producers on four-parter Banged Up, also starring Gogglebox’s Marcus Luther and Friday Night Dinner’s Tom Rosenthal, took over a disused jail and created a realistic prison environment.
That included a raft of ex-convicts who agreed to behave the way they did when they were doing time. Spending time there gave Sid an idea of what some of his relatives went through when they were inside.
He says: “It was an eye-opener for me to see what prison is like. It’s sad to think about what my family went through. Prison is not a nice place. It felt very real. Being locked up for hours and hours every day sends you crazy.
"I thought, ‘We’re making a TV show, it can’t be that bad.’ But it genuinely was tougher than I thought it would be. When you’re banged up with people who are screaming and shouting, it’s depressing.”
At times, it felt so realistic Sid, famed for his on-screen relationship with Patsy Palmer, 51, feared for his safety.
He adds: “It was very scary. In that place, little things mean a lot.
“You’ve only got to say the wrong thing or look at someone in the wrong way and you’ll be in trouble.
“These were all hardened criminals. They could flip at any time. I think they forgot the cameras were there and they were back in their prison mindset.”
To this day, Sid still keeps in touch with some of his relatives and is heartbroken they have not cleaned up their act. He says: “EastEnders is a bit tame compared to my life story!”
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Banged Up starts at 9.15pm on Channel 4 from October 31.
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