On the carpet

First published in Features

The man who arrived at their home to lay the carpet might have looked familiar to anyone who'd watched BBC1's soap EastEnders. They'd have recognised him as chef Steve Elliot, last seen fleeing Albert Square pursued by mobsters.

When actor Mark Monero left Walford after playing Steve for six years, new roles were hard to find. "For a few years, I wasn't doing anything. It was quite hard, all I did was a bit of panto," he recalls.

"I was annoyed at first but then quite enjoyed it once I got off my high and mighty actor's thing. I got myself a normal job. I was doing carpets to cope with the frustration of not working."

After a difficult few years, Monero was able to leaving carpet-laying behind him and is currently in rehearsal for the first staging outside London of Roy Williams' play Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads.

Set on Saturday October 7, 2000 - the day England played Germany in the last match at the old Wembley Stadium - the play explores the nation's obsession with football, race and national identity.

Monero's dilemma a decade ago was leaving a top-rated soap to return to the world of "normal" acting. He hadn't intended to stay so long in EastEnders as Steve, first seen as chef at Pizza Marguerita and soon persuaded to get cooking at Ian Beale's Meal Machine.

It was his love life that became a talking point when he ran away to sea to avoid marrying girlfriend Hattie. He ended up fleeing Albert Square after becoming the target of the criminal underworld after testifying on Arthur's behalf in court.

"I didn't think I was going to be in EastEnders that long," he says. "I was 23 and was working quite a bit before I joined. I never really watched that much television but I knew of it. It's not the route I expected to go down, but I did and enjoyed most of it.

"Then, it was a little bit like being in school. People weren't as relaxed as they should be in TV. You're only acting, so it was like saying 'get a grip' to them."

He didn't watch the soap when he was in it, a practice he hasn't changed since leaving. Not until a year after leaving did he feel able to watch some of the episodes his mother had dutifully recorded.

While the exposure was good, EastEnders was a bad thing in one way because people judged him on it, thinking because he'd done that, he couldn't do something else.

People still recognise the face even if they can't put a name to it. "They don't know who I am but know me from something. I'm that geezer from off the telly," he says.

Being a regular in a soap helped him get a few stage jobs on the back of EastEnders because his Walford fame put bums on seats. "At first, you're a bit bitter. As an actor, you want to be known for what you're doing at the moment. But you have to realise it's a popular programme and that's what people watch."

Now he's done fresh TV work in series including Casualty, Judge John Deed, Waking The Dead and Gimme Gimme Gimme. He has a role in Lynda LaPlante's Trial And Retribution on ITV1 coming up soon ("I play a horrible, horrible man who's violent to women") and a new E4 series Skins, as an ex-rapper and father of three.

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Boys, a Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal co-production, will occupy his thoughts until the tour ends in March.

He auditioned for the original National Theatre production in 2002 but didn't get a part. This time, he did and plays a soldier back from the Falklands trying to keep his brother out of trouble. The debate about what it's like to be British in the 21st century is played out in a pub as the England-German match unfolds on TV in the background.

Monero thinks the play should be well received partly "because everyone loves football", although he doesn't like football as much as his character does.

"There are some issues that might make people uncomfortable, like the race issue, but it's an important message that needs to be told. There's a moral running through it."

This is the second play by Ray Williams in which he's appeared. The other, Local Boy, also had a soccer background.

Carpet-laying is a thing of the past but Monero is torn between acting and music. He plays in a band called North Of Ping Pong, on keyboards and backing vocalist.

"I do my own music as well. I'd like to do music for TV and film. I don't know which I love the most, acting or music. Maybe as much as each other," he says.

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads is at York Theatre Royal from September 23 to October 7. Tickets (01904) 623568 or online at www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

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