Much as it may shock you aficionados of Eastenders, Bilyana Petrinska, the gorgeous and very versatile Bulgarian star of The English Neighbour, had never heard of Leslie Grantham before filming started.
Bilyana, the buxom barmaid on the BNT series, has been an actress for 17 years, working mainly with the Bulgarian National Theatre. She has a loyal fan base among theatrical devotees but, as she says herself, a TV programme brings you a lot more fame than years of stage work.
"Television audiences know my name and voice, but they don't necessarily put a face next to that voice. I have had instances where people cannot recognise me in certain roles I have done on the stage. That is the greatest compliment for an actor. To be able to submerge oneself in a role so people cannot recognise them," says Bilyana.
That, we can be sure, is about to change with the weekly serialisation of The English Neighbour. Recognition, after all, comes from the screen in the living room.
Den of vice
Leslie Grantham, who plays John Stuart, knows all about overnight small screen fame. In the UK, names like Dot, Den, the Mitchells and the Queen Vic are as famous as Buckingham palace (or should that be Beckingham palace?). These are institutions like the Carry On movies and fish and chips.
It’s hard to forget the effect of Grantham’s entry into TV in 1985. Leslie became the small screen’s superstar – a kind of Michael Caine of the box – and the British equivalent of Larry Hagman’s JR Ewing in terms of villainy. His on-screen showdowns with co-star Anita Dobson were fodder to the tabloids. The Den persona caught the public’s imagination – cynical, cool, tough, streetwise, unfaithful, down-market but ambitious.
Eastenders were becoming Essex men as they became more business-oriented. Sure, there was poor, unemployed, hollow-eyed Arthur Fowler blabbering away in front of children’s TV and downtrodden Pauline toiling away in the launderette. But Den had a posh mistress from "up west" and some of the characters even moved to a ritzy wine bar run by plummy-voiced "toff" Wilmott Brown. The area was becoming yuppified.
You didn’t want to mess with some of the characters. Den was more knee-capped than cloth-capped; he’d kick you in the testicles if you messed with his "princess". And Peter Dean, alias Pete Beale, gave the Wilmott Brown character a good hiding when he raped his wife. It was a kind of continuum from The Sweeney – the working classes were no longer kind-hearted but gullible clowns. Rather, they were people to be reckoned with.
Lost in translation?
Albert Square, however, is a long way from Plodorodno, the fictional Bulgarian village where The English Neighbour is set. Grantham's Bulgarian viewers and co-stars know little about him. And homegrown audiences would find it a surprise to know that Grantham’s part is atypical; his character is non-violent and fairly quiet. Doubtless those who remember Eastenders and the Paradise Club will expect Grantham to suddenly punch niggling "Noki" onto the Sofia motorway. Sadly, it seems unlikely to happen.
Since Grantham was an unknown quantity to Bilyana, she did a little "digging" on him before filming started last year.
"Of course, I knew from the director before the shoot that he would be my partner so I gathered information about him from the internet," says Bilyana. Working with him proved a very enjoyable experience for Bilyana. "Leslie impressed me with his professionalism. He was very composed and had a great sense of humour. He worked very hard. I know from experience how difficult it is to play in a foreign language – I have experienced it in both theatre and movie sets."
The challenge for Grantham was to say his lines in Bulgarian and make them sound meaningful and comprehensible. Inevitably, sometimes he fluffed his lines.
"There were times when Leslie would hit himself," says Bilyana. "He was slapping himself. He was getting really angry when a scene would be lost because of him. I have never seen anyone so critical of himself. He was always an honest partner and ready to improvise. It was a breeze to work with him."
Book versus film
The English Neighbour is based on Mikail Veshim’s book. How many times do you hear – "not as good as the book" – when a popular work is translated to the screen – whether it’s Le Carre or JK Rowling. It’s worth repeating one of Veshim's comments about the difference between a film and book.
"I can think of a joke that could describe this. Two mice were nibbling on a piece of film in a basement. One of them said: 'But this is War and Peace!' The other one retorted: 'The book was better!'"
As for Bilyana, she first read the book three years ago.
"I just remembered a bitter-sweet aftertaste about the mentality and the manners of the characters," she says. "I was really amused by their actions and their thinking. Of course, if you read the book before you see the film there is always a possibility you won’t like what you see." She says this is natural, because we "draw" the characters in our imagination as well as the events and the whole story.
"But I think that the film is doing the book justice. It is even more diverse and developed as a story line," she says.
Bilyana, incredible though it may seem in light of her superb English, has never visited the UK. Like many Bulgarians, when you mention the UK to her she tends to think of the pageantry – carriages, crowns and palaces – as well as mist and rain.
"This is England to me. I know it is not only that, of course, and some day I would love to go and see it for myself. I would very much like to visit the UK and shoot a movie with English actors and director. But an actor rarely gets a chance to work abroad. At least you need to live there. But I am sure, that one day I will have such an opportunity, like Leslie had. And then I would do anything to make it a 100 per cent success. A possibility would be to have a sequel to The English Neighbour. Why not shoot it in the UK?" she says.
In the series the Bulgarian barmaid "chases" the English arrival, John Stuart, believing that he must be well-heeled.
Bilyana sees some reality in the idea of foreigners chasing a British arrival. "The transition period in Bulgaria forced many people to pursue happiness abroad and to seek relationships with foreigners, despite their nationality."
Englishmen have another advantage. According to Bilyana, they are still seen as gentlemen, renowned for their principles and their gallantry. "But this attitude could be formed by the movies because I have met many less than pleasant young men from 'old England'. Even though they are English, they are not so civil and noble," she says.
A hard sell?
So could the series interest British audiences?
"The problem here is that our market is too small," says Bilyana. "We don’t even have a market. Unfortunately, we are a beautiful, but small country and it will be a long time before foreign investors take an interest in our movie industry and working with our art elite. I dare say we have wonderful creators here, not only in films and the theatrical sphere, but also in music, art, sculpture, literature, opera and poetry. But for people to be interested in how an Englishman feels in a country like ours, they need to be interested in the country itself."
Bilyana believes that The English Neighbour is a story with a smile but one that takes a "wink" at Bulgaria’s daily routines.
"Every nation has its psychology and specific characteristics. And this is normal. So yes, I think it will be interesting for the British audience to see this kind of story. There are many funny situations; it's a comedy of characters," she says.
Bilyana finds it "very rewarding" when her public approach her and show their appreciation but she admits that it can be a double-edged sword. The bit part actor is flattered at recognition. If – and it's a very big "if" – they break through to the "big time" the attention can be exhausting.
"A famous actor had said - I'm not sure who – maybe Jack Nicholson? - that during the first half of their career actors would do anything to be remembered and get recognised. But once they have achieved that, they don dark glasses and try to do exactly the opposite," she says, laughing.
For Bilyana, diversity in roles and new challenges are important.
"I think vanity is prevailing over the real work of the actors these days," she says. "This is killing the essence of our profession. The hardest thing is to escape from the sex symbol cliche. All people ask about is what you are wearing, who you are dating or what you are eating. That is terrible. Everyone wants to be popular, but art is not just about entertainment. It has a mission. It has to inspire, to ask questions and to make our lives more meaningful."
Seven snippets from Bilyana
1. Favourite shop in Sofia
I have a favourite book store - Christal. They have everything you are looking for. I like the smell of books.
2. Favourite bar in Sofia
Black Label, Taba&Co
3. Favourite restaurant in Sofia
4. Favourite park in Sofia
I live close to Borissova Gradina and often drive a bike.
5. Favourite mall in Sofia
I hate malls, except book stores there and sweets shops inside.
6. Favourite film
Wow, I have a lot! But the first I think of are Malena and also The Piano
7. Favourite areas of Sofia
There are many places I really like. All the parks, some "old" buildings and some quiet streets and the centre, the Russian church and Rakovski street, maybe because of all theatres nearby. Also the garden in front of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre.