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From Shakespeare to "Shameless": Karen Bryson on the series' final episode

By Gary Sheil on the

After nearly a decade of debauchery and craziness, Channel 4’s BAFTA-winning series Shameless came to an end last night.

In a lot of ways, the end of Shameless is an end of an era. The amount of talent that has come through the show since 2004 is a testament to the quality of the writing and the series as a whole.

"Shameless", the iconic Channel 4 series, ended its final series after ten years last night (28 May).
Brian Sweeney

One such talent is the incredible Karen Bryson, who has played Avril Powell on the show for four series. From her days at the Royal Shakespeare Company (with fellow Shameless star Anne Marie Duff) to her lead roles across prestigious TV programmes, Bryson’s brought a warmth and and wit to all her projects.

Karen Bryson, in character as Avril Powell, stars in
Karen Bryson, in character as Avril Powell, stars in "Shameless".
Channel 4

So it’s no surprise that, on the eve of Shameless’ final episode, Bryson had only happy stories and laughs to share with SASi.

What was it like moving from Shakespeare to Shameless?

It was the bizarrest juxtaposition ever because, funny enough, the job just before Shameless was Shakespeare at the Globe - the Scottish King! It was really, really bizarre because [on television], camera gets right into your face, so the work is smaller. Whereas at the Globe, it’s an amazing space, but it’s one that I fought really hard to conquer. So it was very, very bizarre going from Shakespeare to Shameless.

You came on as Avril in the eighth series. What was it like entering the Shameless fold?

It was absolutely brilliant. What was big for me was I’d actually watched the show for the five, six seasons before I was asked to audition and then got cast, so I was entering into something I knew the standard of. Some of the guys on [Shameless] actually grew up on the show, some of the youngsters. Seeing them, meeting them for the first time was very weird for me. They were tiny ten year olds and [when I came on], suddenly they were 18 or 19-year old grown men.

They welcomed me with open arms. Emmanuel [Ighodaro], Kira [Martin] and I all sort of said, the three of us [are newcomers], we’ve just got to go for it. I think the cast and crew really appreciated the fact that we threw ourselves in headfirst. That was not only for the work but also the social element. It literally is like one big family.

Avril has evolved so much in the four seasons you’ve played her...

She has, and it's been amazing. With a play, you have a beginning, a middle and an end and you know that the minute you’re cast. You know the journey of your character. With Shameless, the thing that was great about it was you had absolutely no idea what your character was going to do next. There was a sort of rough idea of the characteristics of a character, but you really wouldn’t know until you got the scripts. It kind of mirrors life: you never know what’s around the corner. We’d get the scripts, we’d read it through and go, “Ah! She does that, she does that, she does that!” That was really exciting. Not only that, but the team of writers were absolutely fantastic. We’d literally be reading through and giggling, whether it was your part or someone else’s. You’re giggling at a) the storyline and b) the one-liners - that repartee that the show has.

The writing is so good that you can hear when you’re reading it, the various voices and the actors playing it. And the directors! We also had amazing, different directors. It was three years and four series that I was on it, and I worked with some amazing directors. Because of the nature of the way it’s shot, I can imagine it’d be an amazing opportunity for a director to be that little bit more creative. A lot of shows have a particular way of shooting that you have to stick to. With Shameless, the way it’s evolved is there are some crazy shots and a director really gets the chance to be creative: not just a wide shot but the punches, the whip-aways, all the things that are very synonymous with Shameless.

What’s your favourite memory from working on the show?

I loved doing the Patricia and Avril investigation, working with David Schofield - who I couldn’t believe was going to be on! Again, an actor I’ve admired for years. He was playing Patricia’s fake love interest because he’s actually a fraudster.. We got on really, really well together and we put our heads down because it was a lot to get through. It was directed by one of my favourites, Greg Watson. It was an absolute dream.

There’s a US version of Shameless. Have you ever seen it?

Yeah, I have. It’s very different. Having said that, it’s verbatim. The words, the script, is almost the same. That’s the bit that’s really bizarre. It’s obviously transposed well; it’s won Emmys. That’s the thing about great writing: we, in this country, are going, “It’s very Manchester.” They, obviously, have found an equivalent.

What was it like filming that last ever episode?

It was incredible because some of [the team] has actually been there for ten years. One of the supporting artists, for example, John, was in the very first scene of the first episode ever and he’s still there. So there was such a feeling that, even though Paul Abbott created it, we owned it - our characters, our input - we owned it. And I don’t just mean the actors, I mean absolutely everybody. Even costume and make-up, creating new characters to come in and seeing how absurd the costumes became, we all absolutely owned it. So filming the last episode was one of those things [where you say] “Oh my gosh, it’s actually happening - let’s make this the best we can make it.”

Some of the last shots - oh my gosh, yeah. I cry at everything - I even cry at MasterChef, so you can imagine what I was like: trembling lips constantly! It was really weird because it wasn’t “sad boo-hoo”; the crying was, “Great, I’m so pleased that in my career, I’ve been able to be part of such an iconic, jaw-dropping, groundbreaking show.” And it’s remained that way to the very last. “Hear, hear.”

That’s what I’m pleased with, that we went out on a high.

Additional reporting: Emma Hudson