TWENTY years after he said his very first lines as Shellsuit Bob on River City, Stephen Purdon can still remember the day he got the part.
“I did get a small part, which was amazing, but I was really gutted to have got to the last two and then missed out.”
Greenock-born Compston, now better known as anti-corruption cop Steve Arnott in long-running TV thriller Line of Duty, landed the role of baby-faced thug Liam in the Ken Loach hit.
“I was studying acting at Langside College, and this casting director got in touch and asked me to audition for a new Scottish soap that was coming on the BBC,” adds Stephen.
“He told me it was for a part called Shellsuit Bob and I thought he was winding me up.
“But I went in, did the audition, and then didn’t hear anything so I thought, aye, it’s Sweet Sixteen all over again.”
Stephen was working part-time in Cruise during his college course, and he was in the Ingram Street clothes shop when he got the call to say he had the part.
“I basically hung up and said to my boss I was leaving - but can you hold the job for me in case I need it back in three months,” he grins.
“Twenty years later, and I’m still here.”
He adds, innocently: “As for Martin Compston, I dunno - whatever happened to him?”
Now, thanks to River City and his success as a panto star at the Pavilion - this will also be his 20th year in the Glasgow theatre's Christmas show - Stephen is one of Scotland’s most recognisable actors.
He is at the heart of Monday night’s special 20th anniversary episode of River City, a one-off which also brings back iconic characters such as Raymond Henderson (Paul Samson), Gina Rossi (Libby McArthur), Kelly-Marie Adams - Bob’s sister (Carmen Pieraccini) and Ewan Murdoch (played by Chris Brazier).
The story is a mixture of the weird and wonderful, with Bob and his best mate Angus (Scott Fletcher) drinking from a mystical bottle of booze and ended up in a ‘multiverse’ where many of their lost friends still exist.
It’s a classic what-might-have-been-Sliding-Doors-meets-It’s-a-Wonderful-Life moment, written by Johnny McKnight, and as Bob reminisces on his life, drowning his sorrows, he wakes up in a world where his life has taken an altogether different direction.
“It was a bit emotional,” admits Stephen.
“All the old cast coming back - it definitely didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ River City episode. Also, the weather was great, which is unusual for Dumbarton.”
He adds: “It was really great to see everyone again, especially Keira [Lucchesi, who played Stella Walker] as we had some brilliant scenes together and we always got on really well. When we started filming, it was like she had never left.”
There were sad moments too, he adds.
“With everyone coming back, we were all aware of those who weren’t there - Johnny Beattie, and Andy Gray, who was taken from us far too soon,” he explains.
“That made everyone emotional because we know they’d have loved it, but I’m sure they were looking down on us all, and having a laugh along with us.”
Stephen says it felt “unreal” to be marking 20 years of the show.
“I remember my first day on set. We all got together for a read-through in the canteen, and I wasn’t really in it that much. I was pretty much there as Deek’s (Gordon McCorkell) pal, so I had a few lines, but it wasn’t a main part or anything,” he recalls.
“It was amazing to be on this purpose-built set, where everything was so fast-paced, and I was learning on the job. I was very nervous, but I think if you ask any River City actor, past or present, they’d say the same thing - you learn so much being part of this show.”
Stephen thought his time was up after the first three months.
“I really didn’t think I was going to be in that long,” he nods.
“But then Sally Howitt joined as my mother and I was really happy about that. I hadn’t had a family in Shieldinch up to that point, so it was great to finally get a mum, and a sister, in Carmen.”
Glasgow loves River City, agrees Stephen.
“Scottish audiences are very loyal,” he says.
“There’s EastEnders, of course, and Coronation Street, but River City is theirs. I think that’s why it’s still going strong.”
He laughs: “And they seem to love wee Bob. I mean, I don’t get called Stephen any more, I just get called wee Bob.
"I’m really proud of River City. People ask us why we don’t win soap awards, and I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m proud of the show.
“People know people like the characters on River City, they can relate to them. We’ve tackled a lot of serious subjects too over the years and we try to keep it as real as we can.
“I’ve had some dark storylines - losing Deek, for example, was tough for Bob and he fell into depression. When you get a subject like that, you want to do it justice. I was only 19 when I started on the show, so me and Bob have both grown up on River City.”
In addition to River City and the panto, Stephen recently played Benny Lynch in a play about the Glasgow boxer’s life story.
“I hadn’t done theatre since before River City, so it was a great challenge,” he says.
“I like being busy, I don’t want to stand still. But as an actor, to have worked consistently for 20 years is really something and to be at the heart of things in this special storyline on River City is fantastic.”
Stephen, who is married with a daughter, Layla, 10 and a son, Leo, who is seven, adds: “I love this job, and I’ll do it as long as they want me to. Who knows, maybe until the 40th anniversary?”
He grins. “There won’t be any shellsuits by then, right enough, I’ll probably be a grandad. Cardigan Bob. That’s what they'll call me.”
The River City 20th anniversary episode will air on BBC Scotland at 10pm on Monday, September 26.