Karen Shaw interviews Ricky Tomlinson
by Karen Shaw
From Jailbird To Jim Royle
Exclusive Interview By Karen Shaw Photography By Mark Davis
For one night in May you can settle down and be transported into the Royles’ front room. Jim as always will be holding court, but unfortunately his on-screen wife Babs, played by Sue Johnston, won’t be there. So there’ll be no-one there to serve up the tea and biscuits, but rest assured, they’ll be laughs a-plenty and Ricky will be knocking out a few tunes on his signature banjo and hopefully not from his backside! “My arse,” he laughs, as he attempts to assure me that he has nothing in common with Jim’s bottom issues.
Relieved, I move swiftly on as we discuss his latest show and the future of Britain’s entertainment shows. I had caught up with Ricky in Blackpool for a brew, ahead of his latest production ‘Ricky Tomlinson’s Royle Variety Show’.
“I come on as Jim, do a few gags, take the ‘Mickey’ out of myself and make the audience feel at home because that’s what it’s all about,” says Ricky. “I introduce the acts. We’ve got Tom O’Connor, Bobby Davro, PJ Proby and we’ve got Stavros Flatley, star of ‘Britain’s Got Talent.’ It’s a good old- fashioned variety show, which is a rarity nowadays.
“I like to get and give value for money, he says. “I can’t understand why people go to these amphitheatres and watch a solo act for 40 minutes, in and out and gone. I think every artist has an obligation to meet the crowd at the end of the show, even if it’s for ten minutes. If you want a photo or a signed pic it takes just a minute of my time, that’s all. I think it should be made compulsory. I realise at my age I’m lucky to be working and I’m lucky to be doing what I love doing.”
Throughout his acting career, Ricky has played everything from a doctor to a gangster, but has never enjoyed working on anything as much as ‘The Royle Family’.
The show is funny and often very touching and poignant, to this day I can remember the touching scene he played with his on-screen daughter Denise, played by Caroline Aherne.
“She’s great you know. She’s so generous, people don’t realise that. She made sure we all had the best working conditions. We all had a wonderful dressing room with flowers, sweets, tea, coffee and someone to wait on you hand and foot. I wouldn’t hear a wrong word about that kid. I love her. It takes a long time to shoot an episode of the Royle Family. It takes nearly two weeks but the reason being is we would spend that much time laughing.”
At the sheer mention of his pal Geoff Hughes who played Twiggy, his face clouds over, Geoff passed away last year and Ricky has nothing but good things to say about his mate.
“We had some right laughs together, especially filming ‘Mambo Number 5!’” He smiles.
And who could forget that hilarious scene? There was Jim and Twiggy jiving away with spatulas in hand scraping the wallpaper off. “When we were filming it, Geoff’s trousers fell off and he had the old fashioned big white Y-fronts on, and of course we all took pleasure in laughing at him. He was great. We had so much fun; he was a DIY freak like me. He was a wood turner by trade; so at lunch time we’d shoot away to Macro’s and mess around in the drill department. It’s absolutely ludicrous but that’s the way it was.”
Over the years The Royle Family has provided us with many memorable moments, many of them have included Jim with his trusty banjo and I was curious to discover what had drawn him to the banjo…
“I was repairing the toilets in a pub once, and I heard this sound and this fella called George Shelly was playing what I thought was a banjo and I just thought that sound is great, it’s gorgeous. It wasn’t a banjo it was actually a ukulele but a couple of days after I was 17 my mum went out and bought me a banjo.
“I’m a plasterer by trade which I think contributed to my arthritis, so I haven’t played it for a while but I’ve got eight banjos and now and again when my hands are okay I’ll get them out and have a little play. I like playing the old fashioned stuff, all the old army tunes. I’ll have a get the banjo out and play a couple of songs at the gig and if the audience is in the mood we’ll have a sing-along.
“I’m a big George Formby fan and I do a little gag about it. I say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I should have been playing the ukulele today, but we were rehearsing this afternoon with my ukulele worth £5,000. I decided to go for a drink in the afternoon and took the ukulele with me. I didn’t leave it at the theatre for fear of it being stolen. But no sooner had I had my first drink, I looked round and realised that it was missing, someone had nicked it! So I phoned the police, and when they asked when I’d last seen it I replied ‘Look, you’re not going to believe this but it was ‘leaning on the lamppost… and this little lady went by.”’ He laughs.
His love of music was always encouraged by his mum Peggy; she was his driving force and inspiration. “I loved her. She was tremendous,” he says. His voice softens when he mentions his mum. “She ruled the house, my Dad was a push-over; she ruled the roost. They had four boys including me, all living in a two up, two down. We never had the police come round we had too much respect for her. She was wonderful.”
Peggy was nine months pregnant when she was evacuated from Liverpool to Blackpool, leaving behind Ricky’s brother and dad. And on the 26th September 1939 out popped the curliest, blondest baby, all nine and a half pounds of him, christened Eric, but among family he was known as Rick. Born in Blackpool he refers to himself as a ‘Blackpudlian.’
When he was sent to jail in 1972 it really took its toll on him mum. The strikes of 1972 were the first and only building workers’ strikes in Britain. In September of that year Ricky and his pals organised what was a fractured workforce, labouring sporadically on temporary sites. They hired six coaches and picketed each of the large sites around Shrewsbury. The police accompanied them every step of the way and it was peaceful throughout – nobody was even cautioned. A few weeks later Ricky found himself charged with 21 offences and there were 27 offences against his good pal Des Warren.
“All the convictions were based on lies and fabrication”
“We were thrown into Leicester prison on a two-year sentence for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’. All the convictions were based on lies and fabrication. Many of the men on trial had never even met before but stood accused of conspiring together.
“Before we were sent on trial, there’s a letter from the Attorney General to the Home Secretary saying ‘I have examined all the details, these men were accompanied at all times by up to 60 policeman, no names were taken, no one was charged, no one was arrested.’
“I had no case to answer. Three weeks later we had 241 charges brought against us collectively. I got six years originally but it was reduced to two years.
“My treatment was not the worst. Des Warren, another organiser and close friend of mine, received three years in prison – the harshest sentence of all and was regularly made to drink the ‘liquid cosh’, a cocktail of tranquillisers that numbed inmates and gave you the hundred-mile stare. Dezzie died in 2004, of what his wife describes as ‘drug-induced Parkinson’s’ – and we’re still fighting to see his prison records to prove the link between his death and his treatment in prison.”
“A while ago I started an e-petition for the release of all Government documents relating to the building workers’ strike and the Shrewsbury trials and got over 100,000 signatures, which I hoped would trigger a parliamentary debate.
“However, in the first few days of launching the e-petition we got nothing. A member of our campaign committee, Eileen Turnball, phoned Downing Street to ask if they knew why we hadn’t received a response to the petition. The answer she received was there had been a ‘hitch’ for 24 hours. She phoned Downing Street again and they said ‘Well actually it’s had 56,000 but 40 odd thousand of them didn’t enter their details correctly.’ So… 40 odd thousand people get ignored.”’ He ends.
“Eileen has got the documents, every one of them; they’re all stamped ‘Top Secret’. After 30 years they were finally to be released under the Freedom of Information Act but the government extended it by another ten year making it 40 years. The 40 years was up in September last year and when we applied for the documents we got a reply. Unknown to us in December Kenneth Clarke had put another ten years on it so they’re not to be reviewed until 2021. That’s 50 years! I mean, out of us all the eldest is 85, I’m 74. We’ll all be dead so it’s absolutely horrendous.”
Prisoners in solitary weren’t allowed to wear clothes, so for months on end Ricky was as naked as new-born babe, and would from time to time act like one too by protesting in his own unique style. “Yeah, I would sh*t on the floor,” he says. Fortunately his predicament was coming to an end and was invited to the prison governor’s office.
“The governor was great. He was an ex-bricklayer and he set up a meeting with me in my boxer shorts. In the meeting were two trade union guys and a chap called Tom Litterick who was an MP for Birmingham. Tom said ‘Look, you’ve got go home, we want you to go home.’ And I replied ‘What do you mean you want me to go home? I’ve told my wife I’m staying in for two years!’ To which they replied ‘No, we aren’t asking you, we’re telling you.’ The whole thing was ridiculous. This doesn’t happen in a democracy! They let me out at eight o’clock in the morning and a few weeks later they let Des out of the back door at midnight. What people don’t understand is they threw me out of jail. I didn’t serve my sentence. They kicked me out after 18 months.”
Ricky sighs as he goes on to say: “People still don’t know the truth. The stigma of arrest and imprisonment was so great that some of the convicted hid it from their children for decades. The imprisonment and sustained intimidation destroyed families and communities. My children would often have disapproving fingers waggled in their directions, and even now my two beautiful grandchildren experience it. I only came to my career in entertainment as I couldn’t find any work elsewhere – I was turned away at the gates many times.”
As the old saying goes ‘As one door closes, another one opens’ and in this case, the factory gates were firmly closed, but the gates of showbusiness were wide open with Ricky securing his first break in the British film ‘United Kingdom’ in 1981. It was at this point that his plastering days ended and before he knew it he was on the road to stardom rubbing shoulders with the stars.
“Do you know what my famous faux pas is? If you’re going make one, make a good one right? I got invited to a party at the Groucho Club. I’d just secured my first acting role playing the lead role of Dennis in the film and it was the director’s 40th birthday party. It got rave reviews but they’ll never show it again because it was about civil disobedience. The Allman brothers and Jeremy Irons were there. Then I spotted this one fella standing on his own so I asked ‘Are you okay?’ and he answered ‘Yeah.’ Everyone was drinking champagne; I don’t drink champagne but some of the lads were popping to the pub next door and getting in pints of lager, so I asked this chap if he’d like to join us and asked if he was in showbusiness. He was smaller and skinnier than me. At that point the director came over and said ‘I’d like you to meet Robert De Niro.’ I said, ‘Are you joking?’”
“That film really launched my acting career. Shortly after I received a phone call asking if I’d like the role of Bobby Grant in ‘Brookside’. And the rest you could say is history.”
It’s now been over 30 years since Ricky entered the acting world. His latest offering is all thanks to his prison governor who took pity on him in prison and encouraged him to read of Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ – a book that remains the building workers’ bible. This book was an inspiration to Ricky and in June we can look forward to new drama directed by Johnny Vegas called ‘Ragged’. The story is based on his real life experiences during his time in prison and on hunger strike. The part of Ricky is played by ‘Great Nights Out’ co-star Stephen Walters. “He’s a good little actor and he plays me, and I’m the ghost in my cell watching myself. It’s all very clever how it’s done.” He says.
Ricky Tomlinson is a true gent with a mouth and heart as big as the Mersey Tunnel. He’s cheeky, funny, engaging and despite his ups and downs he’s a shining example of how to triumph over adversity. This is a man who can, and mark my words, he will.
If you would like to support Ricky’s campaign go to www.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/35394