Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Tuesday 19 March 2019

From plasterer to TV royalty - Ricky Tomlinson talks life, love, fame and why The Royle Family was the best time of his life

Ricky Tomlinson (Ricky Tomlinson/PA)
Ricky Tomlinson (Ricky Tomlinson/PA)
Eddie Rowley

Eddie Rowley

IT’S not an easy job interviewing a celebrity who is TV royalty when the location is a busy hotel restaurant.

The Red Cow Moran Hotel on the outskirts of Dublin is heaving with people wearing badges from a mid-week conference when I arrive, and my guest, Ricky Tomlinson, is attracting lots of attention.

In mid-conversation a British man sits down at our table and asks The Royle Family star: “Are you who I think you are?”

Having confirmed Tomlinson’s identity, he then asks the English national treasure to pose for a selfie.

Ricky happily obliges, donning a pair of glasses to look more like his best known character, lovable slob Jim Royle.

“I do that 20 times a day, every day,” Ricky tells the Sunday World when the fan leaves the table.

Ricky Tomlinson and journalist Eddie Rowley
Ricky Tomlinson and journalist Eddie Rowley

“When I do my stage shows I stay on afterwards and have a photo taken with everyone who wants a selfie.

“I don’t understand why some people have a problem doing something as simple as having a photo with a fan. If it annoys them they shouldn’t be in the public eye, they should go get a job in a bank or something.”

At 79, the Liverpool actor is still full of energy, passion and enthusiasm for performing. He loves writing and is hoping to pen a children’s book, featuring stories he tells his grandchildren.

He adores his grandchildren, tells me numerous anecdotes about them, and by the end of the conversation I feel I know them. “My wife, Rita, keeps telling me not to be boring people talking about them,” he cackles.

The cast of The Royle Family (Matt Squires/BBC)
The cast of The Royle Family (Matt Squires/BBC)

Ricky is clearly mad about Rita, who is his second wife, even though he pokes fun at her expense. “What’s the difference between Rita and a terrorist?” he asks, before answering the question himself: “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

The former plasterer came late to acting and was living in poor circumstances when he first met Rita, a social worker. “I was down and out, I couldn’t buy her a drink,” he says.

“I had just got work on a movie. I brought her to the set and we had a laugh. We started going out, but I couldn’t bring her to where I lived because I was in a room in a boxing club.

“She thought, then, that I was still married. ‘Take me home to where you live or forget about it,’ she said. So she saw where I was living in one room. I moved in with her then and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. She’s very political and very smart.”

COMEDY GENIUS: Caroline Aherne with Ricky Tomlinson in a scene from ‘The Royle Family’
COMEDY GENIUS: Caroline Aherne with Ricky Tomlinson in a scene from ‘The Royle Family’

Tomlinson himself is a political animal with a strong social conscience. He’s turned down big money for adverts because he believed the goods were the product of cheap or slave labour.

Back in the early ‘70s, Ricky spent two years in jail, an extremely harsh sentence for organising flying pickets in a building workers’ strike. He reacted by making himself a difficult prisoner, defecating in his cell and refusing to wear clothes.

After his release, Tomlinson says he was black listed in the building trade and had a hard time making a living. He dabbled in cabaret and got his big acting break in 1982 when he landed the role as trade unionist Bobby Grant in the Channel 4 soap, Brookside. It made him a household name.

However, Ricky would achieve legendary status for the part of patriarch Jim Royle in ground-breaking TV comedy sitcom The Royle Family, which was co-written by the late Caroline Aherne.

Tomlinson says that working on the show, which ended in 2012, was the best time of his life. “Just going to work every day when I was on The Royle Family was wonderful,” he tells me. “I couldn’t wait to get up and get to work, and I was getting paid for acting the goat and having a laugh. It took 14 takes one day just to record one word because we were laughing so much.”

Ricky says he was left devastated when comic genius Aherne died from cancer in 2016 at the age of 52. “Caroline was so talented and she looked after us all so well while we were doing the show,” he says.

“We never knew that she was ill when we were working with her because she never once complained.”

Ricky Tomlinson will meet fans and take them on a journey through his life and times when he performs at The Hawkeswell Theatre, Sligo (March 27), Galway’s Town Hall Theatre (March 30), TF Theatre, Castlebar (April 5) and Hampton Court Hotel, Dublin 4 (April 12 & 13).

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