Timothy Spall: Our mutual friend

From 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' to 'Harry Potter', via 'Life is Sweet' and 'Secrets & Lies', Timothy Spall has endeared himself to film, TV and theatre audiences. So, Neil Norman asks the nation's favourite character actor, how will he portray a man who killed hundreds of men and women?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I think I may have discovered the secret of Tim Spall's success. He is one of those actors - well, people, actually, it is not exclusively the province of those in The Biz - whose speech and demeanour effectively disguise the real person beneath.

He is neither tall nor exceptionally good-looking, would never pass for slim and has the slightly slow, slurred speech of a working class fellow whose education was not all that it should have been. To encounter him for the first time is to meet Winnie the Pooh in a suit.

All of these are natural-born weapons in Spall's armoury which he has honed and polished over the years bringing him to his current status as Britain's foremost character actor. For, of course, Spall is nothing like the persona he often conveys. Underneath this cloak of sly gormlessness lies a quick wit, an inquiring mind and a remarkable talent. From his first stage appearance as The Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz to his latest film, Pierrepoint, in which he plays the title role of Britain's most famous hangman, Spall has racked up scores of performances that - in the recent words of Daniel Day-Lewis - "ennoble the art of acting".

From schemers to dreamers, from ripe villains to homespun heroes, Spall's catalogue of characters rarely throws up a dud performance or an unbelievable character. His self-confessed aim has always been to " find the truth and reality of a character, however extraordinary", and he has acquitted himself well.

If Barry the electrician of Very Little Brain in television's Auf Wiedersehen, Pet brought him public popularity in the Eighties, his big screen roles and frequent ventures onto the classical stage have granted him the respect and admiration of his peers. His latest role as Albert Pierrepoint seems certain to cement his reputation.

Pierrepoint may not have been Britain's last hangman but he was certainly the most famous. A quiet, dutiful man he moved from anonymity to being celebrated and finally reviled by a fickle public at a time when attitudes to capital punishment, seemingly set in stone in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, began to crumble in the face of the impending liberalisation of British society.

Pierrepoint, Adrian Shergold's new film, captures the moment when things changed. It is a character study in extremis, the tale of one man and his job - an unusual job to which he is unusually dedicated. Given the sensitivity of the subject and the individual concerned, it required careful casting for the central role. Frankly, they could not have done better than cast Timothy Spall. It is quite possibly his greatest screen performance to date.

Spall's Pierrepoint is a seemingly simple man with strong, readily-identifiable views. But as the film progresses, it is increasingly clear how complex Pierrepoint's character actually is.

This is a man who kills for the State, whose efficiency might be mistaken for ruthlessness were it not for the very great reserves of compassion that sustain him. His pride and ego are bound up in his ability to perform his job better than anyone else and have little to do with personal aggrandizement. Spall makes you believe that if society still condoned capital punishment, you couldn't wish for a better executioner.

Spall says that he had read Pierrepoint's autobiography as a young man. "It was one of the first grown-up books I ever went out and bought. God knows why. He says in his book that his work was based entirely on a sense of duty. And his attitude and physical ability to separate it from his life is clear. Plus it is predicated on something we have forgotten about in modern society, which is an absolute sense of duty to God, King and country. He knew that his father and uncle took pride in the job."

In some ways, says Spall, Pierrepoint was carrying on the family tradition; his father and uncle had been executioners and it was his sacred duty to carry out the sentence.

"He felt it was his absolute responsibility to deliver them to the next step," he says. "Not that he was in any sense Messianic - it was a taboo and private art. There was a sense of absolute power when you pushed the lever. I discovered that when filming. But it has nothing to do with sadism. I had to believe he was not a psychopath; he was a born hangman. Once he was in prison there was no going back. Albert always knew that when the prisoner was not going to be pardoned, their death was inevitable and it was his duty to make it as swift and with as little suffering as possible."

Without wishing to labour the analogy, or suggest that there is a connection between actors and executioners, I draw a comparison between the ritual of executioner and the ritual of the actor.

"I think he was in a weird way getting into character," agrees Spall. " He was stepping on to a stage. It wouldn't be known as acting. But there was a sense that he was psyching himself up and preparing himself for the job. I'm sure that's common with a lot of people who deal in life and death, like doctors and surgeons."

There were a number of reasons why Pierrepoint finally quit, Spall believes. The sheer volume of executions following the Nazi War Crimes trials for which he was personally requested by Field Marshall Montgomery clearly took their toll. Plus the execution of a man whom he knew well - accurately depicted in the film, however unlikely the event appears.

"And, of course, Ruth Ellis was the last person he executed. And there was a big difference between putting a rope around the neck of a sad, pathetic man and a beautiful, vivacious young woman."

Spall recalls a similarly sobering sensation on set when he had to put the noose around the necks of two young actors who were close personal friends of his son, Rafe.

Spall and his family still live in south London where the actor was born and raised. Coming from a working-class background, his circumstances may have changed but his roots remain constant. His father was a postal worker - which proved useful for the first of his many collaborations with Mike Leigh, Home Sweet Home, in which he played a postman - and his mother worked in a fish and chip shop before running a hairdressing salon. "My mum was working in a chip shop when I was born," he says. " Well, not at the time I was born, of course" he adds. "I wasn't actually a fryer baby!"

A stint at the National Youth Theatre was followed by Rada where he was awarded the Bancroft gold medal. By the time Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was transmitted in 1983, Spall had a sound body of work behind him with the RSC and Mike Leigh. He was particularly good at bringing life to the more grotesque characters of Shakespeare and Dickens, notably as Bottom in Robert LePage's production of Midsummer Night's Dream and Wackford Squeers in Trevor Nunn's production of Nicholas Nickleby.

The big screen provided smaller but no less telling roles in the Eighties and early Nineties, with Spall keeping company with the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci for The Sheltering Sky and Clint Eastwood for White Hunter, Black Heart. By this time we are no longer talking about a fat boy on the sidelines. Over decades of steadily accruing work Spall has embedded himself in the national consciousness as one of those actors who is guaranteed never to let you down - always to deliver something memorable, however small the part - and without resorting to look-at-me-Ma-I'm-acting histrionics.

Then, in 1996, just as he was about to achieve his real moment in the sun when Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, disaster struck. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and was given a 60:40 chance of survival. As the tabloids went into overdrive and his wife, Shane, and their children Mercedes, Pascale and Rafe were hounded and doorstepped by paparazzi and showbiz gossip journalists, Spall began the long and alarming procedure of chemotherapy. Such was the success of his treatment that he was able to leave hospital in time to celebrate his 40th birthday in February 1997. Not long after that he returned to work. He has rarely stopped since, though, he says, his attitude has changed dramatically.

"I work much harder, yes. I sometimes used to rely a little bit on my instinct more than I do now. I didn't know what made me ill but stress had something to do with it and the point is now to head off stress at the pass. It made me aware of things and become more selective. I am less worried about employment. I really do my homework so I am not getting stressed on the set because I don't know what I'm doing. It has also given me a connection to what people who are having a really bad time go through. Because I now know not only what it's really like to get a bit of a fucking pasting but also what other people around you go through. It's made me - if not a better actor - then a lot more conscientious and with a lot more life experience to draw from."

Ironically, the less he cares about employment, the more he gets. With two Harry Potter films under his belt, he has also starred as Mr Poe in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events opposite Jim Carrey, played the road manager of a rock band in Rock Star opposite Jennifer Aniston and shared the screen with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. All these in addition to a handful of high-profile television dramas such as Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past.

Is it possible to define the difference between a small-scale UK production and a big Hollywood movie?

"I actually enjoy and despair in both kinds of films," he says. "The great thing about playing the main role in a film that is shot so quickly - and Pierrepoint was shot in four weeks - is that you keep your character as the centrepiece in your head which is helped by the momentum of shooting. You have to go hell for leather and catch it that moment because you've got such a short time to get it. Sometimes the disadvantage is that you can't achieve all the stuff you want to because there isn't time. I was on The Last Samurai on and off for eight months and every time you go back you have to say hello to the crew and start all over again. A big shoot like that is cluttered with impediments - boredom, inconsistency of characterisation and keeping your energy and not just turning up and doing your thing. You always feel like it's your first day. What you gain is the magnificent time they can give you and the final film which is rich and vibrant. In the end there is not a lot of difference, I find. The main thing is the dissipation of time. But everyone wants the same thing. They all want to make the best possible film they can."

In some ways, Spall is a casting director's dream. He would be the natural choice, for example, in any future biopic of either Alfred Hitchcock or Charles Laughton. Even so, the nature of the profession is fickle and to the outsider, frivolous in the extreme.

"Sometimes I think, 'Oh blimey, how undignified'. In one way it's showing off in the playground. There must be some kind of compulsion to show off and wave your arms about and be noticed. Then you start to realise that you can do without waving your arms about and make people forget that you are acting - which is one of my preoccupations - and not to short change the audience by showing off. But it never gets any better. The more you find out the more you want to get it into the vessel of the person you're playing. Much of it is reduction; you try to get rid of stuff that is extraneous. Sometimes you can have a ball, piss about, have a laugh. I've noticed that there are things I don't do any more as I go along."

Of all the awards he has won, the OBE is the one that positions him firmly in the national consciousness. Was he embarrassed by it?

"No. I was chuffed, of course. The first thing that occurred to me was that they should put a little 'SE' at the end of it. Ha ha! At first I was completely shocked. I knew that my mum would be absolutely delighted. And it turned out that my kids were as well."

Given that we have returned to the subject of his family, I ask him if he can recall a particularly potent memory from his own childhood. He takes time before replying.

"That's quite difficult. Hmm. OK, yes. We used to go to Butlins on holiday, either Clacton or Bognor. My mum was a good singer. Round a piano sort of thing, not for money. Anyway, when we went to Butlins one year she struck up enough courage to enter the talent contest. She got through the first round - came third I think - and was due back for the final round. The prize was a free holiday at Butlins. I remember being so wracked with nerves on the night of the final I couldn't go. I banged my head on the wall of the chalet - it was Artex and it really hurt - so that I didn't have to go."

Which is why, so legend has it, Spall never works on a set that has been painted with Artex.

'Pierrepoint' is released on Friday