Hard act to follow

In his latest TV drama, Ray Winstone plays a booze-addled trouble- maker - a role he was born to play
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Alan is an uber-lad - all booze, birds and bravado. Done up in sharp suit and shades like a character in Reservoir Dogs, he hires a stretch limo for his best mate Terry's stag day, and takes him and another friend on a champagne-fuelled tour of the finest greyhound tracks, tenpin bowling alleys and massage parlours north London has to offer. At a greasy-spoon breakfast to kick off the day, he leaps onto the table for a chorus of Gary Glitter's "I'm the Leader". Alan makes Gary and Tony, the characters from Men Behaving Badly, look like sensitive New Men.

His boys'-night-out antics change all three of the men's lives irrevocably. As Alan's wife weeps uncontrollably about his misdemeanours, Terry's fiancee tries to console her: "You know what they're like - daft as brushes when they get together, living in a wee fantasy world, like they were when they were five."

The part of Alan in Births, Marriages and Deaths, BBC2's enthralling new contemporary serial, was specifically written for Ray Winstone. Tony Grounds, the author of the four-part drama, has known Winstone for years, and they go to all West Ham United's home matches together.

Holding court in a London bar, Winstone certainly makes for magnetic company. A former boxer who won 80 fights out of 88, he is perpetual motion personified, leaping up and down, ordering drinks and acting out ideas. Grounds is spot-on when he observes that "when Ray walks into a room, you know it".

"There's a bit of me in Alan," the 41-year-old Winstone concedes with a chuckle. "Being a bit large sometimes and having a giggle. But I hope I'm not like that all the time - if I was, I'd have to top myself."

In typical fashion, Winstone's Alan is a fully developed, flesh-and-blood character, the sort of bloke you might see entertaining a crowd down at your local. "When you watch Ray on screen, it doesn't feel like he's acting," says Grounds. "There's obviously a lot of energy there, and he can be scary. But he doesn't need to be shouting and getting drunk all the time on screen; he's just as powerful when he simply looks at you. Under the right direction, he's unstoppable. He's Harvey Keitel with added surprise."

You won't find this actor putting ironic, judgemental distance between himself and his role. Winstone knows that to create a plausible character, you have to sympathise with him totally. "Alan can be a bit of an arsehole," he admits, "but I do feel sorry for him. Even though he's the baddie, I play him as the goodie. I think it's much more interesting to play it the opposite way. Even Hitler had someone who loved him. I hate it when you see a film and it's so obvious that you spot the baddie from the start."

Never wishing to second-guess the audience, Winstone claims that his only concern is being faithful to the characters. "I've played all kinds of unpleasant people, but I never worry about public reaction. In Nil by Mouth, I was playing pissed all the time, taking drugs and beating up my wife, but everyone loved the film. You can never compromise."

With roles such as the aforementioned wife-beater, a bank-robber in Face, a loan shark in the upcoming The Mammy, a kidnapper in the soon-to-be- released Darkness Falls, and a child-abuser in Tim Roth's forthcoming War Zone, is Winstone in danger of being pigeonholed as the rent-a-villain of British cinema? He laughs off the very idea. "There are a million different ways to play roles. You only typecast yourself if you play it the same way every time. People only get fed up with you if you perform badly."

Not a criticism ever made of Ray Winstone.

`Births, Marriages and Deaths' begins on Monday at 9pm on BBC2

James Rampton