On Air: No more Mr Nice Guy

He may have made his career out of playing losers, but now Stephen Tomkinson is firmly on the winning side. By James Rampton
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What do you get if you cross the star of Reckless with the star of Ballykissangel? Potentially, through-the-roof ratings and barely suppressed whoops of delight from the ITV Network Centre.

But surely the last thing the world needs is another one of those plotless, cynically manufactured "packages" of the type beloved by Hollywood agents - "I'll give you Leonardo, but you have to take Roseanne as his love interest"?

Fortunately, Grafters, ITV's new eight-part drama, appears to rise above such base accusations. For a start, the series involves a not unengaging story about that staple of so much television drama these days, the odd couple.

In what might be described as Auf Wiedersehen, Pet Lite, Joe and Trevor (played by Robson Green and Stephen Tompkinson respectively) are a pair of itinerant Geordie construction-worker brothers who spend more time bickering than actually building.

In Grafters, Green is convincing as the smoothie Joe, done up in too- tight jeans and the sort of blond-highlighted hair favoured by Eighties footballers. But it is Tompkinson who - despite having the less showy part - really catches the eye. In the shadow of a more successful brother and a domineering wife, he precisely captures an air of despondent, hen- pecked resignation. Like Eeyore, he seems to be pursued by his own personal raincloud.

Nobody does defeated better. Tompkinson is an actor who's become a winner by playing the loser. Granted, not everything he has done has been garlanded with bouquets by the critics, but after Damien in Drop the Dead Donkey, Father Peter in Ballykissangel, Phil in Brassed Off, and Spock in Preston Front, Trevor can be added to the actor's growing gallery of characters whom viewers watch and think, "I know that bloke."

Over the past decade, Tompkinson has progressed from being "guest death of the week" on Casualty to being an actor with the kind of pulling-power which means that, when on location, he rests up in a Winnebago the size of Blackheath. But has this success turned him into yet another self-important actor who is more interested in perks than in his performances?

Not as far as I could gather. Given to wry grins, Tompkinson has a stealthy wit that creeps up on you and unexpectedly taps you on the shoulder. The same spark of humour lights up his roles.

"I remember seeing a David Attenborough documentary once, where he said we are the only animals capable of making each other laugh," he says.

"That's a challenge for an actor. There are a myriad ways to find humour, and if you can crack that, then the rest doesn't seem quite so difficult. No matter how hard the situation, there's always a twinkle there."

He even managed to locate it in the unlikely source of Phil in Brassed Off, the redundant miner and brass band member who tries to make ends meet by dressing up as Mr Chuckles the Clown for children's parties.

Much more than The Full Monty - the film to which it is compared with tiresome regularity - Brassed Off pinpoints the despair of people confronted by a jobless future.

"It was the first movie that had dealt with the issue of the miners," says Tompkinson. "Nobody before had seen the impact of closing a mine on a community that existed only for the industry.

"When you close down the industry, in effect you close down the village. But it was quite a tricky film to market to a nation still scarred by memories of that single by Terry Wogan and the brass band."

For all the success of Brassed Off, Tompkinson is still best known for his role as Father Peter, the Catholic priest who falls for Dervla Kirwan's alluring barmaid, Assumpta, in Ballykissangel, BBC1's easy-going Sunday- night drama. The series was about as hard-edged as blancmange, but was enormously popular.

However, that had its downside. Ballykissangel marked the first time Tompkinson had become a legitimate target in the eyes of the tabloids. "When Dervla and I started to go out, we knew what that would bring. It comes with the territory. Fighting it is redundant, because it's bigger than you. So you try to dance or fence with it. But we had nothing to hide. Rather than courting undercover exclusive photos taken from the bushes, we just said, `Yeah, we're an item - shock, horror'. It took the fun out of it for the journalists, and they cursed us."

Tompkinson had, of course, picked up a few tricks of the rat-pack trade himself over nearly a decade playing the amoral reporter Damien on Channel 4's newsroom sitcom, Drop the Dead Donkey, which returns for its final series next week.

"Damien is completely devious. He'd sell his grandmother to get a good story, and it's all done under the guise of the public's right to know. He's such a charlatan. He showed you could stage your own news just with a teddy bear strategically placed at a disaster. The character's an absolute monster."

And now the actor fancies playing more of them. He was a psycho in Guy Jenkins's satire, A Very Open Prison, and earlier this year took the lead in a touring production of Tartuffe - "like Damien meets Father Peter and beats the crap out of him." So which bad guy does Tompkinson have in his sights? "I'd love to have a crack at Richard III on stage. He's evil with a smile." The actor who has spent years playing a celibate priest closes with an impassioned plea to all the theatre producers out there: "Give Tompkinson a hump."

`Grafters' begins on Tuesday on ITV. `Drop the Dead Donkey' is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays