Ricky Tomlinson's Great Night Out: 'I sit in front of the TV all the time shouting'

Ricky Tomlinson – like Jim Royle, his best-known alter ego – enjoys a rant. He talks to James Rampton about prison, poetry, politicians, and his latest role, as a cocky pub landlord in ITV1 comedy Great Night Out

Wherever he goes, Ricky Tomlinson is chased by his catchphrase. The 73-year-old actor, best known as Jim, the crotchety dad from The Royle Family, takes up the story: "The other day, I did a charity Can't Cook, Won't Cook at a local golf club. On the way out, a posh woman came up to me in a mink stole, pink-rinsed hair and the obligatory string of pearls round her neck.

"She asked me, 'Will you please sign this photograph, "My bottom?"' I couldn't believe it! Did I write 'My bottom'? Did I, my arse! Of course I wrote, 'My arse!'"

Tomlinson, who is also an accomplished banjo player, continues that whenever he goes out up to 50 people, from passing bus drivers to school children, will shout his catchphrase at him. "Do I mind?" he laughs. "Not in the slightest. I love it! The only time I might get fed up would be if people started asking, 'Who the bloody hell is that?'"

As you can see, Tomlinson has a likeable, down-to-earth attitude to showbiz. This, after all, is the man who takes cans of his favourite mild to awards ceremonies as he doesn't like southern lager. He was also once introduced to Robert De Niro at the Groucho Club and, not having a clue who he was, asked him if he was in the business.

Despite the huge popularity he has enjoyed as Jim over the past 16 years, the actor is adamant that fame has not changed him. He still lives close to where he grew up in Liverpool and is highly approachable. With him, he says, "What you see is what you get – warts and all." He has no desire to join "the luvvie set".

The actor, who is also a qualified plasterer, carries on that, "I've got no time for actors who get a bit of notoriety and suddenly start turning down autograph hunters. The fans make you what you are, and you have to respect that. They're your employers.

"I run a cabaret club in Liverpool called The Green Room and before every show there, I have my photo taken with a minimum of 50 people. I must be all over Facebook, although I don't know what that is! But I'm more than happy to do it. I know it's a very important part of the job."

The actor, who lives with his wife Rita Cumiskey and has three grown-up children, is an irrepressible presence. For instance, he jokes about the time that The Antiques Roadshow came to Liverpool. "A fellow came in and put a bloody big object on a table covered in a blanket. He told the expert, 'I've lived in my house for decades, and I just found this thing in the attic. What's it worth?' The expert replied, 'It's not worth anything – it's your water tank!'"

Tomlinson, who worked for many years on building sites and has long been a vociferous left-winger, only got into acting after serving two years in jail. One of the so-called "Shrewsbury Two", he was imprisoned during the builders' strike in 1973 for "conspiracy to intimidate" on a picket line after he refused to testify against fellow strikers.

A passionate, magnetic man fuelled by the energy of someone four decades younger, Tomlinson says now that prison turned his life around. In jail, he discovered the joys of poetry and music. He also began to explore socialist theories, devouring a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists given to him by a sympathetic prison governor.

Soon after leaving, Tomlinson began playing his beloved banjo in pubs, before landing his first TV acting job in 1981 in Roland Joffé's Play for Today, United Kingdom.

A succession of high-profile parts followed, including the union activist Bobby Grant in Brookside and the irascible detective DCI Charlie Wise in Cracker. But it was the role of the impossibly lazy Jim Royle – whose stained stripy yellow T-shirt would run away in fright if it ever saw a washing machine – that catapulted Tomlinson to a new level in 1998.

A very generous man who in 2008 donated £1m to Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool, Tomlinson clearly adores working on Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash's long-running sitcom about a lovable, yet terminally indolent family apparently surgically attached to their three-piece suite.

And the audience love it just as much – as always, the recent Christmas special did terrific business in the ratings. It netted 7.7 million viewers on Christmas night, beating Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife in the process.

Tomlinson says, "I'd love to do another Christmas special next year. In fact, I'd love to work on The Royle Family every single day. We're one big happy family. I'd do anything for Caroline. If she rang up and said, 'I've written a part for you, but you have to cut all your hair off', I'd be there in a shot."

So are there any similarities between the actor and his most famous alter ego? Tomlinson asserts that he has a very different work ethic to Jim, the man who makes sloths look hyperactive. "His only job was when he was milk monitor at school. He's never got off his arse since. I'm totally the opposite. I'm from a family of grafters."

However, Tomlinson adds, "Like Jim, I do tend to moan at the telly. I'm always screaming at Prime Minister's Questions – 'Tell the truth!' Politicians are so skilled at not answering the question. They never give you a straight answer.

"The House of Commons is like an old boys' club. I sit there watching it, fuming and with steam coming out of my ears. Some MPs convicted of fiddling expenses got out of jail after a couple of weeks. I've spent longer on an errand!"

Tomlinson, who has in the past talked of standing as an MP for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, goes on to explain that, "We put up with it because we're too lethargic to do anything about it. We have been browbeaten for years with crap like I'm a Celebrity and Jeremy Kyle.

"We have fallen for it, and now we aren't able to say, 'Enough is enough!' I sit in front of the telly all the time shouting, 'Bloody hell – what have we come to?' I'm like Victor Meldrew!"

Emphasising his work ethic, Tomlinson is now starring as Warren, the pub landlord in a new ITV1 drama, Great Night Out, which begins on Friday. The actor, who wrote a bestselling autobiography entitled Ricky in 2003, says that, "It's a really good comedy-drama about four couples who meet for a great night out every week in the local pub in Stockport, the Lord Admiral Nelson.

"I play the landlord who does everything in his power to keep people in the pub spending their ruddy money. He charges them for everything, even watching the football. He is a bloody know-all!"

Tomlinson, who also starred in Clocking Off, Mike Bassett: England Manager and Hillsborough, adds that he based Warren on, "A fellow I mention in my autobiography. I used to meet him in the pub and he was the biggest liar on God's earth. He was full of tall stories, but we all pretended to believe him.

"He was always on about how he knew George Raft and how he dived off a battleship to save a friend's life. You always knew he was going to tell you a pack of lies, but he was a wonderful man. My character in Great Night Out is based on him. A good landlord is worth his weight in gold."

Tomlinson will also soon be starring in BBC3's zombie drama In the Flesh. He concludes that he is happy to be so busy. "Over the years, I have been up and down, but I'm so contented now. I got a very full life, and I feel very blessed. I'm lucky, aren't I, kid?

"I hope I never lose my passion. When I lose that, I'll be gone."

'Great Night Out' begins on Friday at 9pm on ITV1

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