Ray Winstone: The hard man

If anyone can convince the thugs heading for Germany not to cause trouble, Ray Winstone can BY BRIAN VINER
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The movers and shakers at the Football Association have been lambasted by some for appointing Steve McClaren to be the next England manager, and lambasted by others for first offering the job to the Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari. So they deserve to take comfort in an appointment that will surely be universally applauded, that of Ray Winstone, the actor, to be the face of the FA's campaign to encourage good behaviour from England supporters at next month's World Cup in Germany.

Regrettably, there are certain to be some thugs heading for Germany immune to anyone's powers of persuasion. But if anyone can convince them not to cause trouble, 49-year-old Winstone can. After all, few of them will be any tougher than he is, and few of them will have a stronger pedigree as a football enthusiast.

Not all actors who play hard men are hard, of course, but Winstone is; he was a decent amateur boxer in his youth, boxed twice for England as a light welterweight, and still walks with a boxer's rolling shoulders. As for his cred as a football fan, he has been devoted to West Ham United since boyhood, and will doubtless be taking his boxer's walk to Cardiff for the West Ham vs Liverpool FA Cup final a week today.

He can also claim to have been taken to every England match as a nine-year-old during the 1966 World Cup. "Although funnily enough," he once told me, "I only remember it in black and white."

Whatever, the FA, for once, can congratulate itself on an appointment well made. With the FA's customary haplessness, however, the timing is ever so slightly unfortunate. Next Thursday, Winstone stars in All in the Game, a one-off drama on Channel 4. He plays Frankie, an old-fashioned manager revered by his club's fans, but also deeply corrupt, routinely pocketing bungs at the expense of the club and its beleaguered chairman.

So the week after Winstone became the FA's face of good behaviour, he also becomes, albeit fleetingly, the face of football amorality. Still, not even the most moronic hoodlum intent on causing violence in Germany could mistake Winstone the man with the parts he plays. Or so we should hope. After all, in the film Nil by Mouth he battered his wife; in The War Zone he raped his daughter. In acting, as in boxing, he has never ducked a challenge.

He first caused a stir when he starred in Alan Clarke's controversial 1979 film Scum, in which he played a vicious borstal boy called Carlin, whose weapon of choice was a sockful of snooker balls. For those of us who managed to get into the ABC cinema in Southport to see Scum, despite being too young for admission to an X-rated film, Winstone's performance had a lasting impact. That said, my friends and I did not see the film as a profound comment on the psychosis of violence; we were just impressed by how hard he was.

The face and demeanour that so lend themselves to parts as hard nuts once landed him in jail in Leeds, a member of the public having mistaken him for a criminal whose identikit picture had been shown on Crimewatch. But he hates the suggestion that he has ever been in any way typecast, preferring to describe his characters as, more often than not, "the guy next door".

If the guy next door beats his wife or molests his daughter then maybe he's right. Maybe that's his point. That none of us really knows what goes on next door.

As for researching his roles, he mercifully eschews the method school and likes to quote Laurence Olivier's famous advice to Dustin Hoffman, who, during the making of Marathon Man, kept himself awake for three nights on end to find the requisite nerviness for his character: "Dear boy, you look absolutely awful. Why don't you try acting? It's so much easier."

But Winstone knows that Olivier was being glib, that acting is to do with the soul as well as the body. He once said as much in an interview, in as near to an analysis of his craft as he ever gets, on the basis that he is anxious not to sound "poncey".

"How do you research being a child-molester?" he mused. "A wife-basher? Do you go and do it? In Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley played a really nasty gangster, and I thought 'hang on a minute, this is Gandhi'. But he said to me, 'This is part of me. There's a dark side within all of us." The dark side within Winstone was more evident in his youth than it is now.

Watching Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had fuelled the desire to become an actor and his parents - his father ran a fruit and vegetable business; his mother had a job emptying fruit machines - helped him to find the money for drama school, the £900-a-term Corona Stage School in Hammersmith. But he couldn't stomach the "ponciness".

One day he turned up to a ballet class wearing a leotard and Dr Martens. Another time he was given an exam mark of zero for reciting passages from Julius Caesar in his broadest Plaistow accent: little did either he or his teacher realise that several decades later he would receive lavish plaudits for his portrayal on television of Henry VIII as a paranoid East End gangster.

He was finally expelled from drama school when he nailed some tacks through a lolly stick and used it to burst the tyres of the principal's car, his revenge for being the only pupil excluded from the Christmas party.

On that same day in 1976 he sauntered along to the BBC to meet some classmates, who were there for an audition. By flirting with the receptionist he wangled an audition for himself and to his amazement landed the part of Carlin in Scum, then earmarked as a BBC play, although it was subsequently shelved because of its violence, not to mention its unequivocal criticism of the borstal service.

Winstone duly became disenchanted with acting and joined his father on the market stall. But his career was reignited when Scum was re-shot as a film for cinema; then he landed a role in the film Quadrophenia and another in a film called That Summer, for which he received a Bafta as Best Newcomer.

It was on location in Torquay, making That Summer, that Winstone met his wife-to-be, Elaine. They are still married and have three daughters, the middle of whom, Jaime, is making a considerable name for herself as an actress, having recently starred to great acclaim in the film Kidulthood.

The Winstones also have a five-year-old daughter, Ellie-Rae, whose upbringing is surrounded by a sight more affluence than either of her sisters ever saw. This, says Winstone, was part of the reason for having her. They had moved to a house in Roydon, Essex, with a big garden, and felt it needed the pitter-patter of little feet.

His life, both professionally and personally, certainly seems in good nick. But it was not always thus, not even when he had established himself as an actor. He was twice declared bankrupt by the Inland Revenue, and his career has had some decided downs as well as ups, not helped by an occasional surfeit of what might be termed attitude. Famously, he was auditioned for the first Star Wars prequel, at which the director George Lucas appeared so indifferent that Winstone asked if he'd like to go away and have a short nap. He didn't get the part.

It was in the middle of one of his career troughs that his good friend Kathy Burke invited him to appear in her play Mr Thomas, and his scintillating performance in that led to him being cast, alongside Burke, in Nil by Mouth.

Since then, offers have been raining, and indeed reigning, in. He was brilliant as Henry VIII and has shown a surprising facility for accents for one whose vowels are so rooted in the East End of London, convincingly playing a Mancunian in the TV drama Lenny Blue, and even a villainous Confederate officer in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, alongside Nicole Kidman and Jude Law.

Starring in big-budget Hollywood films in a way closes the circle for Winstone. As a child, his father took him to the cinema in the West End once a month. "We went locally, too," he once recalled, "but the West End was Cinemascope, see. We saw Zulu there, Lawrence of Arabia, How the West Was Won, 633 Squadron ... and when the film finished, my dad would say, 'D'you want to see it again?', so we'd just stay where we were. One time, we went to see Jason and the Argonauts, and he fell asleep, so I sat through it again, and he woke up in the same place he fell asleep. When we got out it was dark. He went 'you bastard!'."

His particular fascination was for English actors. "I loved Albert Finney. When I was at college, I got a job in the wardrobe department at the National Theatre and dressed him for two weeks. Blinding man. I loved Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. And The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, with Tom Courtenay."

In Last Orders, the film version of Graham Swift's novel, Winstone found himself working with some of those childhood heroes, among them Courtenay, Michael Caine and the late David Hemmings. He was worried that they might not live up to his great expectations. "I thought, what if they all turn out to be wankers?" But I loved them all to bits. I had all these little drinks, little talks, with Michael Caine. Blinding. A national treasure, that geezer."

Winstone is perilously close to becoming a national treasure himself. And if he helps to keep England's football fans on the straight and narrow, treasurehood will be confirmed.

A Life in Brief

BORN 19 February 1957 in Hackney, east London.

FAMILY His parents ran a fruit and vegetable business in Enfield, where he lived from age seven. He married Elaine Winstone in 1979; they have three children.

EDUCATION Edmonton County School and, from age 12, Repton Amateur Boxing Club. He studied acting at the Corona School in Hammersmith, London.

CAREER Boxing: three times London Schoolboy Champion and fought twice for England; he won more than 80 medals and trophies in a career of 10 years. TV acting includes: Scum (1979), Fox (1980), Robin of Sherwood (1986), Birds of a Feather (1991), Births, Marriages and Deaths (1999) and Sweeney Todd (2006); films include Nil by Mouth (1997), and The War Zone (1999); theatre includes The Night Heron (Royal Court, 2000) and 24 Hour Plays (Old Vic, 2002).

HE SAYS "The greatest dramas in the world are all about sex, violence and death."

THEY SAY "However brilliant he is as an actor - and he's really, really brilliant - he's even better as a bloke." - Kathy Burke, actress