It might be two decades in his past, and he might prefer not to discuss it now, but Timothy Spall will perhaps always be best remembered for his exquisite portrayal of the bumbling plumber Barry Taylor in the Eighties TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. We are here today ostensibly to talk about his latest film, Pierrepoint, which tells the story of Britain's most notorious hangman, who operated from 1933 until the mid-1950s. But it's not long before Spall's televisual past gets raked up once more. At the very mention of it, he takes a rather weary breath, and reaches towards his glass of wine for support.
"That character," he says, "I've a love/hate relationship with that character. He makes me feel very... ambivalent." The reason for this, Spall explains, is that the part not only brought him fame but also nearly killed his career.
"I was virtually unemployable for five full years," he says. "Couldn't get arrested. People thought I was Barry, this foolish buffoon. I wasn't, of course; I was an actor, but nobody seemed to realise this. I remember going for an audition one time, and somebody worrying whether I'd be able to do anything but a Brummie accent. I had to point out to them that I was from London, not Birmingham..." He is laughing, but still fuming, too: his right hand is curled into a first. "Anyway, so there I was, 27 years old, married with three kids already, and nobody would give me a job. A horrible, horrible time."
But he stuck it out and, thanks in part to Mike Leigh, who subsequently cast him in several of his finest features, Spall has gone on to become one of this country's favourite character actors, a lugubrious walrus whose soft-centred gravitas makes him perfect not just for Dickens adaptations but for Hollywood movies as well. Costume dramas aside, he has played opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai and Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star. He has been nominated for five Baftas - "and won none of them" - and yet, underpinning every part of his impressive career, is the memory of Auf Wiedersehen's hapless clown.
"I remember being in Cannes one year with Mike [Leigh]," he says. "We were there for [2002's] All Or Nothing, a very sober, sombre film. It was the premiere, the red carpet, cameras flashing, people cheering. All very gratifying and then, from behind this large potted plant, I hear: 'Barry!'" He clutches his head in mock agony.
His latest role couldn't have less in common with the character that continues to haunt him. Pierrepoint is an unflinchingly dour, Mike Leigh-flavoured meditation about a former truck driver-turned-hangman whose efficiency - he could perform a hanging in as little as seven seconds, thereby minimising any suffering - saw him promoted to a position in post-war Germany where he executed vast numbers of Nazi war criminals.
"What appealed to me was that here was this man who, on the one hand, liked to sing and entertain in local pubs, but who was also the most proficient killing machine of the last century," Spall says. "I was drawn to the incongruity of it."
Pierrepoint was originally conceived as a one-off TV drama, but received such strong early reaction that it was promoted to the big screen. The actor considers this entirely just: "Given its subject-matter, to say nothing of its beautiful cinematography, it could hardly have followed Heartbeat, now could it?" Nothing to do with the fact that there is more attendant glory from a cinema release than a TV drama? Spall allows himself a smile. "True," he says. "There is that as well, yes."
Timothy Spall was born in Battersea in 1957, his father a postal worker, his mother a hairdresser. Aged 16, he appeared in a school production of The Wizard of Oz (as the lion), "and the buzz was just incredible. I was up there on stage being funny, and people laughed. I wanted to do it again and again."
This occurred during a crossroads in the young man's life. At the same time, he was also an army cadet in the Third Royal Tank Regiment, his ambitions neatly split between becoming a corporal and going to drama college. He loved the arts and became a voracious reader, ploughing through Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and even Mein Kampf in the space of six months. He eventually plumped for the arts, and, following a stint at Leeds College of Art, he graduated to Rada, the Birmingham Rep and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"On the one hand," he says, "I intrinsically believed that acting was something I could do, but on the other, I was totally and absolutely insecure. My imagination could certainly talk the talk, but my soul remained deeply afraid of taking it on. It never ceases to be a terrifying prospect for me. Sometimes, a director will think me perfect for a particular part. Outwardly, I smile and say thank you very much, but inwardly, I just think: 'Why does he think that? Oh my God, I'm going to let him down terribly.'
"It's like constantly suffering from haemorrhoids, and the bigger the arena, the bigger the haemorrhoid." Nevertheless, he did impress casting agents, and his breakthrough role came in Mike Leigh's TV drama Home Sweet Home in 1982.
In 1996, while Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (in which he starred) was collecting the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Spall was undergoing chemotherapy for leukaemia. Though he made a successful, and quick, recovery, "I refused to allow the press to mention it in my presence," he says. "First and foremost, it was too painful to talk about, but also I was terrified about being known as that 'ill actor'. I didn't want sympathy, and I didn't want to be tainted. I wanted to be congratulated for some part, not because I'd managed to cheat death."
These days, he considers himself a better actor for it, if only because leukaemia "opened a window on true suffering". He adopted a healthier outlook on life, and while he still likes a drink, he no longer indulges in quite the quantities he once did (pre-cancer, Spall was a rather infamous bon viveur). He has also, he says more with relief than pride, learned finally to temper his ego.
"About time to," he says. "Acting was always a major obsession for me, but I was an actor in a way that wasn't particularly healthy. It dominated my life and my family's. Of course, you can't remove ego from an actor, but my attitude was, I now think, juvenile, infantile and all-consuming. I still believe that acting is a great art if it's done right, but if you are not careful it can, in some ways at least, ruin your life, and I sometimes think it came close to doing that with mine."
His friend, the comedian John Sessions, has said that Spall has a "sense of the sadness of the world, of ambitions rarely fulfilled". Spall reaches instinctively for his wine again. "I do indulge in melancholy, it's true, but then I always have done, perhaps because I'm a natural worrier and an absolute, consummate, premier division hypochondriac. There have been occasional tears in Sainsbury's, yes, but with age, I like to believe, comes a certain dignity." He smiles with his mouth, but his eyes don't quite follow suit. "I'm 49 now. A bit of dignity's somewhat overdue, wouldn't you say?"
'Pierrepoint' opens on 7 AprilReuse content