Stephen Tompkinson: The absurd life of a TV actor

Stephen Tomkinson as DCI Banks.
Stephen Tomkinson as DCI Banks.
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With a new series of DCI Banks under way, Phil Penfold catches up with Stephen Tompkinson.

For every exotic location, muses Stephen Tompkinson, there’s another which is “either deeply uncomfortable – or slightly absurd. Or a mix of both.” The actor, who turns 50 in mid-October, is back with a new strand of ITV’s primetime drama DCI Banks. Shot entirely on location in Yorkshire and based on the characters in the crime novels of best-selling local writer Peter Robinson, Tompkinson recalls that during filming for a previous series he and his fellow cast and crew found themselves alongside a very cold Calder Canal.

“It was bright, it was sunny, but it was perishing and on that day one of the cast was playing someone who had been discovered in a shallow grave. I really felt for her. But everyone takes it in good part, because each of us knows that we’ve all been asked to do cold, wet, awkward jobs in the past.

“I remember playing a rookie copper in Casualty, who arrived to help out at a motorway pile-up. For some reason that I now can’t remember I was stripped to the waist, hosed down with water by the crew, and then asked to scramble into a very muddy ditch. What I do remember is secretly offering up prayers to the Almighty that it would all end soon”.

Tompkinson’s daughter Daisy is following in his footsteps and when we speak has just been rehearsing for a school production of The Pyjama Game. He has, he says, been honest about the ups and downs of being an actor, but like his own parents he is encouraging.

“They were remarkable when they realised that acting was what I wanted to do. They’d come along to see me, at the age of 17 or 18, in an amateur production of The Crucible, and I was playing John Proctor, one of the leading roles. And when I met them afterwards, they just looked at me, told me how much they’d enjoyed it and said ‘That’s it then. Stage school for you – if you can get in’. To this day I am wholeheartedly grateful for their confidence in me.”

Off Tompkinson went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where fellow students included Rufus Sewell and James Nesbitt. He was awarded the prestigious Carleton Hobbs drama bursary, and worked for BBC Radio while still at Central.

“That was just a godsend for me. Radio is so different from television and film, and being in front of a microphone and doing plays in that medium was a huge voyage of discovery – learning new techniques, watching how others work and what the procedures are. There’s no money at all in radio, but what a learning curve it is.”

From then on, Tompkinson’s career has gone from strength to strength. There was Chancer, Minder, And a Nightingale Sang, All Quiet on the Preston Front and then the gift of the main male lead, Father Peter Clifford in Ballykissangel, which put him firmly in the affections of the public. Next came Damien in Drop the Dead Donkey and, perhaps most memorably of all, Danny the clown in Brassed Off. He gave Danny pathos without mawkishness, and he still remembers the shoot, in and around Doncaster, with great affection. “In fact”, he says, “whisper it quietly, but there may be a big reunion for all the Brassed Off team coming up. At the Royal Albert Hall in London, with the Grimethorpe Band, of course. It’s a sadness that the lovely Pete Postlethwaite won’t be there… how much I miss that man and all his lovely eccentricities.”

Tompkinson was born in Stockton-on-Tees, lived for a while with his parents in Scarborough and then the family moved to Lytham St Annes “on the other side of those hills”. He firmly believes that DCI Banks, which this series tackles contemporary subjects like people trafficking, abduction and forced marriages, could only be filmed in Yorkshire.

“It’s where Peter sets his stories, and the place is at the very heart of his plots. We’ve had to deviate a little from his books now, but knowing Peter, he just might write in some of the little twists we’ve added into an upcoming novel. He’s still very much involved, we are all delighted to say, and he has a huge input into what we do and show. If he said: ‘No, that’s not on’, we would respect that utterly. And it’s always great to catch up with him for at least one very good dinner when we’re filming.”

Tompkinson lives in a Leeds apartment for the duration of the making of Banks, but home is near Weybridge in Surrey. When we meet up to talk, he’s being deeply apologetic for being late in getting to the venue. “Two hours stuck in traffic,” he says. “I ask you!” He has always been a lover of clothes – and was regarded as something of a flamboyant dandy a few years back. Today, it’s a very snappy black suit with strong white pinstripes (with matching waistcoat) and an open-necked shirt. You could use his shoes as a shaving mirror.

He has a passion for the outdoors, and recalls that several series of Wild at Heart, which was shot on a big game reserve in South Africa, were simply paradise. “The animals, the great people, the generosity of spirit. I was really saddened when all that came to an end. But I do think that things run their course, and I feel rather pleased that I get an instinct when it is time to say ‘Enough is enough’. I have always followed the old music hall performer’s dictum of ‘leave ’em wanting more’.

“I shall know when Banks will have to say ‘goodbye’, but it won’t be yet. People tell me how much they enjoy watching the stories, and while that is happening, let’s give them what they want.”

To give himself a bit of variety, Tompkinson returns to stage work as often as he can, and has starred in vehicles as diverse as Charley’s Aunt, Arsenic and Old Lace and Spamalot.

“That was just a hoot,” he says of the Monty Python show. “Daisy came to that one dozens of times – she almost qualified for a season ticket. But she’d watch everything intently, drinking it all in, seeing what made it all work. And that’s brilliant, because that’s part of what I’d say to any young, aspiring actor. Look, watch, listen – ask questions when it is appropriate. Never presume, never assume, and, for God’s sake, read everything you can about the subject.”

Tompkinson is an avid reader, but he qualifies that by adding: “Of books. Those things with paper in them, with covers. I can’t be doing with all the Kindle stuff. You can put book on a shelf, and it looks wonderful, it makes a home.”

His dulcet tones have also provided the voice for numerous TV commercials from Tetley tea to Bulmers cider. “I’ve been given some bizarre instructions by TV ad directors over the years,” he tells me. “One of the best was from a bloke who told me that he wanted me to put a smile into my voice when I said the word ‘cornflake’. And there was another one who made me do no less than 30 takes, saying the same line over and over again. The sound engineer and I knew we had it in the bag on take one, but the director persisted. In the end, the engineer in the studio with me whispered to me that he was going to play the first one, and that I had to mime to it. Which I did. And the director said ‘That’s perfect, at last we’ve got it!’ It’s madness, sometimes.”

He always seems to be the most placid, most easygoing, of men. What then does get his goat? The answer is immediate and to the point. “Rudeness, ignorance, unprofessionalism, bad manners.” You’ll never be able to accuse Stephen Tompkinson, television’s consummate gentleman, of any of those.