The Big Interview: Stephen Tompkinson

Stephen Tompkinson, and below in Brassed Off
Stephen Tompkinson, and below in Brassed Off
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Never one to be typecast, Stephen Tompkinson tells Phil Penfold he’s as happy in a dog collar as he is returning to play DCI Banks.

You could never accuse Stephen Tompkinson of having a narrow range. A lot of actors play a single part all their lives – whatever they are in. Not Tompkinson, who has played everything from a student in drag in Charley’s Aunt, to a game conservationist in Wild at Heart, the priest Father Peter Clifford in Ballykissangel, an oily journalist in Drop the Dead Donkey, and Phil in Brassed Off, which was shot in and around Doncaster. He’s been in comedies, musicals, Shakespeare, Bob the Builder 
and Ayckbourn. And, of course, he is known to millions as DCI Banks, in the series of the same name.

“You are probably going to cringe when I say this,” he admits, “but I really do enjoy a challenge. I know I’ve done a few long-running things for TV, but I’ve always left when I’ve felt the story has been told. I hold true to that old showbusiness adage that you should ‘leave ‘em wanting more’.” He pauses and adds with a shy smile, “I also have a very low boredom threshold...” In fact, when we finish our chat, he’ll be off into London for meetings about projects later in the year. “I’m told that there are a few interesting offers out there,” he says enigmatically.

DCI Banks, based on Yorkshire-born Peter Robinson’s bestselling novels, is about to return to TV screens for a third, six-part series, and it was filmed on location in the region.

“I just don’t think that it would work at all if we’d taken it away and shot it somewhere else,” he says. “I still love doing it, the audience figures are holding up well, the public tell me that they like what they see, and I believe that Peter is the consummate storyteller.”

Filming started last August, and only wrapped in late October. “I have to say that the weather held out for us,” he recalls, “It’s not always as kind. The only dodgy time that I wouldn’t care to repeat was a night shoot, in the middle of the big square in Bradford, amidst all the fountains. Not comfortable, believe me – very damp!”

Tompkinson is much admired by fellow actors and the crews he works with. He’s an even-tempered, easy-going sort of bloke, and the only things that upset him, he admits “are rudeness, bad manners and unprofessionalism. Other than that, well, I hope that I am ‘Mr. Placid’, because things never get done if you are acting a diva, throwing a strop and being difficult.

“There are some actors out there who stamp their little feet and who act the fool, but the word does go round, and they don’t seem, after a while, to get the offers any more.”

Born in Stockton on Tees, the family moved to Scarborough when he was only four-years-old, and then they moved again, this time to the other side of the Pennines. Lytham St. Annes is where he was schooled and where he started to think that he could, maybe, sustain a career as an actor. His first appearance in front of the public was as a Red Admiral butterfly in a school production of The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner.

He was 48 in October (“that big 5-0 is skidding toward me at an alarming rate,” he says a little ruefully) and he has hardly been out of work for a second since he graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1988 along with Rufus Sewell and James Nesbitt who were in the same year.

One of his first auditions was for an on-going role in Casualty “which actually went to an old chum of mine, Robson Green. He played Jimmy the hospital porter for some time, and I got the ‘consolation prize’ of a few lines as a young police constable who was involved in a motorway pile-up.

“There was supposed to be an acid leak, and I was, for some reason that I can’t now remember, stripped to the waist, and had to be hosed down with cold water by the crew – it made it look authentic, or so they said.”

Apart from making Banks in 2013, Stephen has been busy in the West End, playing King Arthur in Spamalot, appeared in the BBC’s Truckers (he’s patiently waiting to hear if a second strand will be commissioned) went up to Newcastle’s Live Theatre to appear in a new and ground-breaking play called Red Rabbit, White Rabbit by the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour and managed to read the 2013 Christmas Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, an adaptation of the novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Of the Window and Disappeared.

“Can you find a crazier title than that?” he asks, “but it’s a terrific piece of work. I didn’t know the book at all, but I thoroughly enjoyed the discovery. Red Rabbit was an interesting thing – there was a different performer to do it each night, and we had no idea what the script was going to be beforehand. It was effectively a one-person show, and you were flying blind. Really exciting and a big leap of faith”.

He also made a low budget thriller called Harrigan, set in the north-east and scripted by that very fine writer Arthur McKenzie, who certainly knows his stuff, because he’s a former copper himself, and used to write all the really good scripts for The Bill.

The demands of work mean much else has had to take a back seat. He’s just about kept up his passion for cricket, slogging away, whenever he can, for the many and varied charities that he supports. And, of course, he also recently became a production executive for the first time – he is credited on this series of Banks.

He recalls his time with Spamalot with “great affection. I mean, it is just completely daft, isn’t it?, and such an honour to be part of that great Monty Python tradition. The audience are there to completely enjoy themselves, they really do participate to the max, and the warmth that comes over the footlights is amazing. The theatre was packed every night. If they asked be to turn up for another couple of months, I’d be in there like a shot, it is such a glorious romp. I had only ten days to rehearse, so it is arguable that a lot of devoted fans who turn up once a week would have known the lines better than I did.”

One of the fans was his own daughter, Daisy Ellen (by his marriage to Nicci Taylor) who watched the show no less than nineteen times.

“I thought that she’d be totally bored, but she wanted to return over and over again – she’d sit with the lighting people one night, with the sound engineers the next, and she really got to see every side of the show. Daisy lapped it all up – she even a matinée and an evening show on one day. She’s just about to be a teenager, and yes, it looks as if she will be following in her Dad’s footsteps.

“If that’s what she wishes, and she feels that she can make a go of it, then I could not be more delighted. Every parent wants their child to be happy and fulfilled, and heaven knows I’ve told her that it is a hard life, being an actor. I’ve pointed out all the pitfalls, because it would be hypocritical not to. So it is absolutely up to her. She’s been in a couple of school productions, and I do think that she’s got the talent, so….”

Looking back at his own childhood, he says he was a rather analytical child. He’d watch old Laurel and Hardy films on TV, or the Morecambe and Wise Show, and try to work out what made it funny.

“It was my granddad who told me to watch Stan Laurel’s expressions – you might think that he’s a stooge, just doing nothing, but in fact it’s Stan that propels the laughs. Could I be a stand-up comic? No way, never, ever. I completely lack the courage – I am okay getting laughs from good lines when I am in an ensemble, but the very thought of going out there and telling jokes just leaves me rigid with apprehension and fear”.

The new six hour DCI Banks will see (perhaps) a little romance between Alan Banks and his colleague Annie, played by Andrea Lowe, and the arrival of Banks’s daughter, Tracy. It opens with a chilling story about the abduction of a young boy and Stephen is quick to admit that, even though the story is fiction, “it does happen, so often, in real life, and as a parent (Andrea had her first child in May last year) it makes you so aware of what could, God forbid, happen. It just makes you want to keep your own child that much closer and, hopefully, safer”.

Has he got any ambitions left?

“Oh, plenty, in that I want to go on doing good work, and getting involved with sound projects as long as they keep on asking me.

“I wouldn’t mind attempting to write something at one point, but I haven’t had the courage or the will to attempt that yet. And, let’s face it, there are so many better writers than I could ever be, already toiling away.

“Tell you what though, I really have started to think about writing a daily diary. Just to get something on to the page, and to try to make some sense of it all. Mind you, it’s getting started, isn’t it, and finding the time – and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions!”

DCI Banks returns to ITV next month.