Ricky Tomlinson: From solitary confinement to national treasure

The comic-turned-actor’s career has been bookended by a 40-year battle for workers’ rights that refuses to go away, as a new play reveals. Interview by Tony Earnshaw.

Ricky Tomlison was jailed for his part in the national builders strike of 1972
Ricky Tomlison was jailed for his part in the national builders strike of 1972

Ricky Tomlinson’s epiphany occurred in the segregation unit of Leicester Prison. Naked, wrapped only in a blanket, he was locked in solitary confinement when his governor remarked that he was a political prisoner who shouldn’t be in jail. Then he asked, “Have you read this book?”

It was Robert Tressell’s 1914 socialist treatise The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in which a working-class hero fights back against capitalist bosses by persuading downtrodden fellow workers to rebel against the accepted status quo.

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“I was in every page of that book,” says Tomlinson. “I had been there, slipping on wet planks, hardly anything on me sandwiches on the Thursday or Friday before we got our wages, soaking wet in the p**sing down rain… I had been there. It’s a wonderful book and it changed my life.”

Ricky Tomlison was jailed for his part in the national builders strike of 1972

Tomlinson was jailed for his part in the national Builders’ Strike of 1972, which sought to overturn draconian employment methods and improve dangerous working conditions. Then there was “the lump”, a method of casual cash payment for workers that avoided any employment rights. Strikers demanded a minimum wage of £30 a week.

Tomlinson was a left-wing activist in the 1970s. In September 1972 he was part of a group of flying pickets at a building workers’ dispute in Shrewsbury. Five months after the strike ended 24 pickets were accused of violent picketing and intimidating behaviour. Three men – Des Warren, John McKinsie and Tomlinson – were jailed in what many felt was a warning to other workers.

It was both his undoing and his transformation from plasterer to comedian, actor and, latterly, Liverpudlian legend and working-class icon. Before Brookside’s Bobby Grant, before Cracker’s Charlie Wise, before Jim Royle, Mike Bassett and all his other characters Tomlinson was a union man.

A 1970s MI5 file described him as “a subversive, a left-wing activator, prone to violence and a political thug”. Certainly that was the portrait painted at his trial.

“If they can tar with a brush you either live with it or you get upset about it. They can think of me what they will. They make us out to be traitors but traitors very rarely come from the working classes,” he says. “The day that we were accused of all this mayhem there were 80 policemen with us. No one was cautioned; no one had their name or address taken. No one was charged. Fourteen weeks later they brought 271 charges against us, 21 against me, 27 against Des.”

At their trial at Shrewsbury Crown Court Tomlinson and Warren were found guilty of “conspiracy to intimidate” under the Conspiracy Act of 1875, a law that had not been used for almost a century. Warren received three years’ imprisonment, Tomlinson two and McKinsie nine months.

Now 75, Tomlinson is engaged in a campaign to have his conviction and those of his fellow workers quashed. Several of the pickets have died, including his friend Des Warren. The eldest of the surviving men is 89; the youngest is 66. The case has been turned into a new play, United We Stand, with actors Neil Gore (also the writer) and William Fox playing multiple roles. It tours northern venues during October and November. Tomlinson doesn’t appear in the production but it is being presented with his blessing. What’s more it may prove to be the final step up for a campaign that is gaining momentum.

Tomlinson claims newly-discovered evidence reveals detectives took 900 statements, whittling them down to 200 for the trial. When the statements were found to be insufficiently severe they were destroyed, he says.

“[Then they] went out with my photograph and Des Warren’s photograph and made these people make different statements,” he alleges. “We’ve got the documentation to prove this. The stuff we’ve got would fill this room. When people hear some of the stories they say ‘Go away. That couldn’t have happened’ and I say ‘I tell you it did’. You wouldn’t believe the lengths they’ve gone to.”

Tomlinson, his team and their researchers claim to have proof that a conspiracy to break the builders went all the way to the judiciary, the Cabinet and Prime Minister Edward Heath.

“Most of these documents we’ve had to scramble for and go through hell to get. The authorities are saying that there’s only four documents that they’re withholding. There are hundreds of them, we’ve found out. Hundreds of them. But they’re not available because they’re under Section 23, which means they’re a threat to national security.

“I said to the researcher: ‘Everything you’ve got, duplicate it and get it away. Get it hidden. Don’t even tell me where you’re putting it. And get new locks and an alarm put on your house’.”

He claims to have been not released from prison. Instead he was thrown out. Due to Des Warren’s failing health, friends urged Tomlinson to break the pact he had made with Warren to complete their respective sentences. They said, “We’re not asking you, we’re telling you. Des is so ill. If you do your full time, he’ll do his. He’s got an extra year to do and he won’t make it.”

Reluctantly Tomlinson wrote a letter telling Warren he was giving up the fight. He never revealed his reasons. “He sent me a terrible letter back. It broke my heart. He called me a coward.” The two did not see each other for many years. They were reconciled shortly before Warren died in 2004.

“Des was far more political than me but in a way he wasn’t as sharp,” says Tomlinson with genuine sadness. “He was in the Communist Party and had complete and utter faith that the trade union movement would get him out. I knew once we were in that we were in for the long haul. That’s when I started being really politicised. If the screws tried to wind me up I used to come back with a gag. Des would take them on and snarl so they gave him a terrible time – a far worse time than they gave me. They destroyed him.”

On release from prison he found himself blacklisted. Among the jobs he took to earn a crust were busking and acting as compere in a club. He broke into acting in the early 1980s after committee members at the club suggested he could make a go of it. He was an extra in a TV film called The Muscle Market, with Pete Postlethwaite, and went for an audition for United Kingdom, a BBC Play for Today. The director was Roland Joffe, later to make The Killing Fields.

“I nearly cocked it up because I’d filled in a phoney name on the application,” recalls Tomlinson. “Roland Joffe shouted ‘I know who you are. You’re Ricky Tomlinson’ and I told him to stick the job up his arse.”

During his interview Tomlinson had told Joffe of his building background. When he was unexpectedly called back to go and do a workshop in Oldham he hooked up with a friend who had a van, a cement mixer, shovels and spades and drove to Lancashire. “I genuinely thought he wanted me to build a frigging workshop!” he laughs. “We went in and they’re all sitting there. It was what they call an open audition, which we’d never done. Joffe came in and said ‘I want you to pretend that you’re living in a block of flats. They’re going put the rent up; conditions are bad and you’re not going to pay the rent’.

“No-one said a word. So after about three or four minutes I got up and started screaming ‘I’m not paying the f***ing rent! The kids have got nowhere to play. The grass is full of broken bottles. The lifts are full of piss.’ And the next thing is, everyone’s at it! At the end Joffe just put his arm on my shoulder and said ‘Listen. I’m doing this movie. If I give you a couple of lines’ – because he obviously knew I hadn’t done any acting – ‘you won’t let me down, will you?’”

The play went out in December 1981. Tomlinson, playing the lead, received rave reviews. Watching that night was Andy Lynch, one of the writers of a new TV series called Brookside. He suggested Tomlinson for the role of Bobby Grant.

He appeared in 77 episodes of Brookside. Later he would be Cinders in Roughnecks, DCI Charlie Wise in Cracker, Jim Pratt in Playing the Field and Jim Royle in The Royle Family, the role (written by Caroline Aherne) that give him the catchphrase “My arse!” There have been movies, too. He was in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, for Shane Meadows and as the titular boss in Mike Bassett: England Manager. He worked twice with Ken Loach, on Riff-Raff and Raining Stones. In the latter he plays an out-of-work dad who gives the film its heart in an emotional scene in which he is handed a £5 note by his daughter and weeps when she leaves the room.

“He felt completely bloody worthless, didn’t he – having to take a hand-out off his daughter. That was the whole point of it. It should have been the other way round. It was written by Jim Allen, a working class guy who’d been on his uppers many a time.” Had Tomlinson been in the same position? “Oh, many times, being blacklisted and out of work, yeah. Times were desperate.”

Tomlinson’s memoirs were released in 2003. The book, Ricky, sold a third of a million copies. And it’s still selling.

In it he covered his prison experience along with his extra-marital affairs during his first marriage. He told second wife Rita: “There’s going to be stuff in here that you don’t know.”

“And she said ‘Go for it’. Thank God it proved a huge success. There’s stuff in there which I wish there wasn’t. You could leave it out but I think that’s being a phoney. We all make mistakes in life, one way or the other. I’m not proud of the fact that I had affairs but there was a reason for it. I’ve done what I’ve done. You can only make things better or do things differently and that’s what I’ve done.”

And what of the strike all those years ago? “I would do exactly the same.”

United We Stand plays Square Chapel, Halifax (Oct 25), Wortley Hall, Barnsley (Oct 29), Harrogate Theatre (Nov 3-4), Marsden Mechanics Institute (Nov 14), and the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield (Nov 19-22).