Stephen Tompkinson on Educating Rita, Brassed Off and his affection for Yorkshire

Stephen Tompkinson admits he never ceases to be impressed by Yorkshire’s diversity.

Stephen Tompkinson in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. (Picture: Robert Day).
Stephen Tompkinson in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. (Picture: Robert Day).

“I don’t just mean in the cultural sense,” he says. “I mean in just about every use of the word. Look at it – so many great cities and large towns, all quite different in their shape and size, and what they offer.

"There’s no other county in Britain that delivers anything like that but, amazingly, they all have one thing in common. You can get out of all of them, over their boundaries, in about ten or 15 minutes or so, and you are in the most glorious countryside, with stunning views, buckets of fresh air, and – if you want it that way – only yourself for company. Why ask if I enjoy coming back here? There’s no question that I do.”

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Much of ITV’s award-winning drama series DCI Banks was filmed in the county, which took Tompkinson to all manner of locations. “Heaven knows where the researchers discovered these places, but there were abandoned factories and warehouses, slurry pits, rather bleak canals, an old pit working… the list is endless. The upside, of course, was that the show hit a chord with the audiences.”

Tompkinson on stage with co-star Jessica Johnson in the two-hander. (Picture: Robert Day).

His fondness for the county started when he arrived in South Yorkshire to join the team who were to make the box-office hit Brassed Off 25 years ago. “I cannot believe how lucky I was to join a cast which included Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald, Jim Carter and Sue Johnston,” he recalls. “It was magic, just magic. And the bonus, for me, was working with the legend that was Pete Postlethwaite, who tragically died far too young. What a loss he was. But what a character.

“Do you know the story of him having a day off from the shoot, and grabbing the opportunity to try his luck at Doncaster Races? We were all billeted at a hotel in the centre of the town, and Pete eventually returned, having had one heck of a good day, and – he’d have been the first to admit it – just a little worse for wear.

"But he’d had a win, quite a big one, and he was out to celebrate it. Until, that is, he realised that he’d left the money in a carrier bag in the back of a taxi. Try as we might, we never ever found out who the driver was, and where the cash had gone. So, there was one happy cabbie in Donny who went home with quite a tip that night!”

Tompkinson has fond memories of doing Brassed Off. “It was an honour to make that movie, and the best thing of all was that we were making it all in the heart of the places where the story played out. I remember those days in and around Doncaster with great affection.”

At the moment, he is back on the stage in a timely revival of Willy Russell’s perpetually popular Educating Rita. His co-star is the young actress Jessica Johnson and Stephen feels, in some way, they are repeating the successful formula established (in the screen version) by Sir Michael Caine and Dame Julie Walters. “I think that Jess and I have a rapport, but since it is a two-hander, and it is only us on stage for the entire evening, it would be rather difficult if there wasn’t,” he says.

“The story doesn’t age. The young woman stuck in a dead-end job who wants to ‘better herself’ and get an education, up against a rather cynical and jaded older man who is supposed to enthuse her with the joys of literature.”

So what’s the enduring appeal of Educating Rita? “I just think that it resonates with the audiences. Everyone knows someone, or maybe they are that person, with ambition and an eagerness to move forward with their life, someone else who has stalled and who is in a bit of a rut. It’s so honest, and there’s more than a touch of the Pygmalion theme to it.”

It’s a play that Tompkinson first became aware of as a teenager. “I thought that it was a brilliant piece of writing, even back then, and a friend and I rehearsed it and went through it at home in my dad’s garage. I was far too young to appreciate a lot of the things that it is about, but I still loved it. Now that I have reached the grand old age of 53, I think that I am spot-on for it.”

It’s a role that’s been on his “bucket list” for a long time. “It’s odd that I’ve ticked off several of them over the last few years. Another one was Charley’s Aunt, which I just loved playing, and another was Arsenic and Old Lace. And then there was Art, by Yasmina Reza, which I’ve been lucky enough to tour with a couple of times, and to which I could cheerfully return at any time.”

Tompkinson’s affection for Yorkshire has roots. Born in Stockton-on-Tees, he moved to Scarborough as a lad, and then on to Lytham St Annes.

As a keen cricket fan he has many fond memories of watching matches at Headingley. “My favourite place to sit is where you get a view of one of the screens, which is pulled at such an angle in front of a stand so that all I can see is some of the other spectators’ heads appearing as if they are balanced along the top. I always call it ‘The coconut shy’. And that amazing clock – the one that honours Dickie Bird. I love the way that people have christened it ‘the Dicky Ticker’.”

As for acting, he says his parents were always very supportive. “They were just wonderful when they realised that acting was what I wanted to do. They came 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, that is.’”

While he was at college in London, he also worked for the prestigious BBC Radio Repertory Company, which, he says, was a great education. “Radio is so different from TV and film, and being in front of a microphone and doing plays in that medium was a huge voyage of discovery.

"Getting 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 was. The great tragedy is that back then there were about 36 of us in the BBC Rep, and now it’s more like eight or nine.”

Tompkinson will be back on our TV screens in the autumn in a new series called Sherwood, which is based on the impact of the Miners’ Strike. “It’s an immensely powerful piece of writing, so I hope that we’ve done it justice. The nice thing about that was being reunited with old mates like Philip Jackson and Alun Armstrong.”

In the meantime he has Educating Rita to think about. “It goes on for quite a while yet, so I’ll not have idle hands – or brain. I have, I admit it, an extremely low threshold of boredom. Up and doing is what I am best at.”

Educating Rita, Theatre Royal, York, August 31 to September 4. For tickets go to tickets.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or call 01904 623568.