If you want to hear Ricky Tomlinson on his political soapbox, outlining his case against the police and the Government following his arrest and imprisonment in 1972 – while sailing close to the laws of defamation – it shouldn’t be too hard to track down.
He’s rarely been off it while in interviews recently while promoting United We Stand, a play based on an episode in Tomlinson’s life that still haunts him today.
You probably won’t find the interview he conducted with a BBC radio station that I happen to know had to be pulled from broadcast – he sailed a little too close to the wind. Tomlinson is 75 now, but his light, passion and fire have not dimmed with age.
Speaking to Tomlinson today, I’m determined to let him have his head of steam, but not get carried away. I want to be able to print what he tells me. For the most part, he’s on good behaviour, although when he starts shouting the odds about Ted Heath and the conspiracy around his arrest that “goes all the way to the top” it’s tricky. Or maybe not. As Tomlinson points out, we live in a time where we perhaps are beginning to realise that we really do need to constantly question the official line we’re told. “It’s disgraceful and now with all the chicanery that went on in Hillsborough – you see what happened at Hillsborough, there was a dreadful accident and then they tried to cover it up, ours was different because they set us up. We went on strike and we were accompanied by 80 policeman, 14 weeks later they brought 271 charges against us with 200 witnesses – including 80 of the policemen who were with us on the day, they didn’t arrest anyone, charge anyone, they didn’t take a statement, it was ludicrous,” says Tomlinson.
The “ludicrous” incident Tomlinson is referring to happened in the summer of 1972 when 300,000 building workers launched their industry’s first national all-out strike to seek better pay by using the controversial tactic of “Flying Pickets”. The partial success of the strike, and the methods used, enraged the construction industry and government, and culminated in the arrest of 24 builders in North Wales who were charged with offences including conspiracy to intimidate and affray.
The 24 were prosecuted at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973 and three were jailed, including building workers Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson. Warren and Tomlinson served just shy of two years in prison.
It is that story that is told in United We Stand, a play being brought to the stage of Leeds Carriageworks on Tuesday next week. Tomlinson is played by playwright Neil Gore and Des Warren by Leeds actor Paul Fox.
It might have been over 40 years ago, but talking about that time still gets Tomlinson excited. “I was in Worksop last night telling people about what went on back then and people don’t really believe it. With the stuff coming out now about Hillsborough and Orgreave people think ‘blimey’. We were charged with conspiracy. When we were inside we discovered that the most we should have got was three months. We’ve got all the papers and documents to prove all this,” he says.
The play, which has been playing to a warm reception at small venues around the country since last year, comes to Fox’s home town next week. Fox says he understands the huge responsibility of acting out a story that means so much to someone whose life took a remarkable turn around after he left prison – and went on to become one of the country’s most loved actors, thanks to roles in films like Mike Bassett England Manager and in The Royle Family. Tomlinson, who still lives in his native Liverpool, has a strong sense of justice. He says: “I know what’s right and I know what’s wrong. I know what’s good and I know what’s bad. I lead a middle class life now and I have no mortgage, but there were times when I had nothing. I had my house repossessed when I was on the dole and blacklisted and there are thousands of people in that position now and I don’t forget what that was like.
“It’s absolutely wrong we now pay bankers millions of pounds for nearly destroying the country, but take to bits people who have done nothing wrong other than become employed.”
People around Liverpool know that Tomlinson hasn’t forgotten his roots – and he puts his money where his mouth is, literally. “I’ve had a wonderful time and having earned a few quid it’s given me a chance to pass a few bob on to other people, including a couple of charities close to my heart here in Liverpool.
“Anyone who is down, I have to say keep going and keep bouncing back. I know it can be done because I’ve done it.”