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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Ricky Tomlinson: Royle Rebel
Ricky Tomlinson: Premier-class performer
To millions of television viewers, Ricky Tomlinson, in the guise of Jim Royle, is the Sultan of Sloth. But, as Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit writes, behind the extraordinary success of the star of The Royle Family, lies a story of poverty, prison and banjo-playing.

The glitterati who attended the recent West End première of Ricky Tomlinson's new film, Mike Bassett: England Manager, were distinctly top-drawer. Mick Jagger, Sir Richard Branson and Mick Hucknall all graced the Odeon Leicester Square with their presence.

But the real star of the show, in every sense, was the raucous scouser himself. Cheered to the rafters on his arrival by a delighted crowd, he waved a red, white and blue football scarf over his head.

Ricky Tomlinson as Jim Royle
Nation's favourite: Ricky Tomlinson as Jim Royle

Thirty years ago, though, the story was somewhat different. Instead of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, Ricky Tomlinson was languishing in a prison cell in solitary confinement, a radical and uncompromising trade unionist imprisoned for his political beliefs.

The story of Ricky Tomlinson is really the story of two men. One, a natural performer with a talent to amuse: teller of corny jokes, seasoned actor and banjo virtuoso.

Radical

The other, an unrepentant working-class warrior, a radical Socialist who has staunchly refused to compromise his old-fashioned ideology.

Ricky Tomlinson was born in Liverpool in 1939, during the first month of the Second World War. His childhood was hard: "I'm not getting the violin out," he told a recent interviewer, "but there were six of us in a two-bedroom house."

The son of a baker, early hopes of a career as a footballer (he was offered, but turned down, a trial for Scunthorpe United) took second place to playing banjo in Liverpool's pubs and clubs.

Ricky Tomlinson playing the banjo
Banjo virtuoso

He worked as a plasterer before his involvement in the 1972 builders' strike during which he organised flying pickets and refused to testify in court against his fellow strikers.

This earned him a two-year prison sentence for conspiracy which he has recently said he will challenge in court.

Ricky Tomlinson served his time in 14 prisons, mostly in solitary confinement because, as he puts it: "I wouldn't wear any clothes."

He developed a passion for classical music and, through one prison governor, who was an ex-bricklayer, discovered socialist theory.

"He gave me a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist," says Tomlinson, "which I have read and sent copies of all over the world."

Backed Scargill

The support which the National Union of Mineworkers gave to the striking builders also impressed him and he staunchly supported Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party during the recent general election.

He appeared in a party election broadcast and campaigned on Scargill's behalf when he later stood, unsuccessfully, against Peter Mandelson who Tomlinson calls "a political careerist on a bloody great ego trip", in Hartlepool.

Arthur Scargill
Tomlinson supports Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party

On his release from prison in 1975, Ricky Tomlinson found himself blacklisted from the building trade so he set himself up as an entertainer, theatrical agent and pub landlord, to varied success.

But his life was transformed in 1980 when the director Alan Bleasdale, who had seen Tomlinson's stage routine a year earlier, cast him in a minor role in the acclaimed series Boys From The Blackstuff.

The Thatcher years and the "gritty" theatrical response which they provoked, were meat and drink to Ricky Tomlinson.

With his grizzled face and world-wise manner, he was a natural for parts in Jim Allen's United Kingdom, Ken Loach's bleak Riff Raff and, most notably, as the bolshie trade unionist Bobby Grant in Brookside.

Grumpy

His transformation to national superstar, though, came in 1998 when, reunited with his Brookside screen wife Sue Johnston, he starred as the grumpy paterfamilias in The Royle Family.

The role, which Tomlinson happily admits is "about 99% me", has brought him fame and wealth. But he refuses to play up to his star billing, taking cans of his favourite mild to awards ceremonies and continuing to live in Liverpool.

Ricky Tomlinson with his two-time screen wife Sue Johnston
With his two-time screen wife Sue Johnston

Ricky Tomlinson is currently at the top of his game. His current film, with cameo appearances by Pelé and Ronaldo, is just one of a series of projects either in production or in the pipeline.

With a behind-the-scenes documentary of The Royle Family scheduled for Christmas, the British public's love affair with this most unlikely superstar shows no sign of cooling.


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