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True Spies Sunday, 27 October, 2002, 09:23 GMT
Tomlinson 'gobsmacked' by secret files
Ricky Tomlinson stars in the hit comedy The Royle Family
Actor Ricky Tomlinson, one time National Front member and union activist, recently discovered he was branded a "political thug" in Special Branch files.

The BBC's Peter Taylor broke the news to Ricky, who wasn't best pleased.


I meet Ricky Tomlinson at a posh hotel in Liverpool. Giggling girls in the lobby excitedly point him out.

Unlike many mega-stars, he doesn't pretend they're not there. "You alright then, luvs?' he grins and waves as he moves on to join me for a pot of tea.

Builder's tea, none of your fancy Earl Grey. Seems appropriate for a former plasterer on a building site.

I know what's right and what's wrong and I know when someone's getting a raw deal

Ricky Tomlinson
Ricky remains true to his roots. His is an astonishing story; National Front supporter, trade union militant, prison hunger striker, ace banjo player and now one of the most famous faces on television.

Not bad for a 'Scouser', one of four children brought up in a two bedroomed house. Stardom's made him rich but it hasn't turned his head.

With some reluctance, he's agreed to talk about his chequered past. Chequered is putting it mildly.

He's only doing so because I've told him there's something that I know that he doesn't. He's curious. We sit down and chat. He wants to know what it is.

National Front

Before I tell him, we talk politics. He takes me by surprise when he says he used to be a member of the National Front.

"Some of them were really nice guys worried about their kids and their country. They weren't skinheads or thugs," he says.

Ricky Tomlinson
Tomlinson had no idea about Special Branch files
He's no shame about admitting it and couldn't give a monkey's about the headlines. I somehow feel Ricky has no shame about anything.

And what about his giddy transformation from hard Right to hard Left?

He says: "It wasn't a blinding flash like St Paul. I didn't go to bed one night with right wing views and wake up next morning as a left winger."

His politics are in his gut, he tells me: "I know what's right and what's wrong and I know when someone's getting a raw deal."

Trade unionism

And he saw the rawest of raw deals on the building sites he worked on in the early 1970s. The conditions appalled him.

Ricky says: "There were a hundred men working on the site and only a couple of chemical toilets. They were always full to the top and alive with flies. The fellas used to dig a little bloody hole and crap in it."

Every day someone, somewhere was killed on the sites, he says, because of the appalling working conditions.

Ricky decided to do something about it. He became a shop steward and supported a national strike in 1972 for better pay and conditions.

Arthur Scargill
Arthur Scargill is still a friend of Ricky's
Like his friend Arthur Scargill, who was doing the same for the miners at the same time, he organised flying pickets that toured building sites and persuaded non-union labour to put down their tools.

The persuasion wasn't always gentle. There was a story that coach loads of pickets arrived at one site screaming "kill! kill! kill!". He screws up his face when I challenge him.

"This really tickles me, this word 'violence'," he says. "Was anyone sent to hospital? Anyone get stitches? Anyone get a black eye? None that I know of.

"How can you get 300 hairy-arsed building workers on six coaches going to these sites shouting "kill! kill! kill!" and nobody gets hurt?"

Ricky insists he never used violence against anyone and, anyway, he says he always took his baby son, Clifton, with him. "I had him on my shoulders. Am I going to do that when there's going to be violence, fighting and fisticuffs?"

Prison

Well, obviously not. It just happened that the day things got rough at a building site in Shrewsbury, Clifton had been left at home.

Ricky Tomlinson
Ricky Tomlinson at the 1975 TUC conference
Ricky was arrested, charged with intimidation and affray and sentenced to two years in jail. He's no doubt he and his mates were set up.

"We were on trial because we'd actually taken the bosses on. It was a political trial and we were the scapegoats."

He served his time, and like IRA prisoners in 'Long Kesh', refused to wear prison uniform on the grounds that it branded him a criminal. He ended up in solitary.

Prison radicalised him even more than the building sites. His bible became the early socialist polemic about the condition of the working man, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

"As I turned them pages, I was there. That was 1906. It could have been 1972."

Ricky became a working class hero and trade union martyr. On his release, he breathed defiance and said he had no regrets.

In 1975, he was prevented from speaking at the TUC conference, but to the consternation of the union grandees on the platform, caused chaos by yelling from the wings.

Ricky doesn't like being silenced. He began to address meetings of the Trotskyite Workers' Revolutionary Party - who'd looked after his wife and kids whilst in prison - and seriously considered joining them.

I finally tell him what he didn't know, that Special Branch had a file on him.

Tomlinson 'visibly stunned'

He looks surprised. "When we were on strike, there were always rumours that we were being watched and we should be careful what we said. It was all a bit cloak and dagger but we'd just laugh about it."

There were protests after Ricky and a colleague were jailed
Protesters demand Ricky and his colleague be freed
But this was for real and I tell him how a Special Branch agent within the Workers' Revolutionary Party, codenamed 735, had tipped off his handler that Tomlinson should be watched.

I say I've spoken to the Special Branch officer concerned. Ricky looks at me intently, eyes narrowing. I tell him that the file described him as a political thug prone to violence.

He's visibly stunned.

His face freezes and for a moment he seems uncharacteristically lost for words. 'I'm gobsmacked,' he said. 'It's untrue. I feel violated. It's sickening.'

Was he a subversive? 'Subversive. My arse,' he says. 'I love England and the people in it.'

As if to prove the point, he says he'd once had a little boat called "The British Heart". It was painted red, white and blue.

"I love this country more than the Special Branch guy who's branded me a thug," he says angrily and I've no doubt he means it.

There's silence and for a moment he seems lost in thought. "And it's been on them files obviously all them years," he muses, "and I've had no chance to redress it. I think that's appalling."

I point out the file was probably destroyed ages ago. It's no consolation.

Suddenly, strange events in his life become clearer. He tells me that when he was in jail, his cottage in Wales was burgled.

He says no windows were broken and the intruders came in through the door. Only letters and photographs were taken.

He's never been able to work it out. At the time he suspected Special Branch. Now he's certain.

He adds: "I used to think we lived in a free society but I'm not so bloody sure now. If they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone. I'm not a subversive and definitely not a bloody thug."

As he leaves through the lobby, the giggling girls had gone. Anyway, he probably wouldn't have felt like waving.


The first programme in the True Spies series was shown on BBC Two on Sunday 27 October 2002.
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