5 Oct 2003: He keeps a caravan in Benidorm and isn’t one for small talk. But even Ricky Tomlinson had to open up when his wife negotiated an £800,000 deal for his life’s story, including his radical political transformation.
Ricky Tomlinson leans back in his armchair and surveys his empire. He sees a modest ground floor flat on the old docks in Liverpool, with a view out onto the Mersey. He looks around the room, at the real wood floor he laid a few years ago, at the comedy awards sitting dustless in a cabinet, at the photos of his family and of his recent wedding day.
‘Doesn’t it look all domesticated, kid?’ he asks proudly, smiling so widely that his glasses are pushed up his pock-marked nose. He watches Rita, his wife, struggle with the patio doors. ‘Get up off your arse, Rick,’ she says, heaving them open. He sighs, stands up, ambles across the living room. They sit at a table on the terrace to have their photo taken. ‘Back a bit,’ says Ricky, moving Rita’s chair so that it’s closer to the Mersey. She gives him a look.
‘Reet, you should have got a little plate of scones ready. And some flowers,’ suggests Ricky. Rita scowls: ‘More like Pot Noodle.’ He makes a fuss about having to sit close to her. They play fight for a moment. He looks at her sideways, pulls a face. ‘I mean it, Rick. Stop being such a shit. Look what you’ve done now. You’ve broken the bloody camera.’ There is a pause and then he starts. The deep, loud, infectious laugh. Sitting in the warm afternoon sun, Ricky and Rita Tomlinson giggle like teenagers.
They are interrupted by the two mobiles, which ring in unison. ‘It never stops, you know,’ says Ricky, watching Rita look for her phone while ignoring his own. ‘It’s crackers. Although we are getting away to Spain for a week in November…’ Rita corrects him from the back room: ‘Two weeks!’ He shrugs. The phone call was from the dry cleaners; they just found a pair of trousers from six months ago that Ricky wore in Mike Bassett: England Manager . ‘Reet, was there any money in the pockets?’
The Tomlinsons recently discussed buying a villa in Spain, ‘with a balcony here and another one there plus a pool’, but decided against it. Instead they are going to buy a new caravan to replace their old one in Benidorm. Ricky thinks it’s wrong to buy a property and leave it empty most of the time; Rita worries about her husband. ‘It’s okay living in a villa or apartment if you’re really social. But Rick’s quite shy really. He’s introverted.’ He nods. ‘At least on the caravan site he knows everyone already. It’s easier that way.’
Ricky doesn’t mind being recognised in Benidorm. There are few places he can visit these days without being stopped for an autograph. Mostly it’s acolytes of The Royle Family who want him to sign his name as Jim Royle alongside his catchphrase, ‘My arse!’ But there are also fans of Raining Stones and Riff Raff , the two Ken Loach films in which he first made his name, or of Brookside , in which he appeared for five years as Bobby Grant.
Still, Ricky never complains. He didn’t start acting until 1979, when, at the age of 40, director Roland Joffe cast him in the lead role of the BBC film United Kingdom . More than three decades on, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. The council flat he was brought up in, the three brothers with whom he shared a bedroom, the father who was ‘too soft’ to beat them, the mother he adored. The years in the building trade, the times he was broke and homeless.
‘Rita complains I work too hard. But you can’t really call it work when you enjoy it.’ He shakes his head. ‘No sir.’
After Ricky appeared on Parkinson in October 2001, he was inundated with requests from editors eager to publish his autobiography. Ricky and Rita thought it was a good idea; he had a story to tell, he was an excellent raconteur and anyway, they kept hearing rumours about unofficial biographies. Ricky was nervous about someone else relating his life to the public. He had been splashed over the tabloids on several occasions and was aware how easy it is to distort the truth.
Rita told him to get an agent; he asked if she would act on his behalf. They were yet to be married, but had been together almost 10 years and he trusted her implicitly. She was winding down from her job as a social worker and the challenge excited her; she had never done anything like this before. ‘It was brilliant,’ she says, sitting on a chair in the living-room and lighting a cigarette. ‘I had to be dead honest with the publishers. They told me how it works. Went through everything with me. They were great.’
The Tomlinsons narrowed it down to four publishers and invited them up to Liverpool over a few days in early 2002. ‘We went to lunch with one of them, but the other three came to the flat; Rick was more relaxed here,’ says Rita. ‘He gave them a few stories, without going into too much detail.’ All four were interested, so Rita decided to auction the book. In February 2002, she sat on the sofa in the living-room while Ricky was in his armchair.
The process was terrifying. ‘I didn’t realise what I was doing. When the first publishing house made an offer, Rick said take it. I didn’t think that was what you do. So I rang the others, told them about the first offer. It was mad. In the end, I thought: I can’t deal with this. So I rang them all back, told them to ring at 5.30 and we’d go with the best offer.’
Rita laughs. ‘You should have seen Rick. He was taking his blood pressure. I kept thinking of the responsibility. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I was so excited.’ Ricky joins in. ‘She was doing a tremendous job. I didn’t need to be there. I was due to go to work at 2pm, but in the end I left early. I couldn’t stand it.’
So Rita sat on the sofa on her own. She made a cup of tea and took two paracetamol. At 5.30, all the offers came in. Time Warner made the highest bid; £800,000 plus an extra £60 for each year of Ricky’s life. Rita phoned them, joked that the offer was unacceptable. She told them Ricky was in fact 63. They offered a further £3 and the deal was sealed.
Rita rang Ricky on set, told him the news. He whispered: ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve got to go.’ And put the phone down. For once he didn’t know what to say. That evening, Rita went to the local pub to celebrate with Claire, her daughter from her first marriage. ‘It was a wonderful feeling,’ she says now. ‘I’d do it every day if I could.’ Ricky frowns. ‘I bloody wouldn’t. It still can’t believe they think I’m worth that much. Me and Rita have sat and laughed about it since. Because if you read my book, you’ll know there have been times when we’ve had no arse in our kecks. I mean literally. Nothing.’
Indeed, Ricky documents the bad times as well as the good. He saw the book as a way of ‘setting things straight’ and was determined to be as honest as possible. While the stories about working with Caroline Aherne or Sue Johnston on The Royle Family are entertaining, it’s the political not celebrity element that sets this biography apart. In 1968, after deciding that less immigration would mean more jobs, Ricky Tomlinson signed up to the National Front. His left-wing friends were stunned. He went on marches, even registered as a candidate.
It took four whole years for him to realise his folly. As he says in the book: ‘I realised that by attacking immigration I was looking for a scapegoat for this country’s ills. When you’re at the bottom of the greasy pole, mired in shit, you’re always looking for someone else to blame.’ He then continues: ‘I believed certain things in 1968 and I don’t believe them any more. I was wrong. I was politically naive and poorly educated.’
His epiphany coincided with increased trade union activity. In 1972, Britain’s first building strike was called. Working in the industry and involved in the union, Ricky became a member of the Wrexham Strike Action Committee. He peacefully picketed building sites around Shrewsbury and Telford, but was later arrested and found guilty of ‘unlawful assembly’ with five colleagues. Refusing to plead guilty, he went down for two years. The chapters documenting his time in prison are simply but poignantly written. ‘It was painful to talk about [to the ghost writer],’ says Ricky now. ‘But I had to tell the truth, warts and all.’
Since her success in selling his autobiography, Rita has become Ricky’s agent full-time. Given that she knows his availability and the roles he likes to take on, she insists it’s no problem negotiating all his acting work. ‘Mind you, I’ve got no job description and I’m not in a union, so I need to be doing something about that,’ she says, with no hint of a smile. ‘On any given day, I’m his agent, his manager, his PA. Nurse. Chief cook. Bottle washer.’ Ricky interjects. ‘And part-time lover.’ Rita snorts. ‘Yeah, very part-time.’
It’s late afternoon and Ricky offers a glass of wine. ‘Reet, can you sort it? And I’ll have a beer. I never have one of a day normally.’ He sits in his armchair, remote control by his side, glass of mild in his hand. Apart from the spotless suit he’s wearing, he could be Jim Royle. He laughs. ‘I think Jim Royle will always be with me. I’ve had a lovely letter off Caroline Aherne. She’s fab. She’s busy working but I think she might be tempted to do a special sometime. A Christmas special of The Royle Family would be quite nice. They were happy times, working on that show.’
He suddenly stands up, puts the mild carefully on a beer mat and disappears. He returns with a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists , which he read in prison and regards as a modern Bible. ‘This is signed by the cast of The Royle Family ,’ he says, beaming with pride. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it? “I love you,” from Caroline Aherne. “So do I!” from Craig Cash.’
He places the book carefully on the dining table and returns to the arm chair. He tells Rita to get their wedding video out; she mumbles that there’s too much to watch because someone hasn’t bothered editing it since the ceremony back in January.
While she fast forwards, he points to one of his treasured wedding presents: a black and white framed photo of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, signed by the boxer. ‘What do you think?’ Excited, he doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘We got a lovely present from Sir John Mills too. He was too ill to come to the wedding, but he sent us a bottle of champagne given to him by Walt Disney. He signed it for me and Reet.’
The video plays in the background. Ricky says he has no regrets about inviting Hello! and OK to the wedding. ‘They treated us magnificently. They provided security and the photos were stunning.’ The couple had two parties, one in the yacht club along the road and another in a working-men’s club round the corner. ‘So we could accommodate the rough and the smooth,’ says Rita, smiling. ‘Although I have to say, I enjoyed both parties equally.’
Ricky tips the glass of mild into his mouth, wipes the froth off his beard and looks out onto the Mersey. ‘And so you should, Reet. Having a few quid shouldn’t alter where you come from.’
· Ricky is published by Time Warner Books (£17.99). To order a copy for £15.99 plus p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989
More information at www.rickytomlinson.com