Timothy Spall: art for art’s sake

It’s no stranger for an actor to play two artists one after the other than it is to play two cops, according to Timothy Spall. After his performance as JMW Turner, he’s back in a biopic of LS Lowry

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February 2018. Timothy Spall, wearing a dark suit, long brown coat and woollen fedora hat, slowly trudges along a cobbled street in east Manchester, his black umbrella sheltering him from the lashing rain and biting wind.

A few metres away, a film crew of around 30 people, tightly wrapped up in winter clothing, gloves and woolly hats, watches on as the actor – in character as LS Lowry – enters a red phone box and nervously makes a phone call. A young woman, also dressed in 1930s period costume, knocks on the window and anxiously urges him to hurry up. The short scene is repeated half a dozen times before the director signals he’s happy and two assistants spring into action, brandishing warm jackets.

August 2019 and Big Issue North is once again in the company of Spall, only this time it’s in the considerably more palatable surroundings of London’s Soho Hotel. A half-drunk cup of tea and untouched chocolate cake sit on a table in front of him.

“Go on, help yourself. Have a muffin chaser,” offers the chirpy 62 year old by way of an introduction. “That would make a good title for a sonata or a highland dance: the muffin chaser,” he adds with a hearty chuckle.

Moments later he’s scrolling through his phone looking for photos of the many paintings he made on the set of Mrs Lowry And Son, the Adrian Noble-directed biographical film in which he stars as the famous Mancunian artist alongside Vanessa Redgrave, playing his overbearing mother.

“I always go full on and every single second I had off I was painting in my trailer,” he says proudly, showing me some of the artworks. A number of them are now on display at the Lowry gallery in Salford, including a realistic copy of a famous Lowry scene, which curators have placed next to the original.

“I’m humbled and a little bit scared and absolutely delighted. I’m having a show by default,” he explains. “I was thinking about having a little bit of a private exhibition, but now I’m on show at a major gallery. It’s a bit of a leap. They’re even producing postcards of some of them. It’s a bit like doing a film and ending up an artist. It’s bizarre.”

Of course, Mrs. Lowry And Son isn’t the first time that Spall has played a famous painter on screen. In 2014, he won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his powerful portrayal of JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr Turner. Famously, he spent years researching Turner and learning how to paint like him prior to the cameras rolling. Long before he became one of the country’s most loved film and TV stars, Spall gave serious consideration to pursuing a career in art.

“It was something I was possibly going to do. When I was 16, 17 I was wondering did I want to join the army or did I want to go to art school? I could strip a Bren gun down, but I also knew a lot about Salvador Dali. And then I did the school play and that took care of that,” he recalls, laughing.

The prospect of playing Laurence Stephen Lowry, Britain’s most famous Modernist painter, so soon after Turner didn’t concern him.

“It’s a bit like saying I’ve already played a few coppers or doctors so I can’t do another. An artist is an artist and Lowry is different enough [from Turner]. I knew it would be a question that would come up, but I’d love to have another go. I’d love to play Stanley Spencer. I’d love to have a go at William Blake. They’re artists, but they’re also individual human beings and what’s fascinating is what they produce is often directly related to how they are made. Or it can be the direct opposite. So it’s a very interesting thing to investigate and excavate. I’m always interested in what is the story behind their work.”

In the case of Lowry, what appealed to the actor was the chance to explore the artist’s complex relationship with his domineering mother Elizabeth, with whom he lived all his life. Mrs Lowry And Son, which is set in Pendlebury in 1934 when Lowry is not yet established as an artist, frames it as a claustrophobic, darkly Oedipal drama with Redgrave mesmerising as the bed-ridden, bitter matriarch who tries to dissuade her bachelor son from making his “ugly” industrial paintings and constantly berates him as a disappointment.

Echoing the film’s narrative, Spall – who is equally captivating in the title role – believes the dominant influence of Lowry’s mother on the artist’s life and the lifelong push and pull of their relationship is what infused his work with pathos and lasting resonance.

“He was an only child and he was brought up to be enthralled to his mother’s every wish. He accepted it because he’d never known anything else. And because he didn’t have another woman or a man, as far as we know, to take him away from his mother’s apron strings, he was always attached to them,” he says.

“His relationship with his mother created this tension in his paintings that made them more than just pictorial and composite portraits of where he was from. There’s an emotional content in them that reflects his isolation and his loneliness and his dogged determination to pursue his artistic fascination, even though he knows it’s annoying the one person he wants to please.”

The contrast with actor’s own working class upbringing is distinct. Born in 1957 in Battersea, south west London, the third of four sons to Sylvia, a hairdresser, and Joseph, a postal worker, Spall says his parents were “nothing but ever supportive” of his acting ambitions, which were ignited when he played the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz.

From there he earned a spot with the National Youth Theatre and later Rada and the Royal Shakespeare Company. TV roles in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Jimmy McGovern’s The Street and six films with Salford-born director Leigh, including 1990’s Life Is Sweet and 1996’s Secrets and Lies, made him one of Britain’s most recognisable character actors.

Subsequent roles in Hollywood films Vanilla Sky, Enchanted, Sweeney Todd and the Harry Potter films, in which he played Peter Pettigrew, gave him an international profile, although Spall says fame and fortune were never the goal.

“It was never showbiz,” he says, exaggerating the word showbiz and doing a jazz hands gesture. “It was a compulsion to act and wanting to play other people. I’ve always been fascinated by what people are like, how they physically do things, how they speak and move. If I go along on a train or a car and through the window I catch a little whiff of someone twitching a net curtain or polishing an ornament, I immediately want to jump into their lives. Since I was a kid I’ve always had that seed of interest in wanting to work out other people and work out what it is to be them. That’s what [drives me] more than I open the fridge, the light comes on and I burst into song. Showbiz is a word that gets on my nerves. Same with celebrity. What does it mean?”

In person, Spall bears little resemblance to the wounded, oafish and longsuffering losers that he’s best known for playing. Dressed in a smart suit and with a far thinner frame than he carried a decade ago, he’s avuncular, engaging company, regularly interspersing his answers with hearty gut laughs and talking at length about art, Lowry and working with Redgrave, who he describes as “uncompromising in trying to get it right and make it real”. He also has none of the airs and graces that are often displayed by far less successful actors and it’s easy to see why, four decades into his professional career, he’s still regularly cast as normal everyday people.

Later this year, filming begins on Gillies Mackinnon’s The Last Bus, in which he stars as a man who uses his free bus pass to travel across the UK and return his late wife’s ashes home. Another upcoming project is The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica, in which Spall plays a cantankerous architect in the employ of an eccentric billionaire. “I’ve had a quiet summer, sort of on purpose, but that’s going to stop soon,” he says with relish.

Asked if he thinks he will work with Leigh again in the not-too-distant future, Spall says he would always welcome the opportunity, but there are currently no plans in place.

“There’s a possibility our film relationship has come to its natural conclusion, I don’t know. I’m a massive admirer of him. I love his work and my association with him is one of the proudest things of my career. It’s been very influential.”

As our interview draws to a close, conversation returns to the actor’s lifelong fascination with artists and his recent return to painting, which despite only being a hobby, he approaches in the same methodical way that he prepares for roles.

“I don’t like doing anything creative unless I fully devote myself to it. That’s why, when I paint, I don’t enjoy it very much. I find it quite painful.

“I want to get it right and I want it to be good. I don’t want it to be like I’m pissing about.”

Mrs Lowry And Son is in cinemas now

Understanding is enough

“He’s the only member in the school of Lowry,” says Timothy Spall of the artist he portrays. “He’s not like anybody else. There’s still people who pooh-pooh him and say he was a Sunday painter. He wasn’t. I think if he was French or Italian he would be far more highly regarded as someone really important, whereas I think Lowry has become slightly merchandised as this quaint character.

“There’s love and humour and joy in his work, but there’s also a real emotion and an abstract feeling within them buildings: a loneliness and isolation. In the people [he paints] there’s a wonderful mixture of absolute affection and derision because he’s apart. He exists in this working class world and he records it, but he’s actually from a slightly different class. He’s an isolated man because he’s a rent collector, so its slightly veers from being a person who’s liked because he’s nice and pleasant, but also distrusted and despised, particularly when people haven’t got the money to pay him. He gets to know these people, but there’s always this distance between them.

“What I do relate to is that I’ve always had this real love of the bleakness of certain industrial landscapes. I was brought up by Battersea power station. The gasometer was always there. I’m old enough and England was skint enough when I was young for there still to be bomb sites which I played on. So I understand this mixture of the grim and the beautiful which goes together and that’s what he’s recording.

“Also I think in a sense that is what he has in his relationship with his mother. There’s a beauty of intimacy in it, but there’s also a kind of grimness in it because she is constantly undermining him. Someone once asked him how he felt about his mother disapproving and he said: ‘What you need to know is that my mother didn’t understand my paintings, but she understood me and that was enough.’

“She may have been disapproving. She may have undermined him, but she loved him.”

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Interact: Responses to Timothy Spall: art for art’s sake

  • Timothy Spall: art for art's sake – Janbaaz
    09 Sep 2019 13:12
    […] Long before he became one of the country's most loved film and TV stars, Spall gave serious consideration to pursuing a career in art.Read more […]

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