Stephen Tompkinson:
East, west and all
points in between

The star of Wild at Heart and Drop the Dead Donkey says why he believes the north is nicer – and how it’s a privilege to be starring in a now re-scheduled theatre production of Educating Rita

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Over the course of more than three decades, Stephen Tompkinson’s acting career has taken him to many different places, whether appearing in major theatre roles or starring in various hit TV series such as Drop the Dead Donkey, Ballykissangel, Wild at Heart and DCI Banks. Last year, though, he relocated from the London suburbs to Whitley Bay, nice and close to his birthplace of Stockton-on-Tees.

“I used to rehearse this play with a school friend. To be doing it and to be the right age is lovely.”

“I wanted to get back to my roots,” Tompkinson says. “I’ve still got relatives up in the North East since my mam and dad have passed on and I’ve wanted to get back for about 10 years. Now I’ve had the opportunity and I absolutely adore being there. It’s beautiful – because it feels like home. I always felt like I was a kind of guest in London, because it’s so transient and so fast-moving. It’s just lovely to feel at home, where I belong.”

Big Issue North speaks to Tompkinson just before the coronavirus crisis shut down the luxurious surroundings of Blackpool Grand Theatre, where he is appearing in a 40th anniversary touring theatre production of Educating Rita. The plan is to re-schedule the rest of the production. Blackpool has a very particular place in Tompkinson’s heart.

“Most of my growing up was in St Annes,” he says. “I moved here when I was six and I was here until I was 18. All my schooling was up here. My mam was a teacher in Blackpool and my dad was a bank manager at the St Annes branch of the Yorkshire Bank. It’s a second home.

“Blackpool’s a hoot. It’s had a bit of a kick in the teeth over the last few years, but it’s still a unique place. It’s a great working class place and there’s something so magical about it – and peculiar, beautifully peculiar. It’s still packed when it’s freezing and the wind’s blowing a gale but it’s got so much. The Tower and the Tower Ballroom are just works of art and this theatre is so beautiful. It’s gorgeous – you feel like you’re in a dream sometimes. Everyone says Blackpool’s quite crude, ‘kiss me quick’ hats and all that, and there is an element of that, but it’s married with some proper beautiful Victorian architecture.”

In Educating Rita, Tompkinson has been starring as frayed-at-the-seams university lecturer Frank opposite Jessica Johnson’s eponymous mature Scouse student. Tompkinson’s own memories of the piece date back to his teenage years. “I used to rehearse this play in about 1982 in my mam and dad’s garage with a school friend of mine, just because we liked reading it. To actually be doing it and to be the right age is lovely. It is a little bit of a shock first of all when you realise you’re in your mid-fifties. But I understand Frank very well. I don’t agree with everything he does – the solace that he seeks in various bottles – but it’s just a beautiful story beautifully told. We’re very lucky to be performing it.”

Indeed, Willy Russell’s estate is closely guarded. Having won permission to perform the play, Tompkinson and Johnson found themselves being joined in rehearsals every week by the playwright himself. “To have Willy on board as much as he’s been and to be so hands-on has been incredible. He’s not been at all precious about taking the scissors to it. He’s trimmed about 20 minutes out because he said audiences have changed since he wrote it. He’s been brilliant and so supportive, but Jess and I have both been starstruck. I mean, he is a bit of a legend. We’ve both said the same – that this is a voice that represents you. It’s rare to feel represented, I think, especially when you come from the north. I think it should be screamed loud and proud that Willy represents the working class and gives them a voice. That’s why he’s lasted 40 years.”

Having done a fair amount of TV and theatre jobs in his day, how does Tompkinson feel the two fields compare? “If you’re doing one you’re missing the other and it is a completely separate set of acting muscles. To get the privilege of telling a story from beginning to end and it just being you, with no safety net – there is a real thrill to live performance. It’s a lovely shared experience and theatre gives you a lot more feeling of control.”

For many, Tompkinson first came to prominence during the 1990s, playing over-eager TV news reporter Damien Day in Channel 4’s barbed satire Drop the Dead Donkey, written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. From the perspective of 2020, the show’s approach actually seems pretty gentle.

“Oh gosh, yeah. And, well, the news is all a bit too scary at the moment. Of course, as soon as anything major happens, people still say: ‘I’d love to see Drop the Dead Donkey’s take on this.’ But TV news has changed so much. It’s more constant, obviously, because you’ve got things like Sky News on 24/7. It’s also a lot more transparent, I think. We were able to burst the bubble a little bit and reveal a lot of dirty secrets. I used to try and do a bit of theatre in between making the show, and whenever we’d go to interviews in local news rooms, there were always people saying: ‘We know who Damien’s based on – he’s here in the office.’ There were all these weird clones up and down the country. It’s just testament to Andy and Guy’s brilliant writing that those characters were so believable.”

Generally Tompkinson’s been associated with playing decent, affable types but he suggests that there are still all kinds of roles he’d like to have a bash at. “Oh, there’s millions – I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this acting malarkey. It’s limitless and I’ve been so lucky, being able to mix and match the mediums and the different types of roles that I’ve played. The variety of it is what keeps me going.”

Towards the end of 2018, he starred as Scrooge in the Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol. “And what a treat that was,” he says. “I adore Christmas and part of my ritual is to watch Alastair Sim do Scrooge every year, so to get that opportunity was absolutely brilliant. My brother said it was as good as playing James Bond. That was our growing up – me and our kid going down the Odeon here in Blackpool which is now [burlesque show-bar] Funny Girls. We watched all the Bond films there several times. One day we actually stayed in and watched Diamonds Are Forever four times in a row.”

Having made the move back, then, can Tompkinson attest that it really is nicer up north? “Oh gosh it is, so much it is. The people are nicer. They just have more time for one another and the humour’s different. You’re allowed to laugh with people, not at them. It’s not done in a cruel way, whereas I think down south, they do like poking fun at people. It’s more aggressive and not as welcoming, I don’t think.”

Tompkinson laughs, saying: “Blimey, I’ll never work down south again! But I don’t care. I’ll stay up here, thanks, it’s lovely.”

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