Best of British Biographies – Timothy Spall

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Wormtail doesn’t seem like a Gryffindor. But Spall makes a great Voldemort henchman.

“There’s the funny-looking character actor who plays the same role every time. But I’m the funny-looking character actor who plays many different kinds.” – Timothy Spall

Tim Spall is one of those brilliant, chameleonic actors who can turn his hand to any role but — probably because he isn’t classically handsome — isn’t a top line, A-list celebrity. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked the full gamut of roles from cameo to leading man. He’s the go-to-guy for discerning directors who want to have an Everyman in their films; Mike Leigh has called on his services no less than half a dozen times.

It’s hard to say whether it’s his acting skills or his lack of entry to the fame club, but most people over here are surprised when he speaks and reveals that he isn’t actually a Brummie; that’s someone from Birmingham, England, rather than Saskatchewan, a crater on the moon, a star in the constellation Cygnus, or fifteen or so places in the USA. That’s because his big break was as Barry ‘The Radish’ Taylor, an electrician from Brum in the comedy-drama series “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,” which hit the TV screens in 1983 and, thanks to a number of special episodes, ran for over twenty years.

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Classically trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company

You know how there always seems to be a distinction about rock musicians who were classically trained such as Rick Wakeman, Elton John, Keith Emerson? Well, I think there should be a similar distinction for actors who’ve done a stint with the R.S.C.

Guess what… in 1979 Tim joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and stayed for approximately two years performing in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Cymbeline,” “The Three Sisters” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” OK, so it’s not decades like some, but you have to be of a certain calibre to work at Stratford-upon-Avon and get past selling programmes and choc ices!

The run up to his big TV break saw him in the film version of The Who’s “Quadrophenia” (well, loosely based on the album which, itself, was an attempt to recreate the rock opera following the success of “Tommy”) as Harry the Projectionist. He has only a few minutes screen time but he must have caught the director’s eye — Franc Roddam —  who went on to create the aforementioned “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”.

Spall & Leigh

Various other small parts came his way and then they started getting bigger. At the start of the ‘90s he began working with Mike Leigh who has a reputation for being a star maker. “Really… who?” I hear you ask. Well, Brenda Blethyn, Liz Smith, and Jane Horrocks did quite well after working with him, but if they haven’t exactly made it globally there are another two who have… Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.

The Leigh/Spall partnership started on TV but the first film they did together was “Life Is Sweet”; one of those films that you go in expecting a comedy/drama, and come in feeling like you’ve been in an RTA involving clown cars… there were laughs but you’re definitely unsettled. Tim Spall obviously got on with the improvised rather than scripted approach, because he went on to make another four movies with him; two more gritty working class comedy dramas, and two period pieces.

Another thing that you have to give Timothy Spall credit for is that he doesn’t get fazed by his cast mates. He’s worked with Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, John Gielgud, Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Helena Bonham Carter, amongst many others.

He’s appeared in six of the Harry Potter films, the live-action Alice In Wonderland films, the adapted Shakespeare, and Dickens. He has quite the roster of real life characters he’s portrayed: Albert Pierrepoint (hangman), Winston Churchill (politician), David Irving (Holocaust denier), Peter Taylor (football manager), LS Lowry, and JMW Turner (both artists).

Above all, adaptability

He manages to portray exceptionally complex characters with ease. Albert Pierrepoint was one of the UK’s last executioners. In reality, he did not think that the death penalty was a deterrent, as was proven by the need for executioners. Spall manages to capture the way Pierrepoint could execute someone without them being scared, or losing their dignity at the end. He was excellent as the deluded intellectual holocaust denier David Irving; he shows how someone can be a published history author but still not believe the evidence put before him.

He is an adaptable actor capable of almost any role, but not what you’d think of as a celebrity; an actor, not a movie star. This can be seen in the one-man show that is “Stanley: A Man Of Variety”. He plays a prisoner/patient in a mental facility who spends the whole film hallucinating and thinking he is, by turns, Max Wall, Tony Hancock, Noel Coward, Max Miller, George Formby, Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, and others. Similar to his roots with Mike Leigh, this film is listed as a comedy — but don’t expect to come out with your sides aching. However, I did find it fascinating, and think anyone should give it a watch if they get the chance.

To sum up… I, personally, would watch Tim Spall in anything.

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comment 3 comments
  • Dan Gardner Administrator

    I’ve only ever seen, or at least noticed him, in the Harry Potter films. It’s plain to see that he is a talented actor because he makes Pettigrew/Wormtail a truly vile character. You can’t do that with bad looks alone. 🙂

  • jill florio

    Jill Florio Administrator

    I recently saw this actor in something, but can’t remember what it was. But I remember thinking, “Wait, that’s Wormtail!” I should look up his filmography.

    About Harry Potter, JK Rowling was probably inspired for Wormtail by JRR Tolkien’s Wormtongue.

    Both are vile, and both played in the movies by great character actors.

  • revrobuk Administrator

    Well , well, well… here’s a coincidence. Not long after writing that piece and an email arrives from my local cinema…

    We’re excited to invite you to our friends, Hurricane Films’, very special, free screening of their new film The Last Bus.

    Starring Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, Mrs. Lowry) and Phylis Logan (Downton Abbey, Secrets And Lies), the film follows retired mechanic Tom on an emotional odyssey as he travels from John O’Groats to Land’s End using his bus pass.

    This will be the film’s first screening anywhere, ahead of its cinema release in 2022. All we ask is that afterward, you complete a simple, three-question feedback form that we’ll explain more about on the night.

    The screening starts at 18:00 on Monday 24 August right here at The Light Cinema New Brighton.

    So that’s date night sorted next week!

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