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Ricky Tomlinson: 'It was the first time I have had to act without knowing what was coming'

Ricky Tomlinson enters a magical realm for his festive fantasy film The Last Dragonslayer. But, The Royle Family star's feet remain firmly rooted in reality, as Jeananne Craig finds out

With a cackle worthy of his alter ego Jim Royle, Ricky Tomlinson is recounting how he landed his role in upcoming TV film The Last Dragonslayer.

"When I went to speak to them, they said to me, 'Do you know anything about dragons?' And I said, 'I've lived with one for 27 years'. They said, 'You're the man for the part!'"

Laughter is never far away during a chat with The Royle Family star - particularly with wife Rita nearby to rib.

There aren't many who could interrupt the funny man when he's in full flow, but Tomlinson's other half is perfectly able to hold her own.

When he begins to wax lyrical about their beloved grandchildren - his "weak spot" - Rita interjects from the background: "You're boring her!"

Cue more chortles, before Tomlinson says of his wife: "I wouldn't part with her." (Then pauses for effect before adding, "Not for a few years anyway.")

The 77-year-old Liverpudlian says it's been "murder" lately, as Rita, who he married in 2003 after many years together, has been struggling with the long hair he grew for his Last Dragonslayer role.

Based on the Jasper Fforde novel, the lavish Sky1 film blends magic and medieval with the modern day, and tracks young indentured orphan Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell) as she learns it's her destiny to become the last dragonslayer.

Tomlinson plays Moobin, an employee at Zambini's magical agency whose best magic days have passed. Prone to visions, the bushy-bearded character foresees a climactic battle between Maltcaisson, the last of the great dragons, and the dragonslayer.

"I love it, there's a lot of people that like it; it's only Rita that doesn't," Tomlinson says of his hirsute look.

"She's making me go and get it bloody cut. It's down past me shoulders now. And I'll have to give in, otherwise there'll be no Christmas dinner for me. I'm hoping for a phone call off the film company saying, 'You'll be going straight into production for Dragonslayer 2 after Christmas', and I'll be able to keep it then."

Along with the long hair and beard, the slightly unkempt Moobin can also boast a rather ruddy face - a look which ended up causing some confusion.

"They used to put red on me nose and stuff on me cheeks, and me hair was all over the place. Every night, the make-up girls would say, 'Come on, we'll wash your hair', and I'd say, 'No, you need to get away and go and have your sleep, so I'll wash my hair when I go back to the hotel'.

"And I used to go back with this red on me face and nose and this hair, and people used to think I was a tramp coming in. The doorman tried to stop me one night. He said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm going to me room!'"

It's hard to imagine this down-to-earth star in a fantasy world of dragons and special effects, but he loved making The Last Dragonslayer.

"It was great fun, but it was unusual for me because it was the first time I've had to act without knowing what was coming. The special effects in the movie are absolutely stunning," says Tomlinson.

"The director Jamie (Stone) was one of these young kids, and yet his knowledge - he was trying to explain to me about 50ft dragons and this and that. He'd say, 'You just look there and put your fingers out and waggle your fingers and this will happen'. I thought, 'This kid's having a bloody breakdown!' But it's absolutely amazing. All this is in his head and then he puts it into production."

Children will be "mesmerised" by the final result, but there's plenty in there for adults, insists Tomlinson, whose first high-profile job in showbusiness was playing union activist Bobby Grant in Brookside.

"There's a really good moral story in it, about greed and corruption, and I think that will come across."

The star has five grandchildren - two who are "grown-up and sorted out, and three little'uns", Louis (11), Maggie (4) and Jack (2) - who will be a big fixture in his house this Christmas.

"I do love my grandkids; they're my weak link. When people come here and I take them into the conservatory, it's like Toys R Us. There's dolls' houses, prams, go-karts. And there's a bloody big trampoline in the garden.

"Do I go on it? I'd be over the garden wall if I jumped on that, kid! They're only built to take so much weight. People would think I was going to the bloody moon."

This month, Tomlinson will also be appearing on BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are?, where he learns that he comes from generations of carters who transported goods on Liverpool's docks when the city was the British Empire's busiest port.

During the show, the actor, himself a keen campaigner for workers' rights, who spent time in prison in the Seventies for 'conspiracy to intimidate' during trade union activities, learns how dangerous conditions were for his ancestors.

Turning serious for a moment, he says he found the experience an emotional one.

"I was crying making that. My family ended up in the workhouse, 24 families living in a tenement block, one toilet and one cold water pipe between the 24 families. So you can imagine how bad conditions were," he says.

"I'm from a pretty rough, tough working-class background but I'm delighted about it. I'm not ashamed of it, I'm very proud."

If he was offered a place on the Honours list for all his hard work, he says he'd tell them to, "Stick it up your a***".

"I don't believe in the Honours list. I don't think people should get OBEs and CBEs and knighthoods because they've made a lot of money, or because they've sold a million records." Tomlinson adds: "I'd far rather be the descendent of a dock worker than a duke or a count."

*The Last Dragonslayer, Sky1, Christmas Day; Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC One, Thursday, December 22, 8pm

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