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'My brush with death made me realise how short life is'

Actor Ricky Tomlinson explains his renewed lust for life and reveals which are his all-time favourite roles

By Gabrielle Fagan

Ricky Tomlinson's just polished off that staple of every greasy spoon cafe - a bacon sandwich with lashings of brown sauce - and hoots with laughter as he says, “Well kid, looking at that meal you'd never guess I was from the North, would you?”

As it turns out, this calorie-laden breakfast is a rare treat for the Liverpudlian actor, most famously known for playing loveable layabout Jim Royle in BBC's The Royle Family. Nowadays, he watches his weight, never drinks alcohol, and seems to buzz with an energy that belies his 74 years.

“I'm taking more care of myself these days because it's all about keeping the old machine ticking over so I can carry on doing what I want. I'm a workaholic and don't want to retire,” declares the noticeably more slimline Tomlinson, whose busy schedule includes working to raise awareness of the charity work of the National Lottery, an interest in a cabaret club, and planning several showbusiness projects.

“I'm from a family of grafters. My dad worked all his life as a baker and two of my three brothers are still working. It's the way we were brought up. You don't stop until you're made to,” he says but, undoubtedly, his more conscientious approach has been influenced by a health scare when he had to have a heart bypass operation.

He credits his second wife, ex-social worker, Rita Cumiskey, who he married in 2004, with saving his life in 2007. “If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here at all. I call her ‘nurse Reet' but really she should be called Saint Reet because she's so blooming marvellous. By the way, don't mention the bacon sandwich to her, she's got me on a bread-free diet,” he says with a theatrical conspiratorial wink.

“I've got so much to thank her for. When she came into my life 20 years ago, I was really down on my luck but she helped turn me around. Then she helped save my life because she was with me at the doctor's one day when I was there picking up some cream for a skin complaint. At the end of the appointment I was already walking out the door but Reet stopped and told the doctor her worries about my breathing. I'm asthmatic so I was used to chestiness and kept dismissing her worries, but Reet insisted that day I get checked out and the doctor agreed.

“Within 24 hours I got called to hospital and ended up having a four-way heart bypass. It was a huge shock, as I simply hadn't realised how poorly I was getting. I've felt a million times better health-wise since then. Although I have to take tablets for the rest of my life, it's a small price to pay.”

Tomlinson, who's warm, down-to-earth and with a capacity to see the humour in most situations, is serious for a moment as he reflects: “Did that close call alter my outlook? Absolutely, it did. You realise it could have easily gone the other way, life is short, and it strengthened my determination to make the most of every minute and be around for the people I love.”

His acting career came relatively late in life, when he was aged 40. Until then, the father-of-three children from his first marriage, worked for years as a builder and plasterer during the day and, to earn extra money, performed or compered in social clubs at night.

His first break came in 1979 when he was cast in BBC film, United Kingdom and eventually he found household fame as Bobby Grant in Channel Four's Brookside, which he

played for five years from the series' start in 1982. He's starred in several films, notably Mike Bassett: England Manager, Raining Stones and Hillsborough.

Although he's still regularly recognised for playing Jim Royle, and asked to sign autographs with his name and his catchphrase on the series ‘My arse', surprisingly, he admits, it wasn't his favourite role.

“Of course I loved Jim and he made me popular and earned me a couple of quid, and equally I liked Mike Bassett, but my favourite ever was in a low-budget movie, Nasty Neighbours,” he says.

“There was so little money we had to have a whip round for the teabags for the breaks! I played a down-on-his-luck, double glazing salesman and I ended up winning an award for it, and it's one that I particularly treasure.”

Privately, a shy man who likes to regularly retreat alone to his cottage in Wales to “write poetry”, he's also driven by a passionate desire to speak out about what he views as society's wrongs.

“I hate inequality of any sort and think it's so wrong that in a wealthy country like ours there are still people who can never afford to go on holiday, kids who've never seen the seaside or ridden a bike. That's why I'm such a big supporter of the National Lottery fund which does so much good, giving to the arts, communities, hospitals and recreation facilities,” he says.

He further demonstrated his belief in outspokenness in his autobiography, Ricky, published in 2003, where, with brutal honesty, he revealed his life story. It detailed his humble working class upbringing growing up in a council house, his trade union and political activities.

In the early 1970s, he spent two years in prison for picketing offences and is still fighting 40 years on to overturn that conviction and clear his name. The book also charted his showbusiness success including working with Caroline Aherne and Sue Johnston on The Royle Family.

“I'm really proud of that book. Of course, there's some stuff in there about my life that, with hindsight, I'm ashamed of, things that I now wish I hadn't done, but it doesn't matter. I said in the book that people have told enough lies about me in the past without me having to join them.

“Every word of what I said in that book is the truth, I didn't hide anything,” he says.

“Do I have regrets? Of course, I have a million because I've had a full life. It would be so difficult to pick out any one. There's loads of things I wish I could put right but that's not always possible.”

At home his recreation is music. He plays banjo and harpsichord, which he played in episodes of The Royle Family, and being with his grandchildren and his wife's grandson, Louis (9).

“I'm the softest granddad ever. I'm always playing practical jokes on Louis and having fun with him. He's learning guitar and, at the moment, he's playing the theme tune from The Royle Family so perhaps my next venture could be forming a band with him! Sharing time with him and Reet, we've been together 20 years, is a joy.

“It might sound soppy but I thank God every day when I wake up in the morning because I'm grateful to be here and think I've been so lucky with the opportunities I've had in my life.”

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Ricky's hits on the big and small screen

Ricky’s down-to-earth charms have made him a memorable star of the big and small screen in hits including:

  • Brookside (1982-88) - as Bobby Grant, Ricky was one of the first characters to appear in the long-running soap opera.
  • Riff Raff (1991) - as the name implies, Ken Loach’s slice of social realism captured the bawdy humour of Britain’s underclass, with Ricky taking a part as one of the work gang on a London building site.
  • Cracker (1994-96) - the perfect counterpart to Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz, Ricky’s DCI Charlie Wise was a hard-charging old school cop who took no nonsense from his officers.
  • The Royle Family (1998-2012) - he may have been lewd and crude, but everybody eventually fell for the family patriarch Jim who, despite his temperamental outbursts, loved his family dearly.
  • Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001) - perfectly pitched at a time when - believe it or not - the England football team looked like they might actually win something, Ricky brought a warmth to this tale of the beleaguered team manager.

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