Stephen Tompkinson: 'The job I'm most proud of? Brassed Off'

As he opens in Patrick Marber’s ”The Red Lion”, Stephen Tompkinson talks about his favourite acting jobs, football and why the play isn’t really about the beautiful game

Stephen Tompkinson
Stephen Tompkinson
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Over the last thirty years, Stephen Tompkinson has had the sort of acting career which would send most thesps green with envy. He has managed to work on a range of long-running TV series including DCI Banks, Wild at Heart, Ballykissangel and Drop The Dead Donkey, without ever becoming pigeonholed. His film work includes classic Brassed Off opposite Pete Postlethwaite, while onstage he’s starred in Spamalot and Art on the West End, and in venues such as the Royal Exchange and the Royal Court. His latest role is in Patrick Marber’s footie changing room-set play The Red Lion, which transfers to London following a run in Newcastle.

The theatre will smell like a changing room. It really will. We daub the stage in liniment. You will feel like you’re in a football changing room, you’ve no choice. The play is a very intimate three-hander and the tiny venue makes the play all the more powerful. If we spittle on anyone, we apologise in advance.

The northern league is the second oldest football league in football history. The Red Lion is about three guys in a football club from that league. There's the old kit man who used to manage the club, play for the club and whose father played for the club. Then there’s a manager who is new to it, played by me, who sees the club as a stepping stone for his career in football. Then there’s this young protégé who is a gifted local lad. The old man wants to protect and nurture his talent, while the manager wants to sell him.

It’s not about football. You’ve got to trust that Patrick Marber is a genius. It’s really a metaphor for business pre-and-post Thatcherism. People now don’t think what’s gone before matters, they instead think today or tomorrow matters more. People aren’t proud of where they work, or the industry that they work in anymore, which I think is a terrible thing.

All my grey hairs are due to supporting Middlesbrough. I’m from Stockton-on-Tees and the rest of the lads are Newcastle. The rivalry between Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Carlisle goes back hundreds of years. Performing it in Newcastle was like a homecoming and it’s lovely to get a chance to do it twice.

When I first started acting, my beautiful agent basically said: ‘Son, I’m not going to make you sign a contract. I’m going to make you famous, you make me rich’. And that was the deal. His name was Barry Brown – he's no longer with us – and he also said 'I will attempt to make each job completely different'. I started off in radio, but it all happened like a dream. I worked with brilliant writers. If I’m doing TV for too long, I’m missing theatre.

Spamalot was joyous. It hasn’t put me off musicals. Never. It’s lovely. It was two and a half hours of pure escapism, from the moment of my first entrance on an invisible horse. Theatre is a shared experience between audience member and performer, it’s an illusion.

Being surrounded by nature for half a year in the southern hemisphere for Wild at Heart was gorgeous. We got closer and closer to those animals every year because they trusted us. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But the job I’m most proud of was Brassed Off. It still has a massive impact. We had a 21st anniversary showing where the score was performed live and the entire audience cried from beginning to end. We dedicated it to Mr Postlethwaite, who I miss every day. The film was a beautiful slice of British social history.

The Red Lion runs at Trafalgar Studios until 2 December.