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Spall, Timothy (1957-)


Main image of Spall, Timothy (1957-)

"You've played a lot of fat slobs, haven't you?", asked Jonathan Ross when he invited Timothy Spall onto his chat show The Last Resort (Channel 4, 1987). The rotund, jowly Spall could only agree, though his undoubted talent in that department belies a formidable range that has seen him quietly develop into one of the outstanding British character actors of the last two decades.

The son of a postman and a hairdresser, he was born in Battersea, south London, on 27 February 1957, and joined the National Youth Theatre in his teens after the acting bug bit during a performance as the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. After formal training at RADA, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979, where he played in Shakespeare and Chekhov - his performances in the latter were preserved by the BBC (The Cherry Orchard, tx. 13/10/1981) and Thames Television (The Three Sisters, tx. 29/12/1981) respectively. He had also appeared in experimental films in the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by small parts in the feature films Quadrophenia (d. Franc Roddam, 1979) and The Missionary (d. Richard Loncraine, 1981) and assorted Plays For Today, including Home Sweet Home (BBC, tx. 16/3/1982), the first of five collaborations with Mike Leigh.

But the role that established the popular image that Jonathan Ross alluded to was as the gormless Barry Taylor, one of a group of bricklayers relocated to Düsseldorf in the comedy-drama series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (ITV, tx. 1983-6) by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Spall's performance was so convincing that he later blamed it for nearly wrecking his career, not least because casting directors refused to believe that his Wolverhampton accent wasn't genuine.

Mike Leigh provided his creative salvation. Spall had already played the loutish postman Gordon in Home Sweet Home, finding solace from marital difficulties in food and alcohol. Food was also the main interest of his pretentious would-be restaurateur Aubrey in Life is Sweet (1990), a man whose taste in clothing suggests that his food probably isn't going to be much better. He was the head of the family in Secrets and Lies (1996), his mild-mannered photographer Maurice wisely preferring to stay out of the traumatic upheavals at its centre - though it's he who delivers the most crucial speech at the end - "We're all in pain! Why can't we share our pain?". In Topsy-Turvy (UK/France, 1999), he was the actor Richard Temple, conscious that he might be over the hill, yet still palpably shattered when denied a key role in the new Gilbert & Sullivan operetta 'The Mikado'. Finally, All or Nothing (UK/France, 2002) saw his gentle, philosophical taxi-driver Phil contemplate the imminent end of his now loveless marriage.

Other major directors on his CV include Ken Russell, for whom Spall played Dr John Polidori, purveyor of vampire lore in Gothic (1986) to a gathering that included Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley. In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (UK / Italy / US, 1990) he was the eccentric Eric Lyle, living in Tangiers with his mother (Jill Bennett), with whom he has a bizarrely Freudian relationship. He made a welcome return to Shakespeare via two Kenneth Branagh films: as Rosencrantz in Hamlet (US / UK, 1996) and, far more substantially (and delightfully), as the foppish Don Armado in Love's Labour's Lost (UK / France / US, 1999). Third-billed in Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (France / UK, 2001), by general consent he stole the film as Andy, the cuckolded husband who can only be pushed so far.

Despite his growing reputation as a big-screen actor, Spall would continue to act in television series, most notably in the title role of Frank Stubbs Promotes (ITV, 1993-4), which made good use of his hangdog demeanour as a notably unsuccessful talent agent. In the village cricket comedy Outside Edge (ITV, 1994-6) his beer-guzzling Kevin Costello was hilariously offset by his briskly efficient wife Maggie (Josie Lawrence) in a memorably effective bit of screen chemistry.

Though professionally successful, the mid-1990s were personally difficult for Spall, as he was beset by a mysterious stress-related illness. It turned out to be leukaemia, though this was defeated with chemotherapy. Since then, he has been constantly in demand, whether for homegrown features like the Clement-La Frenais-scripted Still Crazy (d. Brian Gibson, UK / US, 1998), where his caveman-like rock drummer Beano Baggot all but stole the film, big-budget Tom Cruise blockbusters like Vanilla Sky (US, 2001) and The Last Samurai (US, 2004), or lavish fantasies such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (d. Alfonso Cuarón, UK / US, 2004) or Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (US, 2006). He also continued to act in television, notably in two Stephen Poliakoff projects, Shooting the Past (BBC, 1999) and Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001), and was happy to return to the part of Barry when Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was revived by the BBC in 2002.

A rare lead (and title) role came with Pierrepoint (d. Adrian Shergold, 2005). This was originally intended for television, but Spall's complex, nuanced performance as Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most accomplished twentieth-century hangman, propelled it onto the big screen following festival acclaim. Quiet and understated, this was about as unstarry as leading roles get, entirely appropriate given that the real-life Pierrepoint was essentially a dutiful government servant, his macabre profession notwithstanding. The film garnered mixed reviews, but praise for Spall was unanimous, and confirmed that he had become a fully-fledged national treasure.

He was made an OBE in 1999. His son Rafe is also an actor.

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of All or Nothing (2002)All or Nothing (2002)

Bleakly funny film about a cab driver's dysfunctional family

Thumbnail image of Life is Sweet (1990)Life is Sweet (1990)

Mike Leigh comedy about a dysfunctional restaurant-owning family

Thumbnail image of Missionary, The (1981)Missionary, The (1981)

Gentle Michael Palin comedy about a missionary amongst 'fallen women'

Thumbnail image of Pierrepoint (2005)Pierrepoint (2005)

Sober, unsensationalised biopic of Britain's best-known hangman

Thumbnail image of Secrets and Lies (1996)Secrets and Lies (1996)

A woman's life is turned upside down when she meets her long-lost daughter

Thumbnail image of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86)Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86)

A gang of building workers leave Newcastle to find work in Germany

Thumbnail image of Home Sweet Home (1982)Home Sweet Home (1982)

Mike Leigh comedy about the private lives of three postmen

Thumbnail image of Perfect Strangers (2001)Perfect Strangers (2001)

Complex and intelligent drama about buried family secrets

Thumbnail image of Shooting the Past (1999)Shooting the Past (1999)

US property developers threaten to destroy a priceless picture archive

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Thumbnail image of Leigh, Mike (1943-)Leigh, Mike (1943-)

Director, Writer