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Tomlinson, Ricky (1939-)


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Already past 40 when he made his professional acting debut, the stocky, often bearded Ricky Tomlinson has since become one of Britain's most popular character actors, his local fame noted by a surprised Hollywood megastar Samuel L. Jackson when they co-starred in The 51st State (d. Ronny Yu, Canada/UK, 2000). Typically playing garrulous and opinionated Liverpudlians, he is best known for leading roles in Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2003), Cracker (ITV, 1991-96) and especially The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2008), but has also done outstanding work for such directors as Roland Joffé and Ken Loach.

Born Eric Tomlinson near Blackpool on 26 September 1939, he was known as Ricky practically from birth. The showbiz bug bit early: from his late teens he played banjo and performed comedy sketches in a popular local troupe while qualifying as a plasterer, his main day job until the mid-1970s.

He first became famous (indeed, notorious) for his political activities. An ill-advised flirtation with the National Front at 18 (over workers' rights) was followed by more extensive left-wing activity, helping organise 'flying pickets' during a Shrewsbury building workers' dispute. When he was sentenced to six years in prison in 1973 for 'conspiracy to intimidate', his case became a political cause célèbre, with Tomlinson and former colleague Des Warren dubbed the 'Shrewsbury Two'.

Released on appeal in 1975, he found himself effectively blacklisted by the building trade. Instead, he started up various businesses, the most successful of which was an actors' agency. He revived his cabaret act, which led to his big break: Roland Joffé cast him in Jim Allen's Play for Today, 'United Kingdom' (BBC, tx. 8/12/1981), as a man drastically affected by local authority cuts. This led to his highest-profile 1980s role, as trade unionist Bobby Grant in Channel Four's groundbreaking soap opera Brookside. He played Grant for over five years before leaving in protest at what he thought were increasingly unconvincing storylines.

A period of financial uncertainty followed before Ken Loach cast building-site drama Riff-Raff (1991) using actors with personal experience of the trade. Though he was nominally in a supporting role, Tomlinson's accidental naked encounter with visiting clients during his illicit use of a show-home shower became the film's main marketing image. In Loach's Raining Stones (1993), he played unemployed Tommy, whose harebrained schemes to earn a bit on the side provided most of the comic relief.

In 1994 he was cast in leading roles in two high-profile television series: oil-rig drama Roughnecks (BBC, 1994-95) and as the gruff DCI Wise in Cracker. By the time he created Jim Royle, indolent patriarch of The Royle Family, he was already one of television's most familiar faces, and has rarely been off British screens since. The hapless title character of Mike Bassett: England Manager (UK/US, d. Steve Barron, 2001) led to a spin-off series in 2005. In 2010, after considering running for Parliament as Liverpool Wavertree's Socialist Labour Party candidate, he returned to his roots by opening a cabaret club in the city.

His 2003 autobiography was a bestseller.

Tomlinson, Ricky, Ricky (Little, Brown, 2003)

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Raining Stones (1993)Raining Stones (1993)

Jobless Bob struggles to buy a communion dress for his daughter

Thumbnail image of Riff-Raff (1991)Riff-Raff (1991)

Ken Loach tragicomedy set on a London building site

Thumbnail image of Brookside - The 1980sBrookside - The 1980s

The first, and most political, decade of the Liverpool-set soap

Thumbnail image of Clocking Off (2000-03)Clocking Off (2000-03)

Smart, lively series of urban stories created by rising star Paul Abbott

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Hillsborough (1996)Hillsborough (1996)

Powerful drama about the 1989 football stadium tragedy and its aftermath

Thumbnail image of Royle Family, The (1998-2000)Royle Family, The (1998-2000)

Groundbreaking sitcom about a working-class Manchester family

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Thumbnail image of Ken Loach and his collaboratorsKen Loach and his collaborators

Collaboration is key for Britain's foremost political filmmaker

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