STEPHEN Tompkinson is a busy man. Each night, he’s currently to be seen performing in the touring production of Art alongside Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson. By day, he’s rehearsing Educating Rita which kicks off a 20-week tour in Keswick on April 23 and won’t come to rest until the end of August. “I did Art for 18 weeks last year and knew I had 10 more weeks coming this year so I popped my lines into a separate compartment and dusted them off again when we resumed the second leg of the tour,” says Stephen. “The brain’s an amazing thing. When it knows it has to hang on to something, it will.” What’s more, in between, he played Scrooge at the Old Vic over Christmas, “the greatest story of redemption ever”.
The likeable Stephen, 53, is a man of many parts. From less-than-ethical reporter Damien Day in C4’s Drop The Dead Donkey in the 90s, he has moved from one small screen hit to another: Ballykissangel, Wild At Heart, DCI Banks and Trollied.
On the big screen, he starred in Brassed Off and Hotel Splendide. On stage, he had leading roles in Arsenic and Old Lace, Charley’s Aunt and as King Arthur in Eric Idle’s Spamalot. Clearly, he’s pretty good at picking winners.
There haven’t been any professional longueurs since he graduated from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in 1988. “And yet,” he says, “I still don’t feel like I’ve scratched enough of the surface.”
As adept at comedy as at drama, he harbours the ambition to play two wildly differing roles: “I’d love to have a crack at Richard III one day because he was so comprehensively evil and a smiling villain to boot. You kind of want to see him succeed so you can discover if he has any personal boundaries,” he says.
At the other end of the spectrum is another role he’d love to play: Willy Wonka. “Well, I’m open to offers,” he says.
Married and twice divorced, he was engaged between the two marriages to his Ballykissangel co-star, Dervla Kirwan, but they never made it to the altar. And if she walked in here now…
“I’d be delighted. We’re not in each other’s lives anymore but I retain a real fondness for her.”
Stephen Tompkinson is rehearsing Educating Rita
More recently, there has been a lengthy relationship with a woman who works at the Foreign Office but, he says, he prefers not to talk about his private life. He makes a happy exception, though, for his daughter, Daisy, 18, from his second marriage.
“I’ve tried telling her that acting is a precarious profession” he says. “I once took her into two shows of Spamalot on a Wednesday when the snow was thick on the ground and the auditorium was pretty sparse.
“But it didn’t put her off one jot.
She’s determined to follow in my footsteps. And the fact is I’ve been lucky to make a good living from it.”
Daisy is currently on a course at the National Youth Film Academy and is auditioning for drama school.
“And I know I would say this but she obviously has talent. I’ve seen her perform and of course I couldn’t help being biased but she has it all right,” says her proud father.
For himself, he’s looking forward to getting his weekends back when Educating Rita finally finishes.
“No more shouting at night,” as he describes stage work. And he maintains he’s good at switching off. An enthusiastic walker, he thinks nothing of a two-hour hike from his home in Weybridge along the River Thames as far as Hampton Court and back.
He’s also mad keen on cricket. “If I hadn’t been an actor and I’d been better at it, I’d have tried to pursue a career as a cricketer,” he says.
“I was in the Third Eleven at school in Lytham St Anne’s aged 10, facing blokes quite keen to take my head off,” recalls Stephen of his days at St Bede’s Roman Catholic High School in Lancashire where the family moved from Yorkshire.
After sixth form college in Blackpool, Stephen went on to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, alongside James Nesbitt and Rufus Sewell. A full member of Bafta, he’s in the fortunate position of being sent all the new films as they come out and, as a consequence, the actor is up to date with all the new writers and stars.
“I’ve loved The Crown from the first episode,” he says. “You know what’s going to happen and yet it’s enthralling. Claire Foy was exquisite as the Queen in the first two series.” How does he think Olivia Colman will shape up in the same role? “She’s brilliant in whatever she does.
In fact, I acted with her in her first ever TV role, an episode of a 2001 sitcom called Mr Charity playing a mother who’d mislaid her baby in a shop.”
Stephen had a particular emotional investment in the scene as the baby was his own, 14-week-old daughter.
“Every time I meet Olivia now, I give her a progress report on ‘our’ child. I also mention Daisy wouldn’t mind working with her again.” Another favourite is Hayley Mills with whom Stephen costarred in eight series of Wild At Heart, filmed in South Africa.
In 2004, Stephen gave up alcohol and hasn’t touched a drop since
“I’m not a great one for celebrity shows but I did agree to take part in the Antiques Road Trip precisely because Hayley was my partner. It was a joyous few days and we raised money for Children In Need.”
Surely, he has been asked to take part in Strictly? “I have but I don’t think the nation’s ready for that. We did quite a lot of dancing at drama school so I’m not too bad. It’s just it’s not really my sort of thing. I enjoy watching it and cricketers like Darren Gough, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Swann did well in it.”
In 2004, Stephen gave up alcohol and hasn’t touched a drop since. “It wasn’t as a result of going on a major bender. The workload was quite heavy at the time and I wanted to be able to do the job to the best of my ability. I enjoy waking up with a clear head and the prospect of seeing through the day without having to play catch-up. I like smelling a nice glass of red wine but I’d never take a sip. I’m quite a disciplined person.” That discipline will be brought to bear on the upcoming tour of Educating Rita. “I’d read it many times before. But then I was rehearsing a play in Newcastle and bumped into an actress called Jessica Johnson who was working in the theatre there. We got talking and the idea for doing Rita came up. I knew at once she’d be great in the Julie Walters role and I was now the right age to play Frank.”
But the real thrill, says Stephen, is that for two days of each of the three weeks of rehearsal the play’s legendary writer, Willy Russell, will be giving the actors the benefit of his insights into the two characters. “That’s such a compliment. I’m very excited at the prospect.”
A broad smile. So life is good? “People say 50 is a milestone but I’m loving this age. It’s still easier for a man, though, both personally and professionally. I’ve been very fortunate in the variety of my work. And it’s true what they say: it is the spice of life.”
For details about the tour go to educatingrita.co.uk