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Harrigan - Stephen Tompkinson interview (exclusive)


Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEPHEN Tompkinson talks about playing tough as nails cop Harrigan in the new movie of the same name, which is based partly upon the real life experiences of former Newcastle beat cop turned screenwriter Arthur McKenzie in the ‘70s.

He also reflects on getting into shape for the role, the differences in policing in the ‘70s compared to today, why he enjoys being able to work in so many mediums and forthcoming roles in the new series of DCI Banks and BBC drama Truckers.

Q. How are you?
Stephen Tompkinson: I’m very good thanks. I’m just filming another series of DCI Banks.

Q. How is that?
Stephen Tompkinson: Very good. I’ve always liked the fact that they’re based on Peter Robinson’s novels, who is such a wonderful writer and such a clever writer. Whenever he starts a book, and he manages to produce a book a year, and not always Banks… but when he starts off with a new book he just picks two very random sort of subjects or settings and has no idea how he’ll finish but takes these polarised incidents and weaves them together. And what results is always something special.

Q. Is one of the great joys of doing a TV show like DCI Banks the time you’re allowed as an actor to really get to know and inhabit the character?
Stephen Tompkinson: Yes, definitely. And your great reference point is Peter Robinson himself. Before we started the series, I’d always been aware that when a writer sells the rights of the book to TV or film that it must be a very strange thing to do… there’s no other medium in the arts like it. It would be like a painter giving away his canvas and then allowing everyone else to doodle on it – it would never happen. But a writer has to kiss goodbye to a lot of the elements he brings to a story because you’re trying to condense it down into two one-hour stories, in the case of Banks, or 90 a minutes if goes to the big screen. So, an awful lot of work has to disappear and things have to change and, as a writer, you have to let it go. It’s like giving your child away to a plastic surgeon… you might not always be pleased with the results!

So, with Peter I wanted to, before we started filming DCI Banks, convince him that although I’m 5 inches too tall and have the wrong colour eyes for his character, I was determined to get as close as possible to the spirit of the character he created. And in doing that, I learned that the most super element of him being this super cop was his ordinary-ness. It’s what makes him extraordinary. Peter knows a lot of cops and they are all very low key about their jobs. It’s a very ugly, very mundane business that only certain people can do. You can’t get too emotionally involved or you wouldn’t be able to do your job. There’s a great quote that Banks carries with him in his office and it’s from a John Donne poem, which states: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” So, I guess you are married to the job to a certain extent. Crime doesn’t stop but you have to be prepared for that and, especially in the modern policing world, have to be seen to dot the i’s and cross the t’s or else a very clever lawyer can get someone off on a technicality. So, you’ve got to be a very dedicated policeman these days and you can’t bend the rules or take short cuts. I wouldn’t want to be one of them for all the tea in China.

Q. Conversely, Harrigan comes from a very different era… Was that part of the appeal of playing the character?
Stephen Tompkinson: Yes. The ‘70s was a much simpler time… not necessarily a happier one but it was a lot simpler. Arthur McKenzie, who wrote the screenplay, was a beat copper in Newcastle city centre in the very late ‘60s and early ‘70s who, as he got promoted, went on secondment to Hong Kong. But when he came back, he found the small section houses, these mini police stations that had been part of the estate and various communities, had been closed down in favour of bigger, more centralised police stations and the Bobby had been replaced by the Panda car. And Arthur felt that with modernisation, the police were losing touch with the people. He was always much happier being a presence on the street and being able to eye-ball people in certain places. He was brave enough to go into villains’ pubs and walk around and see who was there to make sure they had an alibi for being there, so it would be a quiet night. I suppose when that presence on the street started to disappear, it also paved the way for coppers to have their snouts in certain estates and they ended up running the show and paying little kick backs. It all turned a little bit like The Lord of The Flies. But the story Arthur has written [for Harrigan] is very much like a Wild West sheriff coming into a town and cleaning it up. It has a lot of those classic elements.


Q. I gather Harrigan is quite a departure from who you are as a person in terms of his toughness? How was exploring that side to him?
Stephen Tompkinson: I’m not at all tough and I definitely wouldn’t be brave enough to do half of the things you see him do in the film. And yet you meet Arthur [McKenzie, upon whom the character is based] and he’s such an affable guy and has so many stories that you still can’t see him in that role! So, I guess that gave me a lot of courage because he doesn’t come across like that in real life. But back then, he was a force to be reckoned with. He was a multi-decorated officer and he even represented Great Britain at shot put and discus at the Commonwealth Games. So, his were certainly big shoes to fill. But the more I spoke to him and read his book, Cop On The Tyne, the more it became apparent that it was just backing up the fact that you knew you were a presence on the street, and that the uniform made you proud and made you not be there as a threat.

I think in modern times, the uniform makes you become seen as a threat, but in Arthur’s day you were seen as part of the community, and as a protector, as well as an obstacle to the odd villain or two. It was a very fair game and Arthur said it was a game. Villains would try to outsmart you and occasionally front you up. So, it was a lot about having the bottle to stare people out. But if your presence was recognised, it meant that a huge percentage just respected you. And I think somehow we’ve lost that respect for uniform and police presence. It’s just seen these days as a sort of threat and an abuse of power – and that’s wrong. The police are there to offer protection because the majority of people are vulnerable on their own. If you’re a victim of crime, the first people you turn to are the police, so we should be doing more to make them part of our community and for it not to be seen as us and them. Perhaps that’s down to bad reporting in the media as well… there have been a lot of stories of abuse and police corruption and phone tapping… and the way the papers can put a spin on things tends to make the general public more distrustful, which is a shame.

Q. What else appealed to you about Harrigan – and was being in a movie one of them?
Stephen Tompkinson: Well, it was lovely to be back in my home area. I originally come from the North East… I’m from Stockton-on-Tees originally. I had been up in Newcastle the year before doing a play that had been written by a good friend of mine called Shaun Prendergast, called Faith & Cold Reading. I was playing a particularly nasty gangster that he’d written just for me. Vince Woods, who directed Harrigan, saw me in that and thought it was such a transformation. I think a lot of people – Vince included – had been associating me as a bit of a Sunday night TV star with big hits like Ballykissangel and Wild At Heart, and yet here was someone who had chosen to come to this 180-seat theatre in Newcastle and scare the bejesus out of audiences by playing this ruthless gangster. So, I think he saw a possibility in that association of the popularity of some of the characters I’ve played in shows like Wild At Heart combined with this more of a threatening presence in the show. I mean, there’s a touch of that in Banks, but he’s not allowed to be as free range with his fists as Harrigan. So, he sent me the script and I really, really enjoyed it. I then had to meet Arthur, which was just a joy. And I felt that if I could only please one person by doing Harrigan, then I hoped it was Arthur. So, I think there are a lot of really nice things in the film.

And it’s always exciting to come across a thriving independent film industry, which Newcastle has. Most of the crew who worked on this said that Harrigan was the third feature they had done back to back, and they were going on to another one straight after. Once I was sent the script, we were shooting it within a year once I’d said yes. That’s amazing. TallTree Pictures, who had never made a film before, went and raised the money and Vince, who had never directed before, got a crew together… so it had a spirit behind it. And Arthur is a big legend up there, so everyone wanted to make it for him because they knew it was semi-autobiographical. And he was around on the set quite often, which meant a lot. Everyone thought this was a story worth telling.

Q. It must be very gratifying to know, too, that your presence alone helped to secure over £1 million worth of the film’s funding?
Stephen Tompkinson: Yeah… after the success of Brassed Off, I did a movie shortly after that called Hotel Splendide, where I had Daniel Craig as my younger brother and was acting opposite Toni Collette, but it didn’t do that well. And then I had another film called Tabloid TV, which I don’t think has been seen in this country at all. You can buy it on Amazon if you go through the Australian website [laughs]. It’s got another great cast – Matthew Rhys, John Hurt, Elizabeth Mastrantonio – but again it didn’t do anything. Film is a very different industry to television – a lot of things can get made and never distributed, so to see TallTree do it on their own is incredible and really quite gratifying. I really liked the script and once they had my name on it, it was amazing to see the money come flowing in. So, I’m full of admiration for this fledgling company getting that done and I think Vince has done a cracking job as director, as has Arthur’s daughter, Kirsty Bell, and Robbie Elliott, the ex-Newcastle United footballer, who serves as an executive producer. I’m very proud to have been a part of all this.


Q. I gather Robbie helped to get you in shape for the role of Harrigan?
Stephen Tompkinson: Yeah, Robbie was about to go off and do this Bike For Bobby Appeal, which saw him cycle around every club in Europe that Bobby Robson had been manager of. So, he was in training for that with his mate, who had coached a lot of Olympic tri-athletes and who is also a basketball coach. I had a couple of fitness sessions with them. They could see I was alright, but they taught me how to look better… and they taught me how to do things properly. And it was great being taught by the experts. It’s the only time I’ve ever been down a gym and not been at all self-conscious.

Q. Was there a look, or physical condition, that you were particularly going for with Harrigan?
Stephen Tompkinson: Just to look like I could manage myself. There were quite a few fight scenes that we had to work on en masse because there was a big pub brawl scene and a riot towards the end. So, I worked very closely with the fight director to look convincing. Also, if you get hit, you don’t immediately go back – but it has an effect on you. We didn’t want to glamorise it or Hollywood-ize it. But we also had an incredibly limited budget, so we were aware that we had to make it more physical because there were no effects to fall back on. And we wanted to make sure that everyone was safe. We were in Hartlepool at 4am and it was minus 14 – and one thing I learned is that you don’t lay your face down too heavily on the tarmac because half of your head will go numb. I actually got a little bit scared when I had to sit up and felt that my face was almost stuck. It was like that moment in Dumb and Dumber when he licks the ski pole! So, that was all good fun [laughs].

Q. You must be incredibly pleased with where your career is right now and being able to work between so many different mediums?
Stephen Tompkinson: And being an executive producer on Harrigan too and helping to encourage cast members that I’d worked with before to join us. It was a real joy and if it leads to any more experiences like this I’d be delighted. Most actors enjoy the glamour of the cinema more than anything else, so to be back there is a nice feeling. But I’ve always been happy being able to mix and match mediums. My first job was in radio drama, which I still do, and I still do theatre whenever I can. I started off the year doing Spamalot, which was my first lead in a West End musical. I also did a new series for the BBC called Truckers, which boasts a script by Bill Ivory, and which will be out in October, and then it was back to Banks and shortly I’ll be slipping off to go to a film premiere that I’m in. So, it’s delightful. And it’s that variety that keeps me going. I’ve always felt that if I’m not getting bored, then the audience won’t be getting bored and it’s proving right.

Q. You also had your own yacht at Cannes to promote Harrigan
Stephen Tompkinson: Yeah, that was nice. Again, that networking side to the business is something I’ve had to get used to. But having been an executive producer on Wild At Heart for the last four years helped. All the projects I’ve been doing have been very different, they tap into a lot of different areas of the market and they all have their own challenges, so you have to know how to optimise all your assets. But I’m keeping a lot of fingers crossed for this one.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about Truckers before we depart?
Stephen Tompkinson: Well, Bill Ivory is such a great writer. He’s done Common As Muck, The Sins with Pete Postlethwaite and more recently Made in Dagenham and the screenplay for Burton and Taylor, which aired recently on BBC4. But he’s writing more about what he knows with Truckers. His home town is Nottingham, so this is set around a group of truck drivers from there. It’s five one hour episodes for the BBC and it’ll be on in October. Each week, a little bit like The Boys From The Black Stuff, it will follow a different member of the team and tell their story as each character faces a big crossroads in their lives. But the star of that show is Billy Ivory’s writing. When your agent gives you a phone call that says he would like you to be one of the leads in a show, that’s the deal done before you’ve even read the script. His writing is that good.

Harrigan is released in UK cinemas on Friday, September 20, 2013

Read our interview with writer Arthur McKenzie