Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star Timothy Spall showed he’s still capable of a few surprises while appearing at the Manchester Film Festival this month.
In town with director Stephen Cookson to present his latest film, Stanley A Man Of Variety, Spall spoke to MM about his earliest experience as an actor in our city.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in Manchester. The first time I ever worked here was actually with Danny Boyle on a little film that Jim Cartwright wrote called Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise. Look it up, it’s worth a peek!”
Spall – who shares a Twitter handle with his wife – turned 60 last month, but is showing no signs of wanting to slow down: just this week he was added to the cast of Nick Park’s Early Man, which is scheduled for release in early 2018.
He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Voldemort’s loyal servant, Wormtail, in the immensely popular Harry Potter series, but Spall proudly boasts an impressive resumé, spanning distinct genres and styles.
His appearance at the festival, now in its third year, can largely be seen as a declaration of support on his part for the often overlooked work of the independent film industry.
— Caroline Whitmore (@carowhititv) 3 March 2017
It has been almost four decades since Spall made his silver-screen debut with a minor role in the cult 1979 film Quadrophenia.
But his true cinematic breakthrough was to come some time later, with an impressive performance in Mike Leigh’s 1996 Palme d’Or winning Secrets & Lies. Roles in box-office hits followed, turning Spall into a household name and one of the country’s most cherished actors.
Despite his acclaim, Spall’s career has largely been overlooked by the judging panels of the industry’s major award ceremonies.
In 2015, he spoke of his disappointment about not receiving an Oscar nomination for his role in Mr. Turner, another Leigh collaboration that was seen by many as a career-defining performance and had been tipped for potential award season success.
But, as Spall ensured MM on a cold Friday evening in early March, his love of the craft is still very much alive.
In Stanley A Man Of Variety, as well as serving as co-writer, he plays every single role, big and small. He was keen to emphasise, however, that this artistic decision was not intended for the purposes of self-indulgence.
“I always said to Steve that when we invent these things I don’t want it to be an exercise in just showing off.
“It’s not just an excuse to turn up and show off all these different characters and all these different aspects.
“What we’re trying to do is organically investigate the interior of someone’s mind by using what to many other people might seem like a mildly interesting collection.
“Stanley himself, you could say, is one of the most boring men in the world, but inside this boring man is this incredible tapestry of a mixture of the jovial and the sinister.”
The film sees its protagonist, Stanley, find himself incarcerated for a crime that he believes he did not commit.
With the help of ghostly visions of his comedy heroes, ranging from the flamboyant playwright Noël Coward to the often-grotesque music-hall staple Max Wall, Stanley attempts to escape his prison, while gradually recalling the fragmented actions of his past.
Spall’s own past mirrors itself in the eclectic mix of ‘golden age’ British comedy figures that he portrays in the film. When asked if the ensemble served as his own personal tribute to that largely forgotten time, he made no attempt to deny it.
“I’d say so. It’s a homage to this world.
“When I grew up there were only two channels on the television and they showed a lot of old films, a lot of old footage.
“I was always struck by this combination between the sort of affability, the niceness and jolliness of these characters but always felt they were slightly sinister because they were tinged with this slightly nightmarish Victorian quality as well.
“That’s what we were trying to infuse these characters with.”
The development of complex and interesting characters often falls on the shoulders of the actor themselves, but without a strong script, such a task could prove to be impossible.
Despite having over 100 screen performances to his name, Stanley marks the first time that Spall has officially contributed to a screenplay directly.
As Spall explained, he didn’t in fact take pen to paper much, but rather relied on his improvisational instincts to give form to his ideas.
“What I did find is that improvisation is a device to get things done. I have a fear of sitting there with a pen or an iPad and trying to come up with something.
“To use what I do as a performer, to actually get it out there is a bit like painting a picture with your mind and body, you get out there and start doing it.”
As with all great character actors, the task of getting inside your subject’s head and truly understanding how they think is a vital one. In an era when the film industry is often criticised for its lack of creativity, with sequels and reboots aplenty, such a challenge is becoming ever increasingly difficult.
Having enough dramatic empathy to convincingly portray a notorious Holocaust denier, as he did this January in Mick Jackson’s courtroom drama Denial, must therefore have taken all of Spall’s vast experience.
“It’s interesting to find that there are a few people coming out of the woodwork who are quite like him,” he said in reference to playing the universally dislikable character David Irving.
“It was an interesting challenge because people who are vilified and identified as monsters, or people whose ideology is distasteful to many, your job is not to play that side of them, your job is to see it from the inside, to totally see it from their point of view and try and build up a structure within that.
“It’s your job to breathe a subtlety and texture into something that possibly might make it understandable in some way as a function of a human being.
“Often when people’s views are toxic, it’s a product of another function in their life which sometimes they don’t recognise.
“When people harbour these views it can be borne out of something.
“Anybody that flies in the face so confidently of popular belief and harbours upsetting views has to have a certain psychological complexity that maybe they themselves don’t recognise.”
Spall unquestionably lives up to name as a ‘man of variety’ – his affinity for the unusual and capacity for the unpredictable can only continue to keep us all guessing.