Timothy Spall Q&A: “I came back into life after a nasty peek over the precipice”

The actor talks William Wilberforce, London in the 19th century, and Donna Tartt’s novels.

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Timothy Spall was born in Battersea in 1957. His first major part came in the 1983 series “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”. He is best known for his roles in “Harry Potter”, “The King’s Speech” and several Mike Leigh films, including “Secrets & Lies” and “Mr Turner”.

What’s your earliest memory?

I must have been about three, on a seaside promenade. My mum was desperately trying to convince me to put on a brightly coloured striped blazer, the sort you see at the Henley regatta. I was tearfully steadfast in my refusal. I prevailed. Interestingly, I really like striped clothes now.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood heroes included Marvel’s Thor, the ill-fated boxer Freddie Mills, and Flipper, the talking dolphin from the 1960s TV show. My adult hero remains my drama teacher at secondary school, Helena Mietz, who told me I should be an actor.

What book last changed your thinking?

I read all of Donna Tartt’s brilliant novels recently. There’s a section in The Secret History where a character says the worst punishment the Greek gods designed for man, far worse than anything physically brutal or gruesome, was to turn up the intensity of his inner voice and never let him be free of it. I can relate to that.

Which political figure do you look up to?

William Wilberforce. The fact that he was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does it for me. And Betty Boothroyd: what a wonder.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

The life and work of JMW Turner. I did a lot of research during rehearsals for Mr Turner.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

London in the 19th century, as long as I had an iron constitution and plenty of dosh!

What TV show could you not live without?

If BBC Four was ever axed, I would be bereft. Also, I’ll probably live but if Flog It! is axed, I’ll be mildly perturbed.

Who would paint your portrait?

If they could come back from the grave, I’d like a “paint off” between Rembrandt, Velásquez, Gainsborough, Ribera, Reynolds, Lawrence and Lely, and to keep the lot.

What’s your theme tune?

“Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison. It was on the radio all the time in 1996, when I came out of hospital and was on my way to a complete recovery from leukaemia. I associate it with coming back into life after a nasty little peek over the precipice.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Take the work seriously, but not yourself.

What’s currently bugging you?

Twenty-four-hour news and how it inflates and diminishes everything simultaneously. And that I keep checking it!

What would make your life better?

An unquestioning and total belief in the providence of a benign higher power.

When were you happiest?

At the birth of my children.

What job would you have chosen?

I would have been a very helpful and clever talking dolphin, paid in fish and hero worship from young English boys.

Are we all doomed?

We are all destined to cease to exist. Is that doom? Probably not. Everything has a particle in it that was present at the Big Bang – a tiny bit of us existed before even that. So if we go back to where we came from that’s not doom, that’s eternity. 

“Stanley a Man of Variety” is out now on DVD

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy