The Mrs Lowry & Son star talks mothers and sons and why he’s happy to play another painter
Good morning, nice to meet you. I nearly didn’t come.”
Timothy Spall’s greeting catches me off guard. It’s the morning after the world premiere of his new film Mrs Lowry & Son at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the actor was up early reading the reviews in his hotel.
His eyes behind dark-framed glasses mirror the shade of his dark blue velvet jacket, the one from last night, over a stripy top and smart dark trousers. I’m thinking Prussian blue.
“The Scotsman you’re writing for aren’t you?
“Well, your critic didn’t like the film. He thought it was poor.”
Ah. This isn’t how I had seen my interview with Timothy Spall going. I’ve wanted to interview him for years, having enjoyed watching him on small and big screens for the past three decades from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in the 80s and on, through Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet and his BAFTA nominated turn in Secrets and Lies in the 90s, right up to the Harry Potter films and Hatton Garden, and now I’ve caught up with him...
“Very unpleasant review,” he says, but his tone and manner are mild. In fact, he’s charming and polite.
“He’s entitled to his opinion but… here, do you wanna have a quick look?” he says, giving me his phone.
“Yes,” I say, “But I really liked the film.” This is true. I found the portrayal of the complex relationship between LS Lowry, the Lancashire artist known for his distinctive paintings of ‘matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs’ in mid-20th century industrial north west England, and his mother, completely absorbing.
Spall plays the artist and Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave his widowed mother in the film directed by Adrian Noble. Following his father’s death in 1932 the pair share a house, with 40-something Lowry as cook and carer, working as a rent collector in Salford during the day and painting at night when his mother sleeps. Aggrieved at their relocation from leafy middle-class milieu to cobbled working class terraces, Elizabeth takes to her bed where she stays until her death seven years later. Before that she does her utmost to dissuade the art school-trained Lowry from painting scenes of urban poverty in his trademark palette of ivory black, yellow ochre, vermilion, Prussian blue and flake white. Although there’s the one of boats she likes.
She died just before Lowry had a breakthrough with his first solo exhibition at the age of 52. Sixty paintings sold, one of them to the Tate, and from then on celebrity and success were his. By the time of his death in 1976, a major exhibition of his work at London’s Royal Academy attracted a record-breaking 350,000 visitors and today his paintings fetch millions, with a large collection on permanent public display in The Lowry, a purpose-built art gallery in Salford.
But for Lowry success was bittersweet without his mother around to see it. When offered a knighthood in 1968, the first of five British honours, he rejected it (and still holds the record for the most rejections).
“He said, ‘when she died, all the accolades that came after didn’t mean very much because she’d gone,’” says Spall. “He said this wonderful thing, ‘my mother didn’t understand my paintings, but she understood me, and that was enough.’ As you get older you realise there are so many contradictions, emotions are not just black and white.
“In Mrs Lowry & Son you’ve got somebody who totally loves this person, is frustrated by their inability to understand what he does, is both amused and insulted by her, is in thrall to her, abused by her, loves her. That’s not just ‘I don’t like my mum’, that’s a very complicated but simple human fact of life. Everyone’s in an abusive relationship to a larger or lesser degree…” He laughs.
The story of Lowry and his mother is all the more poignant for Spall because when we speak his mother Sylvia has died three weeks before. Like LS Lowry, his father died young, and Spall and his siblings were raised by their mother. But there the similarity ends.
“My relationship couldn’t have been more different to the one in the film, it’s the antithesis,” he says.
Back with Spall’s mobile, I’m still digesting the review, while he comments.
“Well, he’s entitled to his opinion. As Mr Lowry himself said, you put things in public, people are entitled to their opinion. If you have the audacity to stick your head above the parapet you’re going to get shot if people don’t like what they see. And there were others with nice things to say.”
Because I’m speed reading it, snatches keep escaping aloud, “...Redgrave’s putdowns lack the requisite wit and venom to...”
“It got a lot of laughs last night…” he says. “The crowd in the Festival Theatre seemed to like it.”
“...resorts to hangdog heroism he can do in his sleep…”
“Well, that’s such an insult when you work for a year on a part. They think you just phoned it in? But as I say, you present something in public, people are entitled to their opinion... the trouble is these things stick in your mind...”
Never mind hangdog, I’m getting flashbacks to his ringleader hardman role in this year’s Hatton Garden heist dramatisation for ITV. When I tell him he’s good at scary, he’s surprised. “Am I?” he says and smiles.
Spall is disappointed because he was particularly pleased with the film’s emphasis on how Lowry’s relationship with his mother impacted on him as a painter.
“If ever a film shows you the emotional backup behind someone’s painting, it’s this. Painting which has been misunderstood as being naive. It’s that tension between love and pursuing something he knows is going to be determined by others as distasteful. That’s heroic in a bizarre way.
“He’s an odd fellow. His mother and he have never allowed that umbilical cord to be cut and wither away. If anything it turns into ties of steel and gets thicker. She’s all he’s got. He’s lonely and knows it. Look at his later landscapes and seascapes. He only ever had platonic relationships and was very enigmatic, an unusual man who compartmentalised his life.
“We forget that so many men of that generation didn’t marry and stayed with their mothers. Women too, who didn’t marry, lived in penury.”
The slightly frosty atmosphere has melted as Spall warms to his subject, a dab of flake white has lightened his eyes a tone, and he talks about his nan, his South London accent rich and rolling, words often shot through with laughter.
“Nanny Spall, or Maggie Christmas, that was her name, Mother Christmas.” He smiles at the memory. “Her two brothers, Ted and Fred Christmas, lived with her all their lives, and that’s in my lifetime. Mind you, I am 474 years old.”
He’s not, he’s 62 and after losing several stone five years ago, looks fit and vital, his hair still blond among the grey. Married to Shane since 1981 and father to Pascale, Rafe (the actor) and Sadie, the couple are grandparents to Matilda, Lena, Rexie, Freda, Vinnie, Bertie and Wren.
How does someone stay married for 38 years, what’s the secret?
“Oh I dunno…” he says. “It’s just somebody I adore... and so, you know... In the real sense it’s not always living in a state of uxorious, you know, nirvana, it’s just… we’re best mates. We’re connected. We are.. that’s it.”
“That’s one of the great things of being a human,” he continues, “and one of the drawbacks, our reliability on each other. We can choose to be isolated and lonely, but we don’t make sense as single things really.”
Shane is the author of two entertaining and moving books about their voyages on their Dutch barge, The Princess Matilda, also seen in BBC4’s TV series Timothy Spall: Back at Sea. Interspersed with the story of their circumnavigation of the UK coastline is Shane’s diary of her husband’s harrowing battle with leukaemia in 1996 when instead of going to Cannes with Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, he was hospitalised and given three days to live.
As we know Spall pulled through, and his career resumed and thrived with highlights including the award-winning The King’s Speech and the biographical film Mr Turner, again with Leigh, which won Spall the Cannes Best Actor award.
It was after playing Turner in 2014 that Spall embarked on his healthy eating regime which saw him tone up and shed the weight.
“I was very, very exhausted, so decided to change my lifestyle and get fit. Also I was about to play a real life character who was quite slight on TV in The Enfield Haunting, so I decided to lose some weight for that. And I enjoyed the process of doing it so just carried on.
“I wasn’t always big – if you watch series one of Auf Weidersehen, I’m actually quite skinny. It’s just most of my career has been around where I was larger.
Despite his success – he was awarded the OBE in 2000 for services to drama and has numerous nominations and awards – Spall desired the versatility he says comes with being slimmer.
“It was part of wanting to pursue the central role and be a leading character actor, so that means you don’t want to be restricted by your size. Being bigger can bring work, but also cancels work because you’re stereotyped as ‘the fat guy’.”
He reaches for an artistic analogy to illustrate his approach.
“It’s a pure thing to do as you get older, a bit like Turner’s late masterpieces. It’s a minimalisation, it’s pure form, stripped off, absolute, truth. You just want to get in there, strip all the shit away, and get to the centre of it, for good or bad.
“Since I lost a lot of weight I’ve played David Irvine (Denial) – I had to wear a bit of padding – and Ian Paisley (The Journey), you know, all these charming fellas.” He smiles. “And Hatton Garden, couldn’t have done that.”
Indeed, not with those tight safety deposit vault spaces to squeeze through.
“No! And these are characters that would not have come my way if I’d been beefy or fat,” he says. Thankfully he’s never felt the need to do anything to his British teeth.
Spall was drawn to Mrs Lowry & Son by the script and also the chance to portray another artist, having a passion for painting himself.
“In a parallel universe I might have become an artist,” he says. “There was a period when half of me wanted to join the army… driving tanks in the Royal Tank Regiment,” he laughs, “modified to becoming a drummer. But at the same time I was doing art A-Level, discovering impressionism and surrealism and making mad sculptures, so I was split. I think the military thing was more to do with the theatricality of it. I had no desire to go and kill people, or really be a coal-face worker on protecting the Empire.”
When Spall did the school play, The Wizard of Oz – “I played the lion of course” – it was acting that won, the army’s loss, the arts’ gain.
“The art’s always bin ‘overin’ in the background,” he says. “I draw mad things and doodle, but when I did Mr Turner a brilliant guy gave me a foundation course in painting for a couple of years and it turned out that I had a bit of natural ability. My mum, when she went through a period of coming off the drink, after the grief of my father dying very young, started to draw, and do watercolours. I’ve got them now. So she was obviously creative, but I didn’t grow up with her doing that.”
When Spall was a child Sylvia’s creativity was channelled into making a living as a self-taught hairdresser, initially in their house in Battersea then with a successful salon off Lavender Hill.
“She was a singer too – sang in pubs and at Butlin’s,” he says, “a colourful character. Like a lot in our family, very outgoing, but underneath we’re anxious, typical ingredients of artists and actors. You get this balance between joie de vivre and absolute terror. That’s what it’s all about really, trying to find the balance.”
The acting gene came from Sylvia’s father, a sales rep for the Times who also did a bit of entertaining as a musical comedian. His daughter dreamt of going to RADA but with a war on and no grants, it wasn’t a reality. So when Spall got a place there “she was over the moon,” he says.
“When I went to sort her stuff out, there was a poofy as we called ‘em, full to the lid with cuttings about me. That is a great delight, that she could see it all.”
After coming top of his year Spall joined the RSC and made his film debut in Quadrophenia (1979), then in the early 80s moved into TV with Mike Leigh’s Home Sweet Home and the long running Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-2004).
He’s worked with directors Ken Russell (Gothic 1986), Clint Eastwood (White Hunter Black Heart 1990), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Sheltering Sky 1990) and Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet 1996), Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 2007), all the while mining his skills as a character actor as the roles have grown in size.
Character is always king for Spall, and fundamental in how he approaches each job.
“You serve the character and it gets you out of a lot of trouble, all the egomania and stupidity of wanting to stand up and make a tit of yourself by pretending to be someone else – a ludicrous compulsion. You’ve got to ditch all the unhelpful shit – your ego, your solipsistic view and desire to please and all that bollocks – then say ‘what is this about?’ That’s the motivation. I’m fascinated by what makes humanity tick.
“The character is supreme and dictates what you do and what resources you have. The only thing you can use is your imagination, and if that person exists, the facts about them. And you can fuse your emotion with theirs, somehow... by symbiosis, connection, assimilation and synthesis, use your soul and experience and attach it to somebody else’s. And I’m in danger of sounding like a tosser ‘ere…” he says, laughs and breaks off.
These days Spall is picky about roles, accepting the downside of periods not working.
“There’s nothing like humbling an actor by giving them a period of unemployment, ‘cos then you think you’re worthless, “ he says, “but I only wanna do the things I wanna do. I don’t want to repeat myself. To me it’s important I’m discovering somebody else, getting involved in their idiosyncracies.”
The things he wants to do and is currently working on are a starring role in Gillies MacKinnon’s feature film, The Last Bus, “a beautiful story, all filmed up here in Scotland” and The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica, writer-director Daniel Graham’s comedy drama film. In this Spall stars as an irritable but brilliant architect on an intriguing commission in Malta.
“And we’ll talk about that another time,” says Spall with a smile.
There’s going to be another time.
Mrs Lowry & Son is in cinemas this weekend