Timothy Spall: “It was one of the biggest shocks of my life”

Finding Your Feet star Timothy Spall on finding out he had leukaemia – and the 'uncomfortable' feeling of being famous and unemployed

At 16 I was at Battersea County Secondary Modern school, which also happened to be the school my mother and father went to. It was such an interesting time. I was getting heavily into the art department. I was useless at everything else. It wasn’t an academic school. I can’t remember anybody going to university from there. Kids did better later on, and there were some very nice teachers, but it wasn’t that sort of place.

I was truly blossoming in this artistic world. I was on this massive journey of discovery about the surrealists, the impressionists and listening to so much music. One minute it was Jimi Hendrix, the next I was listening to Debussy and Handel, then David Bowie and Sparks. All that was going on.

I went to Army Cadets so I was Lance Corporal Spall affiliated with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment on St John’s Hill in Clapham. I would go from glam rock or Salvador Dali and Max Ernst to learning how to dismantle Bren Guns and a little bit of tank warfare. It was mildly confusing to say the least. The dilemma was whether to join the army or think about art college, but somewhere inside I knew I wouldn’t be able to kill anybody. I still find the military world intriguing, though. And for lots of people in areas where industry has gone, it is the only route into employment.

I did the school play and everything imploded, in a positive way. I was in The Wizard of Oz and My Fair Lady. After I played the Cowardly Lion, my drama teacher suggested I might like to be an actor. That wasn’t something she said lightly to any of the students because it is a despicable business. I got into Rada when I was 18 and the rest is geography, as they say.

My parents were very open-minded. When I was born my father was a scaffolder and my mother worked in a chip shop but they were both bright in their own way. The one thing they always let us know was that we could do anything we wanted, their only proviso was it had to make us happy. If you have had that said to you, you can’t think of a more positive thing. It is how I’ve raised my kids. But my parents were very pleased when early on I ended up in the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was quite something.

Joining the RSC was a baptism of fire, an incredibly healthy one. I had the privilege of working with amazing people like Ben Kingsley and Bob Peck. Trevor Nunn was a massive influence. I still think of his intellectual acumen, his openness and his indulgence of me as this strange character who turned up.


There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

There is a preconception of people in the arts being the bourgeoisie. They’re not. It is such a broad church. When I was younger there were a lot of great actors from working-class backgrounds. Albert Finney is one of my favourites of all time, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Courtenay, Ian McKellen and even Sir Derek Jacobi – who people assume is posh but is actually from Leytonstone. It might have changed now. I got a full grant from the GLC to pay my fees and a bit of subsistence. That would not be the case now and I would be very saddened to hear if it is thwarting people’s aspirations.

My mum and dad were both old-fashioned working-class Tories but I was naturally a leftie and I still am. Although I have got softer. I have got to the point where I am now stricken by that terrible thing of seeing both sides. But I err on the side of saying that society has a moral responsibility to look after those who are less fortunate than others.

I would tell my younger self you are not as unpalatable as you think. I had no confidence. It was shocking. Most young men are a bit terrified. And a lot of men’s apparent overconfidence is to compensate for the fact they are scared. I was not particularly enamoured with my own power of attraction, put it that way. But the great thing is, it makes you take nothing for granted and makes you work on yourself a little bit more. So I would tell my younger self, you are going to be all right. My wife is my rock. We have been together 37 years. It helps having your wife as your mate and enjoying the tedious side of domesticity as well as the pleasurable side.

The Big Issue cover no 1296

Being famous and unemployed wasn’t very nice. I remember sitting in the pub and somebody tapped me on the shoulder saying, “Don’t look so miserable, not with all your money!” I was skint. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet had happened, which became so big. It was uncomfortable at times. I had a young family and was out of work for a long period. So I would tell my younger self, stick to your guns, take every role on its own value.

Everything my younger self was hoping for seems to be happening. But I don’t take it for granted. At Rada when I was 18, I played a Geordie union boss, then a Conservative minister and an upper-class colonel. It still amazes me all the time that people think of me in such different ways. I love the idea that I can move between characters. I have just played a contemporary villain, a malevolent 1,000-year-old demon, the artist LS Lowry, and I have played Winston Churchill, David Irving and Ian Paisley in the last few years. So be careful what you wish for!

Mike Leigh and I have worked together on five movies, one telly show and a play. The way I instinctively like to work is the way he approaches his work. When I was a kid I read that he was from Tottenham Court Road and went to walk up and down and find the tenement block he was from. I was only 16 and, without intellectualising it, from a visceral point of view it was important to relate where a person is from, how they are made. Mike is very much a lover of the character actor – ones like me who likes to become the character. Working with Mike deepened my desire to really scuba dive into the underneath of a character and relate their idiosyncrasies with what they are inside.

The very first thing I would say to my younger self is: Dear Tim, when you are 39 you are going to get one of the biggest shocks of your life. You are going to be told that you have leukaemia, which is a life-threatening disease. All I am going to tell you is this: it is not going to be very nice at all. It is going to be terrible. But listen to me: you ain’t going to die. I almost divide myself into before and after. I come back to the wonderful healing thing of normal life. As soon as you move out of the profundity of being seriously ill and move into all the petty nitty-gritty of life you realise that you cannot be healed by profundity alone. It is the inconsequence and the luxury of tedium that heals you.

Finding Your Feet star Timothy Spall was speaking to The Big Issue in issue 1296, if you missed it then you can pick up a copy in The Big Issue Shop.

We believe in the right to citizenship.

Which is why the Big Issue Foundation, our charitable arm, helps sellers tackle their social and financial exclusion.

Learn More