RICKY (2003) by RICKY TOMLINSON (1939 – ). A Review by Mervyn Edwards, November, 2016.
Upon being loaned this autobiography by a friend, I had no great hopes that I would enjoy it. You see, I never really took to the Royle Family TV series, and saw nothing appealing about its paterfamilias, the nose-picking, flatulent and indolent Jim Royle. However, vaguely aware of the actor’s left-wing political views and his brushes with the law, I chose my favourite armchair, Jim-style, and began reading.
Eric Tomlinson is born in Blackpool in 1939, but grows up in Merseyside, even as the Germans drop bombs on Liverpool docks. The family home is 37, Lance Street (“no doors were ever locked”) about three-quarters of a mile form Liverpool FC’s ground. Like so many people of his generation, Tomlinson recalls what were then the staples of working-class life: the parlour/ front room (aka “the best room”), the toilet down the yard, bum-fodder fashioned from the local newspaper, tin baths in front of the fire and the nit-comb. Dad – Albert Edward Tomkinson – is a long-serving baker who once took industrial action over poor pay, but whose social conscience was so strong that he secretly baked at home and shoved barm cakes through neighbours’ letter-boxes. The author paints an intriguing picture of the Liverpool people of his childhood – the children who played among “bombdies” (the bombed properties), the stealing of wooden toilet doors and seats
(“Liverpool pans”) for bonfire material, the close families and community rivalry: “Far more than race, it was religion that divided people in Liverpool… Religious intolerance was part of the fabric of my childhood, ingrained into youngsters in a thousand little ways. Catholics were different. It was us against them.”
Tomlinson also describes his early dalliances with the opposite sex and the particular term used in Liverpool for coitus interruptus, “getting off at Edgehill” – Edgehill being the last railway station before Liverpool Lime Street (the end of the line). The author’s accounts of amourettes and sexual tensions are copious throughout the book and candidly described.
Having been known for his story-telling prowess at school, Tomlinson learns to play the banjo and to perform songs at clubs whilst still an apprentice plasterer. Comedy turns follow as his band secure bookings in working men’s clubs.
Though his early political views are influenced by his father – a royalist and Tory – Tomlinson becomes a trades unionist, supporting fellow workers on building sites.
The 1950s – which the author recalls as a special, magical time – give way to the Sixties, though intriguingly, he is no devotee of the Beatles: “I’m not taking anything away from the Fab Four, but I’m always quick to correct people who imagine they were working class heroes in Liverpool. Lennon and McCartney were middle-class, well-educated boys.” Elsewhere in the autobiography, there are references to another contemporary, Cilla Black. There is a passing nod to Cilla’s mother, a hard-working marketeer who sold clothes, but there is criticism of the singer herself, in respect of a spat at a showbiz function in Liverpool. On this occasion, a press photographer asks Tomlinson if he could round up some celebrity peers for a picture. He approaches Cilla and touches her on the arm, eliciting the response, “Get your hand off this dress. It cost a lot of money.” Ricky replies, tartly, “I wouldn’t have thought so, the way it looks on you.” Over the years, their relationship grows chillier. Black was a vocal supporter of Margaret Thatcher – for which a lot of Liverpool people never forgave her, according to the author.
Tomlinson’s politics change drastically over the years. He has a mixture of right and left-wing views and is no follower of Socialist newspapers. Indeed, he temporarily joins the National Front, believing that immigrants are taking British jobs and are responsible for overcrowding. His subsequent conversion from right-wing politics makes for an interesting journey. He discovers Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but in taking part in the national building strike of 1972 he is subsequently jailed, as one of the Shrewsbury Two, on conspiracy charges. He desperately appeals against a verdict that appears to have been driven by misinformation, lies and a general “stitch-up”, but trade union executives give his case a wide berth (though it finds in miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, a vocal supporter). Ricky describes the tortuous legal battle for freedom, the inhuman conditions in the clutch of prisons in which he is incarcerated and his defiant hunger-strike.
Elsewhere in the autobiography, Ricky tells of creative disputes with showbiz writers and actors – Bernard Hill included – as well as marital disharmony and his womanising tendencies.
However, although there may be a hint of score-settling in the book, it is not a malicious narrative, nor a muck-raking kiss-and-tell. Tomlinson’s desire “not to do anything to betray the working class” drives this, and although he confesses to being a gobby, flawed individual, there is much humanity in him. He is reluctant to regard himself as an actor, even with credits such as Brookside, Nice Guy Eddie and The Royle Family. He appears not to be showbizzy and drinks cans of Sainsbury’s Mild. By the end of this very readable autobiography, we find a man who appreciates the luck he’s had – notwithstanding some harrowing times – and who remains a staunch supporter of the working class. He asserts:
“Every kid deserves to have a job; trade unions should be treasured and not demonised; rolling contracts should be outlawed and New Labour should stop masquerading as a party for the workers.”