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Ricky Tomlinson: ‘People love being entertained, having a laugh ... I just think doing it in Ireland might be a little notch above’

Touring in a minibus at 84 is not what most octogenarians expect to be doing, but The Royle Family’s Tomlinson is far from ordinary

What is the most likely thing to be doing with your life, aged 84? Hawking around the place in a van with a bunch of pals to put on a show is not what most octogenarians expect to be doing, but Ricky Tomlinson’s life has been far from ordinary so far.

We have arranged to talk on the phone, and his mate Asa Murphy answers. They are in a minibus on the road, Murphy tells me, on the way up to Scotland, and have just stopped for a break. Who is in the minibus? Everyone, he says, with all the indicators of craic going on behind him: the cast and crew, set, props, the dog, the cat, the kitchen, all Tomlinson’s awards.

In reality, there are two vehicles making the fit-up journey, at least some of that list is fantasy. And Murphy is more than a mate, he is the writer, director, actor and big swing band singer who created, directed and performs in the show they are touring the UK with, before coming over to eight venues in Ireland.

Irish Annie’s is musical-comedy entertainment, set in an Irish pub in Liverpool, hosted by landlady Annie (Catherine Rice), with six-piece band the Shenanigans and regular customers, including Tomlinson playing himself. It includes various familiars: Galway Shawl; Tell Me Ma; Dirty Old Town; Whiskey In The Jar; and Danny Boy.


When Tomlinson comes on the phone, it sounds like a much more upbeat version of Jim Royle on the line. His slobby, grumpy father in The Royle Family is likely his most familiar character, in the classic sitcom created by Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal. Tomlinson has been in a slew of films and TV shows, including playing rabble rouser Bobby Grant in Brookside, and DCI Charlie Wise in Cracker.

Since starting to act in his mid-40s, he has “done really, really well”, he says. “I’ve won quite a few awards and worked with some wonderful people. A couple of movies for Ken Loach and Roland Joffe. I met [Robert] De Niro, Samuel Jackson, danced with Lauren Bacall. That was in the Groucho club, at Roland Joffe’s leaving party when he was going to work in United States,” Tomlinson recalls.

Irish Annie’s has been going down well, he tells me, “everyone joins in singing. People love good music and good songs”. They give songsheets to the audience. “It’s amazing. The last number of the evening, it’s like Glastonbury for pensioners. They’re all up dancing, waving, singing, joining in,” Tomlinson says.

“It’s a night of fun and really good music and really good songs. So many of the songs are well known the world over, but also Asa has written a couple of his own songs which go down really, really well.” Murphy is Liverpool-Irish, “his mum and dad are both from Ireland, He’s the real McCoy”.

It may sound a bit coals-to-Newcastle bringing an Irish pub show to Ireland, but the Liverpool-Irish scene is vibrant, alongside the massive creative talents of first-generation Irish in the north of England, from Steve Coogan to Aherne. Irish pubs in Liverpool have lots of live Irish music, Tomlinson tells me. He talks about being on the Late Late Show recently with Patrick Kielty and Daniel O’Donnell, who was “wonderful company, really, really nice company”.

“People love being entertained, having a laugh, letting their hair down and singing along. That’s all over the world. I just think doing it in Ireland might be a little notch above, because it’s a bit special to them. It’s their music, their songs. And I think they’ll give it the extra 10 per cent and make it a real night to remember,” he says.

Ricky Tomlinson (“Eric is me posh name. Only people I owe money to call me Eric.”) was a plasterer by trade, and only took up acting when he could not get work after being released from prison. He was involved in a building workers’ dispute, and was one of the Shrewsbury Two, along with Des Warren, charged with “conspiracy to intimidate”, found guilty and sentenced to two years. His conviction was overturned in 2021, after a campaign of more than four decades about the convictions of 24 trade unionists in 1972.

“It was an absolute set up right from the start, and then finally after 47 years. In the meantime, I lost me home and everything because of it. No recompense, it’s like, get on with it,” Tomlinson says.

He spent almost two years in prison. “It was pretty rough. We done it on the blanket, we wouldn’t wear clothes. We went on hunger strike. We shouldn’t have been there. So we had to let the authorities know we shouldn’t have been there,” Tomlinson says.

“I just learned how to survive, because we were in with some pretty heavy characters, you know, there would be murderers and rapists. But you’ve got to get on with it. We spent most of the time in solitary confinement, me and Dessie Warren. I got two years and he got three years.”

Tomlinson was released a bit early in 1975. “I actually had another two or three weeks to serve of me time. They threw me out because they were frightened of me mate dying in jail, because they were giving him the drugs and the needle. And he was really, really ill,” Tomlinson says.

“Dessie had another year to do. And they were terrified of him doing another year so they made an example of me and said, ‘go on, you can go a couple of weeks early’. And shortly afterwards he was thrown out. Because if I was still in jail Dessie would never have left.

“I couldn’t tell him why I was going home, that I’d been released so he could be released. He never knew for years. He sent me a terrible letter saying I’d let the side down. He found out when he was more or less on his deathbed. He sent for me, he said he understood now what had gone on. He was laying on a mattress on the floor, with a rope from the mattress screwed into a beam in the ceiling, the only way he could pull himself up. He pulled himself up and he kissed me and we both were crying, and he told me to the day how long it was since we’d both seen each other.”

In a bizarre twist, it was reported in 2017 that Tomlinson claimed that Countdown host Richard Whiteley was an MI5 spy who played a role in having him jailed in the mid-1970s, by fronting a documentary Red Under the Bed that helped put him behind bars.

Asked about that now, Tomlinson is dismissive. “No, he was just an intelligence officer, nothing to do with our trial or Shrewsbury. It’s just years ago, someone had hinted to me, because he was a political journalist.”

Regarding British politics, Tomlinson wants an election as soon as possible. “People have had a terrible time, a rough time with Covid and inflation. People having to go to foodbanks, it’s an absolute disgrace,” he says.

“We’re one of the richest nations on the face of the planet. We’ve got to look after our pensioners. They’ve done their best for society, so we’ve got to do our best for them.” He pauses, and laughs. “There’s me talking about pensioners!

“My life’s been a roller coaster. I’m as happy now as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a great family, lovely wife. I live for me kids, me grandkids, and my great-grandson. I’m working, I’m on the road with Asa. We’ll be playing tonight, watching the crowds enjoying themselves. We actually spend as much time after the show doing selfies and autographs. That to me is as important as being on the stage.”

Tomlinson will be 85 on his next birthday, he says. “I love going to work, I love having a laugh. I’m working with people that I love. I enjoy meeting the audience after the show, and having me photograph taken with them. What would I be doing otherwise? Sitting at home watching the telly, doing nothing.” Shades of Jim Royle. “So now I’m busy, I’m having the time of me life, and when I do have a day off I’m lucky enough to be invited to Anfield football ground to watch the Reds. Things are pretty good at the moment, kid.”

What’s his secret? “Marry someone like my Rita,” he roars, laughing. That’s Rita Cumiskey, who married him in 2003. “She does everything for me, honestly. I’m a lucky guy,” he says.

“I’ve had me little rough patches, up and down. But listen, don’t we all? I was able to get over it. When I was in solitary confinement, I wasn’t wearing clothes, I was on hunger strike for 55 days. I was so ill they moved me to the hospital wing. There was this little notice there, and I’ve never forgotten it. ‘Always remember, the darkest hour in your life will only last for 60 minutes.’ I’ve thought to myself many times. I use that as a bit of a staff to go by. Things will start getting better. Just have a load of faith. I’m very lucky.”

Irish Annie’s tours Ireland from April 2nd: Civic Theatre, Tallaght, April 2nd-3rd; Liberty Hall, Dublin, April 4th-5th; Crescent Concert Hall, Drogheda, April 6th; Town Hall Theatre, Galway, April 7th; Everyman, Cork, April 8th-9th. See for more information