Interview: Timothy Spall • Glam Adelaide

Interview: Timothy Spall

Glam catches up for a chat with beloved actor Timothy Spall.


One of Britain’s most beloved contemporary actors, Timothy Spall recently visited Australia to attend sessions at the British Film Festival of his new release, Mrs Lowry & Son.

Glam was lucky enough to catch up with him for a chat about this, and so much more.

In Mrs Lowry & Son Spall plays painter L. S. Lowry. Having previously learnt to paint in order to play Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, we wondered what special preparation he did for this current role as another British painter, L. S. Lowry.

“Once I knew it was looking like it was going to happen-with independent movies these days, you’re never quite sure that they’re going to be made because the money collapses- I got myself up to Manchester. There’s this huge centre called the Lowry Centre, a bit like a Westfield shopping centre, with restaurants and so forth, all around the old dock area. Tucked away in the middle of the Lowry Centre is an art gallery, full of his paintings. I spent hours in there just staring at them. I thought I’d gone unnoticed, but eventually, I got nobbled by one of the kids who worked there, and then he grassed me up to the curator, who introduced herself. I didn’t want to go there making a brouhaha but then she sent me a load of links about his life and even a documentary made in 1961, which actually shows him walking around the areas he painted.

Then I did what you always do. What you don’t know, or can’t find out about somebody who exists-you use your imagination. And of course, the template was this extraordinary script which investigates the remarkable, surprising, close and somewhat abusive relationship he had with this woman to whom he was dedicated.”

Spall dismisses the criticisms of Lowry that he was a naïve/primitive painter or a lucky amateur.

 “I think that he was looking to find his own voice. What I discovered was that he spent fourteen years on and off, training. There was even a minor impressionist painter who found himself in Manchester at the beginning of the 20th century, and Lowry was taught by him, going through a whole period of painting in an impressionistic style. He did loads of life drawings, where you can see he was a skilful draftsman. So this style, his unique, simple but brilliant depiction of this landscape, developed when he started to see a fantastic, bleak beauty in the everyday; in the quotidian nature of people’s existence, being slaves of these huge edifices of the crumbling industrial might of the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

In the film, Lowry’s painting is portrayed as something of an escape for him. But was the tension of his relationship with his mother one of the drivers of his creativity?

“He had this preconditioned desire to please his mother, juxtaposed against an impulse to paint what he saw, that he knew was displeasing her. So there’s an odd tension there. Because he had nobody else: no man, no woman, no close, intimate relationships. He had plenty of friends, but nobody as close as his mother. Yet everything he did in his paintings flew in the face of what her perception of beauty was. But I think that bleak beauty that he portrays in that world, is also a representation of the bleak beauty of his relationship with his mother. When we look at the paintings they’re over and above a pictorial: there’s an emotion in them, and I think the film goes a long way to explaining that. “

Mrs Lowry & Son is based on the very successful stage play by Martyn Hesford, which in turn was based on his own radio play. Interestingly, the film is directed by Adrian Noble, best known as a stage director, and ex Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The film, like the play is mostly set in one room, Elizabeth Lowry’s bedroom, and only consists of two main characters.  But Spall defends the film as being very different to a play-on-celluloid.

“It never occurred to me that it was a play when I read it: I just thought it was a film set in one room! And we shot it as a film. We didn’t rehearse long scenes. We took it to bits, shot it out of order, and forensically worked on it.  There’s no denying it was a play, but when you look back at some of the classic films of Hollywood, a lot of them were plays, like Casablanca. And of course you do see him go out into the streets and onto the moors. But half of Lowry’s life was in that room with his mother. It’s almost like their own island. It has its own rules and bizarre rituals which are peculiar to its domesticity.”

The film portrays a few months, at the time that Lowry was starting to send his work to galleries. This was clearly a turning point in his life, and in particular in his relationship with his mother.

“What intensifies this tension is that it’s coming to a head because for the first time in his life, in his 50s, he’s starting to get some serious recognition as a painter. He knows that she’s going to pull every stop out to keep him. But he never really escaped. When he was offered an OBE, a CBE and then a Knighthood, he turned them down because by then Elizabeth was dead, and without his mother they meant nothing to him. He did it all for her.”

Spall’s last portrayal of an artist, Turner, was for esteemed director Mike Leigh, with whom he has a long and rich collaborative history. Leigh works with his own, unique method of devising film that requires much more from actors that learning lines and hitting marks. Rumour has it that when Leigh offers Spall a new role, his first thought is ‘Well there goes the next nine months of my life!’

“I’ve done seven projects with [Mike Leigh] and he’s one of the treasures of my career. Even before I went to drama school, when he was doing Play for Today on BBC I was a huge fan of his. I remember when I was at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] one of his plays was on television, and the next day all these students were coming in doing the characters! He was doing this extraordinary thing that nobody else had done, painting these Lowryesque characters. Making the ordinary extraordinary and vice versa. But the technique is long, long, long, term.  Mr Turner, for instance, he made me learn to paint two years before we even started to rehearse! Then the rehearsal process is six months and the shooting is four months. So I worked on that film for nearly three or four years.”

Having played two painters now on screen, it is little wonder that the urge to put brush to canvas has seeped into Spall’s life beyond the screen.

“When I left school I couldn’t work out if I was going to join the army or go to art school and I did neither: I did the school play! But I’d always had this thing about being an artist. And now I paint. During the making of Mrs Lowry I couldn’t stop painting. I just went bonkers! I was painting every minute. I copied some of [Lowry’s] like I’d copied some of Turner’s, but then I carried on painting. Now there are some of my paintings as a companion exhibition to the film, in the Lowry Gallery. And from that I’ve been offered my own show in this quite posh gallery in London at the end of next year. It’s a bit like playing in a celebrity football match for Scunthorpe United and ending up being offered centre forward for Manchester City! Honestly, you never know what’s going to come round the corner: be careful what you wish for!

Interviewed by Tracey Korsten.

Mrs Lowry & Son is currently screening.

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