He promises that next year he’ll bring his comedy show to the Fringe, but right now Ricky Tomlinson has serious matters to discuss. In a riveting one-off appearance at Assembly Rooms on the final Saturday of the festival, the 76-year-old
A stirring performance of his own real-life drama, speaking without notes but with passion and clarity.
Tomlinson, who has lived in Liverpool almost all his life, was a young married father of three working as a plasterer in North Wales in the early 1970s. As part of `the health and safety gang’, Tomlinson says he grew appalled at the injury and fatality rates among his fellow laborers, who suffered a death-a-day statistic equivalent to coal miners. To try to get working conditions improved and salaries raised, Tomlinson became active in his union and in leftwing politics, serving as a union steward at the time of `the one and only’ national builders’ strike.
Weeks after what he says was a peaceful strike action, where no arrests were made or cautions given, he was approached, he says, by two police detectives asking him to be a `prosecution witness’ against a group of strikers. He refused, he says, and months later was arrested along with other strikers and charged with `conspiracy to intimidate’.
The trial lasted 55 days, he recalls, with 200 witnesses (80 were policemen) taking to the witness stand to claim that Tomlinson and his co-defendants roughed up cops and incited violence among strikers. Tomlinson and one other union member came to be known as the Shrewsbury Two, as they were the only ones who maintained their innocence and refused to take a plea deal.
In detail that often made Tomlinson’s voice crack with emotion, he rewinds to the 31-day hunger strike he underwent in his early days in prison. His hair and beard grew to waist length and his clothes were taken away in solitary confinement. He was moved to 14 different prisons, he recalls, and says he `went on the blanket’, refusing to cooperate with `the screws’. Conditions inside were appalling, he remembers. `Who else is being treated like this?’ he asks the Assembly Rooms audience. `We’re after a change to let people see what goes on in British prisons to this day’.
Tomlinson says he spent his prison time reading books such as Robert Tressell’s 1914 political novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. He emerged to find he was blacklisted from the building trade, but he was a well-read socialist and trade union champion, a position he still defends. `Will there come a time when it will be a criminal offense to be a member of a trade union?’ he asks the audience, who respond with a loud roar of support.
Tomlinson’s case documents were locked away for 30 years `for reasons of national security’, he says. But when he filed a Freedom of Information request to see them after that deadline passed, it was refused. And continues to be. Tomlinson hired his own researcher, who he says has found evidence that he and the other defendants were railroaded on falsified evidence. `I was a political prisoner’, he says.
Being a convicted felon meant Tomlinson for many years couldn’t get a visa to travel outside the UK. (He now has one.) But he still hasn’t seen the full record of his case, with three commissioners assigned to review the papers as recently as 2013 perpetually delaying their release. `Labor governments and Conservatives are equally bad’, says Tomlinson. He also excoriates media titan Rupert Murdoch, Glenn Mulcaire and others involved in the News International phone-tapping scandal. `I wouldn’t give them the time of day. Not worth a carrot’.
Toward the end of his hour of passionate talk about his ongoing battles with authorities, Tomlinson seems almost apologetic. There have been no amusing anecdotes about his acting career, no tidbits about Brookside, Cracker or The Royle Family. But he has given a stirring performance of his own real-life drama, speaking without notes but with passion and clarity. `I don’t tell lies’, he says again and again.
And when he comes back next year with lighter stuff, he says, `I’ll be tellin’ you the truth about bloody Cilla Black’.