Friday 11 December 2015

Britain was and still is no country for an old plasterer/trade unionist called Ricky Tomlinson

Ricky spent his Christmas in 1973 in prison. He was a 34 year old painter and decorator married with two small sons, who had been sentenced to two years for his part in picketing a National Construction Workers’ strike. Released after more than a year behind bars, he walked free, only to find he’d been blacklisted by the building industry and was therefore unemployable and was forced to try his hand at standup in the local pubs.

He had been born Eric Tomlinson in Blackpool in 1939 because his mother had been evacuated there from Liverpool which became a target for German bombers during the Second World War. It was in Liverpool where he spent youth in the 1950s, had left school, qualified as a plasterer by trade and worked on building sites throughout the 1960s.

He became actively involved in politics, joining the right wing National Front in 1968 in support of a curbs on the numbers of Commonwealth immigrants. If the prosecution’s intention at his trial was to crush a leftwing firebrand, it didn’t go to plan : he went into prison neither a particularly educated nor well-known rightwinger and having first read and digested Robert Tressell's novel, 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists', with its attack on the capitalist exploitation of a band of painters and decorators in 'Mugsborough', extended his literature and came out a well-read socialist. Also in prison, had set about systematically and belligerently defying every prison rule he could, refused to wear uniform, had gone on hunger strike for 30 days and had been moved to 14 different prisons.

On his release from prison he was monitored by the Security Agency, MI5 during the 70s and in 1975, disrupted the TUC Conference by shouting from the wings after he had been prevented from speaking from the stage.

Ricky got his breakthrough as an actor at the age of 43 in 1982 when fellow Liverpudlian, Alan Bleasdale gave him the part of  a doctor in 'The Boys From The Blackstuff' quoting Dylan Thomas 'Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night' in a poignant scene with a dieing patient :

He went on to find success, appearing as Bobby Grant in the soap opera, 'Brookside' from show's inception in 1982 until he was written out in 1988 :

In 1996 he starred in 'Hillsborough' a made-for-TV film about the families of the victims of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, in which he portrayed John Glover - the father of victim Ian.
and featured in four episodes of the tv series, 'Clocking Off' in 2001, one of which was a BAFTA - nominated episode written by Danny Brockelurst and in 2002 starred in the BBC Series, 'Nice Guy Eddie', playing a Liverpool private investigator based on the real life cases from Liverpool private investigator, Tony Smith.

It was, however, in the BBC sitcom, 'The Royal Family' which ran for three series from 1998 to 2000 and Christmas specials from 2006 to 2012, in which he played the patriarch Jim Royle, that he is best remembered : and as a keen banjo and harpsichord player, he was allowed to demonstrate his prowess in a number of episodes :

In 2008, Ricky donated £200,000 as patron of the charity, 'Human Milk Bank' which provides babies on Special Care Baby Units with milk from donor mothers, significantly improving their chances of survival and long term development and in 2010 was reported as having donated £1million to the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool.

Now at the age of 76, Ricky and his trial of 43 years ago are in the news again with the Labour Party Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, threatening to oppose the Government’s draft 'Investigatory Powers Bill' on spying by the police and security services, unless ministers release all available papers on what he called the "politically motivated show trial” from the 1970s.

Since 2012 the Criminal Cases Review Commission has been considering whether there are grounds for referring the convictions to the Court of Appeal as potentially unsafe and Ricky is still agitating to clear his name.

What has emerged is that Robert Carr, the Home Secretary in Edward Heath’s Conservative Government at the time, took a personal interest in the prosecution of the men. In addition, a new unit operating in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was at the same time gathering evidence on allegedly 'subversive communist involvement in the trade unions', which it then passed to a television documentary, 'Red Under the Bed' which was aired twice at crucial points during the trial.

Ricky himself has said that on the day of the alleged offences there was no trouble and the police made neither arrests nor cautions. However five months later, in February 1973, they were arrested and charged with offences including intimidation, conspiracy to intimidate and unlawful assembly and the 24 men convicted after three separate trials.

In the Westminster Hall Parliamentary debate last Wednesday, Andy Burnham described the 'Shrewsbury 24' as: “The convenient scapegoats of a Government campaign to undermine the trade unions; the victims of a politically motivated show trial orchestrated from Downing Street, the Home and Foreign Offices and the security services.”

Ricky is clear on his interpretation of the events : “It’s simple, really simple. Back then they were afraid of what the miners were going to do. So they needed someone to make an example of. They couldn’t use the dockers or the railway industry, because they were organised – they could call a strike at the drop of a hat, they could paralyse the country. But we couldn’t. So they thought: we’ll pick on the building workers.”
“I’m not letting it go. I’m a whingeing scouser, and I will whinge until they’re made to pay.”

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