Henry VIII - Press Archive - Who's the luvvie now?
04 Oct 2003
Who's the luvvie now?
Ray Winstone, British cinema's ultimate hard geezer, has taken on a role
he never thought possible - as Henry VIII in a costume drama. He explains
to Craig McLean what qualifies him to pull on the royal tights
It is April 1509, and Henry VII is on his deathbed in Richmond Palace. His
17-year-old son is in attendance. 'What is the most important duty of a
king?' the dying monarch asks of his heir.
The callow youth replies, 'Win wars, recapture the glories of Agincourt,
reclaim our territories in France, keep the Scots at bay, uphold the faith,
keep the nobles happy, ensure the safety of my subjects, deepen the
'Have a son,' says the King. 'A male heir. That is the most important thing
you will do as King.' And with that Henry VII shuffles off this mortal coil.
It is April 2003, and Henry VIII is gasping for a fag. It is approaching
lunchtime, and in the smoky gloom of a grand room in a Tudor castle he has
been playing one hand of cards for five or so hours. 'I thought I was the
only one allowed to have four queens,' he growls to his fellow players with
a rumbling, menacing chuckle. This Henry is portly and decrepit - he suffers
from piles and a gammy leg.
He speaks with a ponderous Winston Churchill rasp. His once-vivid red beard
is now grey, almost snowy. Then a 15-year-old girl enters the room. Henry,
smitten, at once perks up. It is Catherine Howard, who will become his fifth
wife. The Duke of Norfolk, the girl's scheming uncle, allows himself a sneaky
'Cut.' Henry VIII jumps out of his seat and charges off set. In the shadows
between stone-effect pillars he thrusts out one hefty paw while the other,
topped with a bulky gold ring, clutches a packet of cigarettes. 'Nice to meet
you,' says Ray Winstone from beneath the beard, throaty regal gravitas
replaced by guttural East End bonhomie. 'Sorry, I'm a bit knackered to be
And he's off outside, a man in tights in a hurry. There may be wives to
marry and discard, traitors to be hunted down and killed, but right now he
needs a cigarette.
It is a drizzly day at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. We have driven
past the shed where they make The Weakest Link, and the Albert R Broccoli
007 Stage. Currently, the technicians and crew say, if you're lucky you might
spot Ben Kingsley walking around dressed like a Thunderbird puppet for the
upcoming live-action version of the television classic.
Here in M Stage they are halfway through the £6-million, 12-week shoot for
a two-part television dramatisation of the life of Henry VIII. Today's scene is
a small but intense and pivotal moment near the end of Henry's turbulent
reign, when the destructive impulses within and around him are quickening
into a dark whirlpool.
This is not your normal costume piece. Yes, there is passion, romance and
sex, but there is also torture, violence and traitorous malevolence. Winstone's
young Henry is a virile, passionate warrior. His 50-year-old Henry is like
Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta at the end of Raging Bull, still powerful
but wounded, hateful but pitiable, too. Or he's a troubled Mafia don.
'It's a Godfather kind of film,' Winstone says later. 'It's treachery and
treason and talking in corners. Once [Henry] got rid of his first wife, who
was his brother's widow, he lost a bit of his soul. Once you do that, you
can't get it back. And each [wife] became easier to get rid of. That's what
I was trying to portray. A man who, at the beginning, was a young man in
love but had been left this legacy by his father: have a son. And that
would consume him.'
Henry VIII is Granada's big autumn drama. The cast also includes Helena
Bonham-Carter (Anne Boleyn), Joss Ackland (Henry VII), David Suchet
(Cardinal Wolsey) and Sean Bean (Robert Aske). Twenty hours of film,
shot at Pinewood and on such locations as Arundel and Leeds castles,
will be compressed into 200 minutes of prime-time telly. And for Ray
Winstone, best known for playing charged characters in edgy, wrenching,
very modern films such as Nil By Mouth, The War Zone and Sexy Beast,
it's a bold move.
Two months after our Pinewood visit, Winstone is holed up in a suite in a
hotel near London's Liverpool Street Station (handy for his home in Roydon,
Essex). He is in a dressed-down version of his usual suited-and-booted civvy
style: smart trousers and crisp shirt, but no jacket, no tie. His shoeless
and sockless foot is up on a stool. The heavy boots he had to wear as Henry
have given him some sort of bruised weal. He smokes and swears and laughs
at how ridiculous he looks.
'It's funny, 'cos I never ever thought anyone would cast me as Henry,'
Winstone confesses. He doesn't get many offers for 'the classics. You almost
think, do they really mean me? Round the corner, I'm sure they're going,
are you sure this guy isn't gonna be all "cor blimey guv'nor"?'
In the flesh, 46-year-old Winstone is almost exactly the way you think he'll
be. Chipper, down-to-earth, straight-up. The Guv'nor. We know him for
playing loveable rogues, violent thugs, hard men. We can see how this
greengrocer's son from Plaistow has been lionised by the men's magazines
and lads' rags for his good, old-fashioned, 'proper' East End values.
We can appreciate how this former boxer and self-confessed teenage 'toe-rag'
(he was expelled from drama school for putting tacks under a teacher's tyres),
whose first appearance on screen was as 'Second Youth' in a 1975 episode of
The Sweeney, could be seen as the patron saint of the gritty Brit gangster
flick. He was even arrested in the 1980s on suspicion of shooting two
coppers - the Crimewatch photofit did look very like him, he admits with a
These are the Winstone incarnations we know: Teenage Ray, the
pool-ball-in-sock tyro in Scum; Burly Ray, the snarling rocker in
Quadrophenia; TV Ray, who 'worked his nuts off' on the small screen
throughout the 1980s in Robin of Sherwood, Boon, Minder and Auf
Wiedersehen, Pet; Psycho Ray, the violent alcoholic in Nil By Mouth;
Bad Dad Ray, the evil abuser in Tim Roth's The War Zone; Repentant Ray,
the villain trying to enjoy a peaceful Spanish retirement in Sexy Beast.
But there are other, less caricatured, less celebrated Rays. He has played
big softies (in Fanny and Elvis and There's Only One Jimmy Grimble) and
an angel (Last Christmas). He appeared in the video for Paul Weller's
Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea. He did a sitcom (1992's Get Back) with a
teenage Kate Winslet. 'You could see then she had something, Kate.
She knew where she was going.'
Next month, in a role almost as against type as his playing a sitcom dad,
Winstone is an American homesteader in Anthony Minghella's Civil War epic
Cold Mountain. 'In Nil By Mouth Ray gave one of the most extraordinary,
complex and unsettling performances that I can remember,' Minghella explains.
'When I was looking for an actor to play Teague in Cold Mountain I kept
thinking of the way that Ray had created a man whose behaviour was
always unconscionable but whose humanity was impossible to deny.
Teague needed that ambiguity. I met many outstanding American actors,
but kept longing for the qualities that Ray had summoned.'
Acting, Winstone says, was traditionally 'not for people like me'. But he
remembers the thrill of seeing films such as Saturday Night and Sunday
Morning and This Sporting Life starring 'people like us. And it was about
us. Whereas before you had people doffing the cap - chaps in the Rank
movies who actually spoke very well but they was taught to go "cor blimey".'
While at school he had attended drama classes and elocution lessons
with the mother of a schoolfriend. From the age of 12 he had also boxed,
becoming three-times London schoolboy champion and twice fighting for
England. He left school with only one qualification, a grade-2 CSE in drama,
but it was enough to get him into the Corona acting school in Hammersmith.
His parents, who had a fruit-and-veg business, stumped up the £900-a-term
fee, a hefty sum in those days ('It's a lot of money now,' Winstone says
But in the short term at least, Winstone didn't share his parents' commitment.
'I didn't want to be an actor that badly,' he says, recalling his audition for
Alan Clarke's Scum (1977).
'They were having a casting and I was only supposed to be there saying
goodbye to my mates,' he says in Richard Kelly's 1998 biography of Clarke.
'I got talking to the receptionist and she said, "You wanna go in and meet
'I said, "Nah, not really, I'm for a drink with the boys." I was flirting with her
really, showing off, but I went in and met Clarkey... And I got the job!
I didn't have a clue what it was, hadn't seen the script, and I didn't really
care. I thought, "Yeah, I'll do it, bit of a laugh." Apparently Al gave me the
part because he liked the way I walked down a corridor.'
But Scum, originally made for TV, was shelved by a BBC fearful of its
violent depiction of life inside a Borstal. Disillusionment led Winstone
briefly to quit almost as soon as he'd started. 'And I didn't think I was that
good at it. And you don't do anything unless you're gonna do it well. I got
really bored with it. And I just give it the elbow.'
He rediscovered his enthusiasm when, two years later, he was cast in
Quadrophenia. He's barely stopped working ever since, commitment
unfailing and enthusiasm barely flagging.
It's not the work that matters so much to Ray Winstone as working. 'I mean,
I've always been professional about it 'cos I enjoyed it. I liked the people I
was working with. You feel like a little family, a little team, it's great.' But,
he says, it never occurred to him to have any sort of ambitious career plan,
or a sense of where, and how far, his natural-born skills might take him.
'And I guess in a way it still don't,' he says blithely.
He and his wife Elaine, a graphic designer, met during the making of his
third film, That Summer, and were swiftly married. The day they returned
from their honeymoon in 1979 was the day Scum finally opened at the
cinema; they went straight from the airport to the Prince Charles Cinema
off Leicester Square to see it.
They have three daughters: Lois, 20, a singer in a band; Jaime, 17, a
student; and two-year-old Ellie Rae. As to the big age gap, 'We knew the
older girls would be going off, doing their own thing,' he said last year, 'and
we just wanted babies in the house again.'
He thinks Lois has seen The War Zone but not Jaime. Both saw Scum and
Nil By Mouth 'later on'. Do they ever get frightened by your performances?
'Not that I'm aware of. Ah, they've probably seen worse [at home]!' he laughs.
Do you get frightened when you watch yourself playing violent roles? 'Yeah,
but I know where it comes from. Doing films like that is almost like therapy
in a way. I know it sounds a bit fucking arty. But I think doing something like
that stops you from doing it... it's like people say, "Do you take your work
'Well, I wouldn't have been married 23 years if I'd have taken me work
home on Nil By Mouth or War Zone. I don't think my wife would put up with
that. In a way, it's like boxing - you punch a bag all day and then it's gone,
the aggression. I have my moments, where you rear up, but [the kids] look
at me and think I'm doing a performance.'
Ray Winstone needn't have worried about being too cor blimey to play
England's greatest king. From the off Andy Harries, Granada's controller of
drama and comedy, wanted Winstone. They'd worked together on Tough
Love and Lenny Blue.
As producer Francis Hopkinson told me in his office next door to the set,
'Before a word was written, Ray was Henry.'
Or, as director Pete Travis said as we sat next to the king's bed between
takes, 'Ray is why it's getting made. You need someone with soul, and with
power and strength. And Ray has a real animal sexuality about him. He can
go from that to blowing his top and looking like he could crush someone
in a flash. You can see that in his eyes.'
Initially Alan Bleasdale wrote a script. 'I've been a great fan of his for years,
for years,' Winstone gushes. 'I got on really well with him, I loved him to
Generosity of praise is one of Winstone's distinguishing features. No mention
of a project he's done, no matter how long ago, goes by without him reeling
off a couple of names, whether actor, writer, dialogue coach or horse trainer,
and an approving adjective - usually 'blinding'. It all comes back to what he
loves about acting: being part of a 'little family, a little team'.
'But [Bleasdale's version] never come about,' he continues. 'I thought it was
actually a brilliant idea - it was much darker, looking at Henry as being part
of the devil, devilment, and with the religion more mixed in. But I guess
Granada and the powers that be wanted to go a different way.'
The Henry that came out of the second script (by Pete Morgan) is not
simply the corpulent tyrant of school textbook infamy. Nor is he much to do
with the Henrys played by Robert Shaw (A Man For All Seasons), Richard Burton
(Anne of a Thousand Days), or Sid James (Carry On Henry). 'His story,
as told here,' Travis says, 'is a thriller and an emotional rollercoaster.'
'I just thought, forget about him as a king, approach him as a man first,'
Winstone says. 'Emotionally, what would he have been like? Being King of
England and the responsibility that comes with that. And the ignorance of not
knowing what was going on round him.'
Do you play him as a bit of a victim? 'Yeah,' he says tentatively, 'but I
never went for the sympathy vote. The thing with great men, most of 'em
have a big sexual drive. In one day [of filming] I make love to Anne Boleyn,
I marry her, she has a baby, I rape her, and I have her head chopped off.
The man's a monster. It's what makes the man the monster... what makes
him a king is not what he does, it's what other people round him do.'