1980 THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY
Spall the theatre tyro, star of the National Youth Theatre and top of his year at RADA, is now a distant memory. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s compendious epic, he set out his stall as a shape-shifter. As Young Wackford Squeers (far right), scion of the Yorkshire torture den Dotheboys Hall, he was a Humpty Dumptyish eruption of noisy, puerile cruelty; then, as Mr Folair, a chattering theatrical popinjay. The stage’s loss was to be the screen’s gain: Spall hasn’t done theatre since 1997.
1990 LIFE IS SWEET
The first of Spall’s four big-screen roles for Mike Leigh, to go with one in the theatre and a sixth on television. Leigh’s intense method of building character with his players yielded Aubrey, a sexually pent-up, jiggling bag of nerves in a Disney cap and moon specs, fired by a doomed ambition to be a refined restaurateur. “I’m not just a wanker,” explains the proprietor of The Regret Rien. “I’m a magician.” Veering between slapstick and pathos, Spall is matchlessly plausible in either guise..
1983-2004 AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET
ITV’s comedy-drama about British builders in Düsseldorf was about the many regional voices of working-class manhood. Spall’s first TV co-lead role was the calamitously boring Barry, a miserable twice-divorced Brummie. Few actors can make a debilitating want of charisma so intensely easy on eye and ear. When the BBC revived the series and took it to other hotspots, Barry was fatter, but his personality, like his Black Country accent, remained flat as a cap..
1999 SHOOTING THE PAST
“Why the hell should you be interested in a chubby man wearing a cardie talking into a tape machine?” Because he is Spall, delivering much of a seductive performance straight to camera. After surviving leukaemia, Spall took on Stephen Poliakoff’s stagey BBC drama about a photographic library under threat. He is a shambling archivist, sticking it to big business. Big-eyed and bumptious, he hovers between madness and genius and embodies a pre-computerised Britain, not ruling the waves but sinking beneath them.
2001 VACUUMING COMPLETELY NUDE IN PARADISE
Of Spall’s TV leads — from “Frank Stubbs Promotes” to his own documentary about going round Britain in a barge — this is the least celebrated and the best. Danny Boyle’s lo-fi digital detox after “The Beach” enters the weird, stricken world of Jim Cartwright, the screenwriter best known for "Little Voice". Spall is Tommy Rag, a sleazy, ruthless vacuum salesman who corrupts a dreamy trainee. Brimful of bravura, this is acting seen through the keyhole, distorted and terrifying. It confirmed Spall as England’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Who better to humanise the last hangman than the hangdog Spall? Albert Pierrepoint metronomically dispatched many Nazis at Nuremberg and, among hundreds of criminals, Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Spall wears a mask in the presence of the condemned until, tasked with hanging a man he knows from the pub, the master of repression cracks like a nut. A modest film, lifted by Spall, whose son Rafe was by now a fine actor too.
2009 THE DAMNED UNITED
Archetypal Spall, giving stolid support to Michael Sheen’s mercurial turn as the gobby football maverick Brian Clough in the film of David Peace’s bestseller. Playing Clough’s long-suffering sidekick/punchbag Peter Taylor, he is the doughy but indispensable half of a very northern bromance.
2014 MR TURNER
Mike Leigh’s loving portrait of beauty in ugliness is Spall’s finest hour yet, and not just because they said so at Cannes, where he was Best Actor. Rarely cast as an historical figure, Spall changed the record with his Churchill in “The King’s Speech”, reprised at the 2012 Olympics. But even that pales next to his J.M.W. Turner, a narrow-eyed sphinx spouting florid Latinisms and stuck-pig grunts. That blubbery bladder of a face scowls, smiles and leaks tears like nothing so much as a maritime canvas. It’s Timothy Squall. In the most poignant scene, Turner attempts a Purcell air. “Remember me,” he growls, “but forget my fate.” Fat chance, when his fate is to be both a character actor and a star.