Tough at the top
“Who has a troubled history?”
He does. Doesn’t he?
“Depends what you call getting in trouble,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it that. It’s just about growing up and learning to treat money the right way. What changes your attitude is having family. It’s like, when you’re young, you only have your own prick to look after. Once you have kids and you’re married, then you got a responsibility for them. You learn.”
As you may have gathered, Ray Winstone does not assume any fey theatrical airs. He has never moved away from the outer reaches of London and the city still imposes itself on his gravelly voice and broad demeanour. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was a very decent boxer as a lad. The young Winstone became welterweight schoolboy champion of London on three occasions and fought for England. One presumes he might have had a sniff at a professional career. Was he ever forced to choose between acting and fighting?
“Nah! You make a mistake in the boxing ring and you get a punch and it really hurts. If you are booed off stage, you go home and go to bed. That’s the way that goes. I have always felt lucky enough to be employed in a business I never thought I’d be in.”
It was Scum, in 1977, that changed things for Winstone. Among the most controversial BBC productions of its time, Alan Clarke’s violent drama of life in a borstal triggered massive protests from “decency” campaigners such as Mrs Mary Whitehouse. But it gained a genuine cult following and was almost immediately remade as a cinema production featuring much of the original cast.
“It was just luck,” he muses. “I went along to the casting with a few kids who were in the same college. I chatted to the receptionist and ended up going in for a laugh. I was the last one in and I got the job simply because of the way I walked.”
Did they know, while making the original play, that they were brewing a potential sensation?
“No, no, no,” he says. “Then Mary Whitehouse got it banned. We owe her a lot, because people paid attention, and we had then made it as a film. The banning of it brought that to the front. I was away on honeymoon. We came back, having missed all the hype, and saw crowds fighting to get into a screening at The Prince Charles Cinema. Fuck me! We didn’t see that coming.”
We think of Winstone as being a ubiquitous presence over the past few decades, but – as that bankruptcy filing confirms – the 1980s were not that busy for our hero. A regular role in the TV series Robin of Sherwood helped stuff coffers in the early 1980s. He had recurring part in Minder. It was not, however, until 1997, when he starred as the aggressive Ray in Nil by Mouth, that he established a degree of professional stability. Work for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis followed.