Timothy Spall’s teenage obsessions: ‘For my art A-level I nailed up apples covered in pubic hair’

The actor on studying with the Sex Pistols, being in a Bowie tribute act, the appeal of Roxy Music, the help of teachers and the power of surrealism

My Ziggy Stardust tribute act

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1973.
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1973. Photograph: NBC/Universal/Getty

My 13th birthday in 1970 coincided with David Bowie coming out of Space Oddity and turning into Ziggy Stardust two years later in 1972. My mate Peter was a dead ringer for Bowie. He had the same haircut and dressed in gold lamé tights and platform shoes. I got a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from a junk shop and this frock coat from Kings Road and we went round together as Extrav and Ganza; what we considered to be a brilliant wordplay on “extravaganza”.

We’d sit on the steps of Chelsea town hall trying to emanate being incredibly interesting. Peter – Extrav – was of the zeitgeist: prettier and eminently more successful. While I, Ganza, was the adolescent Dickensian buffoon.

In later teen years, we would go to the Rising Sun, a jazz pub in Battersea, and he would improvise these wonderful trad jazz songs dressed as Bowie. I would jump around as part of the act, until somebody said to us: “You’re that guy who sings all those great songs dressed as Bowie. And you’re that guy who likes to spoil it.”

My drama teacher

Our Victorian house in south-west London didn’t even have a bathroom, like something from a Dickens novel or a Hovis advert. My brother and I would snap icicles off the inside of the window and lick them like lollies. My mum was delighted when we were rehoused in a council block with an inside toilet and central heating.

A performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Minneapolis OZ AT THE CHILDREN'S THEATER IN MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
A US performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz … playing the lion in a school production was pivotal to Spall opting for acting. Photograph: Greg Ryan/Alamy

At Battersea county comprehensive, we were mainly taught to go into trade over having aspirations to go to university. I couldn’t be bothered with academia, anyway. By day, I was busy trying to be a surrealist and a dadaist. In the evening, I was in the cadets, learning how to strip Bren guns. I was going to be an artist or join the army.

My English teacher, Keith Kimberley, cast me as the lion in The Wizard of Oz. Afterwards, my drama teacher, Helena Mietz, said: “I’ve never told any of my students this before because it’s such a horrible business – but I think you should be an actor,” and guided me towards the National Youth Theatre. It’s thanks to her that I’m neither a Dada surrealist nor a tank driver.

Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Fascination … Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Photograph: Rko Pictures/Allstar

Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier

I was fascinated, frightened and heartbroken by Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and terrified by his Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. I must have been 13 when I saw Laurence Olivier playing Richard III on the telly and felt almost physically excited. It wasn’t sexual, but something so visceral.

My nan lived with us in Battersea, then got her own flat a couple of blocks away, so I was encouraged to walk her home. I was 14 and saw this old guy coming out of a lift. There was no one else around, so I started to copy his mannerisms, just to feel what it was like being him and – I suppose – to feel like Laughton and Olivier, acting these other parts.

Art of punk … the Sex Pistols in 1997.
Art of punk … the Sex Pistols in 1977. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

The Sex Pistols

I failed all my O-levels on purpose (apart from art, which I took as an A-level and got a grade A) because I discovered you didn’t need any qualifications to go to Rada. So I went to Kingsway Princeton college of further education near King’s Cross to study drama and retake my English O-level, which I ended up dropping after one term.

I remember getting a bacon sandwich from the refectory and seeing this very peculiar guy in a black leather jacket, very tight trousers, very white face, spiky hair, looking down on everybody eating with a look of Shakespearean, malevolent disdain. That was Sid Vicious.

Then, in English, this guy with a Rod Stewart haircut was asking these wonderful, exciting questions about Waiting for Godot. I remember thinking: “This guy’s bright.” He was clearly the most intelligent person in the class. That was John Lydon.

It wasn’t that different to be that angry or outrageous. We were all doing it. The Sex Pistols just happened to put it in a band who were naughty and funny and reacted against the end of glam rock where Marc Bolan had become kind of fat. Funnily enough, I’ve just done a film about Bolan [2022’s Bolan’s Shoes].

Abstract take on emotion … Bryan Ferry performing with Roxy Music in 1974.
Abstract take on emotion … Bryan Ferry performing with Roxy Music in 1974. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

Pyjamarama by Roxy Music

My brother finished his leave and returned to the merchant navy, and left me this strange little record player with speakers on the top. I would kneel on my bedroom floor with the speakers either side of my head and play Jimi Hendrix really loudly. Then I’d put on Handel’s Messiah. I was reading The Lord of the Rings and The Tin Drum, still sorting out who I was.

I bought Pyjamarama by Roxy Music and played it over and over. I knew all the lyrics: “Couldn’t sleep a wink last night / Oh how I’d love to hold you tight.” Something connected: it was the first time I got to feel what I liked, not just what I was supposed to like.

I went to see Roxy Music at the Rainbow theatre in north London. It wasn’t just the image; their music spoke abstractly to people’s emotions. I suppose every generation goes into their teens looking for something that responds and corresponds to their developing sexuality and intellect. Brian Eno-era Roxy Music was mine.

Penchant for the surreal … Salvador Dalí.
Penchant for the surreal … Salvador Dalí. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dalí, Ernst and Gilliam

I was a big fan of Dalí and very turned on by Ernst, and the similarity between what Terry Gilliam was doing in Monty Python. For my art A-level, I made a breakfast out of real food and stuck it on a table under resin. For another piece, I covered apples in pubic hair and nailed them all over the place. My main piece was called My Mum in Hospital: a lifesize mannequin dressed up as a nurse tending a drip-feed going into a steak and kidney pie in the top of a chest of drawers. And this was before Damien Hirst!

To prepare for playing Turner [in 2014’s Mr Turner], I was given an art foundation course. After playing LS Lowry [in 2019’s Mrs Lowry & Son], I started doing some painting of my own. The Lowry gallery [in Salford] put some of them on display, then the Pontone gallery offered me a show.

I spent eight months, nine hours a day, seven days a week, producing 20 paintings that went on display in London in June this year. It was a sell-out and people genuinely seemed to like it. I just hope I have done my art teachers from school – Linda Black and Norman Barret – proud.

• This article was amended on 7 September 2021 to clarify details about David Bowie’s career.

• The Last Bus is in cinemas now


Contributor

As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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