British Actors You Should Know: Timothy Spall

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Timothy Spall as "Mr. Turner." (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
If you’re the type of person who pays attention to film award season, you probably will have heard about the recent accolades for our spotlighted actor, Timothy Spall. A hardworking and versatile performer since the late 70’s, Spall seems to be finally getting the attention he deserves for a career defining achievement.

He won best actor honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his title role in the biopic Mr. Turner. Spall embodies eccentric English Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Director Mike Leigh (with whom Spall has worked four times perviously) is known for his formidable demands on his actors. For this period piece, Leigh insisted Spall not only research the artist he was setting out to play but also to spend two years learning his distinctive painting technique. What resulted was this Oscar buzz-worthy bit of acting. 

Mr. Turner will be out in limited release beginning December 19, presumably to qualify for the Academy Awards race. Here’s hoping it won’t be much longer after that that those of us not living in major metropolitan cities will be able to witness the magic as well.

While all the kudos and glowing reviews are surely very nice indeed, Spall has been putting in memorable, entertaining performances for years. From notable roles in TV series such as Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Street to a cameo in The King’s Speech as Winston Churchill,  his talent has consistently been on display. If you’d like a reminder of his range or just want to explore his body of work for the first time, here are a handful of film and TV roles you might want to try.

Believe me, Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films is just the tip of the iceberg.

Secrets & Lies. In this 1996 Mike Leigh film, Spall plays Maurice Purley, a successful photographer and brother of Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). When Cynthia is contacted by Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the daughter she gave up at birth, the Purley family is thrown for a loop; particularly Cynthia’s other daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Maurice steps into his usual role as peacemaker only to reveal that he and his wife have a secret of their own. 

Secrets and lies - Tim Spall

Being an older film, this one is a bit harder to find. I didn’t find it currently streaming anywhere but you could probably track it down at your local library.

As a side note, while Secrets & Lies was met with all sorts of acclaim including five Oscar nominations, Spall fell ill during the intense period of promotion. The actor was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was close to death. In fact it took a couple of years for him to recover enough to return to work.

The Syndicate: Series One. Spall plays Bob Davies, the fatherly manager of the Right Buy U market in Leeds. Faced with the unfortunate task of telling his staff that the store has been bought out by a larger chain and they will all be losing their jobs within weeks, Bob tries to keep things optimistic and hopeful around the store. Each employee has a pressing financial need so this news couldn’t come at a worse time.

As luck would have it, the co-workers have been pooling their money and playing the lottery for years –this is called a “syndicate” – and just when they need it most, they win the jackpot. As everyone struggles to deal with their new found wealth, easy going Bob faces a fight for his life and handles it with grace and dignity. 

The Syndicate trailer

Also starring Gavin and Stacey’s Joanna Page, Harry Potter’s Matthew Lewis and Mr. Selfridge’s Matthew McNulty, The Syndicate can be streamed on Acorn TV and Hulu.

Oliver Twist. In this classic Dickens tale, Spall takes on the infamous role of Fagin, the leader of a ring of young pickpockets. In exchange for meager food and accommodations, the unwanted children Fagin has collected must turn in the spoils of their criminal activity to their master or suffer his wrath. While in this production Spall doesn’t portray a kinder, gentler Fagin exactly, he does seem to have a genuine concern for orphan Oliver (William Miller). 

Masterpiece Classic: Oliver Twist (Part One)

This mini-series, which aired on Masterpiece Classic back in 2009, can be found on Hulu Plus.

Sweeney Todd. Spall showed his musical side in this turn as Beadle Bamford in the Tim Burton version of this Stephen Sondheim classic. As Judge Turpin’s (Alan Rickman) devious lackey, Beadle not only does his boss’ dirty work but offers him courting advice in the form of a song, “Ladies and Their Sensitivities.”

In interviews, Spall acknowledged his youngest daughter encouraged him to audition for this film for one reason – her dad would get to meet Johnny Depp

"Ladies in Their Sensitives" - Sweeney Todd : The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be streamed on Amazon Instant Video or ordered on Netflix DVD.

Blandings. Finally Spall takes on the farcical humor of P.G. Wodehouse, playing lord of the manor, Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth. This nobleman is known to be easily distracted so his sister Connie (Jennifer Saunders) is constantly trying to force him to accept his responsibilities. With a feckless son Freddie (Jack Farthing) and a parade of eccentric family and neighbors streaming through the estate, is it any wonder Clarence prefers the company of his prize winning pig, The Empress? 

A highly caddish diagnosis - Blandings: Series 2 Episode 1 preview - BBC One

Also featuring Mark Williams (Series 1) and Tim Vine (Series 2) as the Earl’s loyal butler, Blandings is available on Acorn TV, Netflix DVD and Amazon Instant Video.

Do you plan to see Mr. Turner?  Do you have a favorite Timothy Spall role? Please share your suggestions and opinions in the comments section.