Ray Winstone: “There’s dogs and scumbags in this game”

The star of The Sweeney talks about stepping into John Thaw's formidable shoes and says 'Sort it!' to the British film industry

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Mid-afternoon in a private cinema in East London, and Ray Winstone is smoking for England and chain-grumbling. Or is it the other way around?

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He’s not happy about the traffic on his route into town from his Essex home. Too much CGI is killing the craft of film-making. He will respond to email – “My daughter taught me how to do it when she was seven. That’s how illiterate I am” – but don’t try to phone him. “I hate talking on the telephone. Can’t stand it. I’d rather drive three hours and go and talk to someone.” Social media? Anti-social media more like. “I don’t do Facebook, I don’t twit-twat-twot whatever it’s called!” the 55-year-old says witheringly of Twitter. “Why the f **k would anyone want to talk to someone they’d never met before? If I haven’t got enough mates by now, I’m in trouble.”

God bless Ray Winstone, an actor with something to say, on- and off-screen. He’s friendly, professional, down-to-earth and still in love with his chosen trade. Retire, slow down? Who are you kidding? “You got to work, that’s what you do,” he shrugs.

So to The Sweeney, a film to which Winstone was first attached five years ago. The big-screen update of the 1970s cop show (whose first film spin-off, Sweeney!, is on ITV4 on Saturday) is a slick hymn to modern London and old-fashioned policing. It aims to combine the punch of classic Brit crime films such as 1967’s Robbery (with Stanley Baker) and the tension of modern masterpieces such as Michael Mann’s Heat. It falls awkwardly between the two, but retains enough energy to keep you in your seat.

Plus there’s Winstone, giving it large. He plays Jack Regan, the rough, tough “dinosaur” Flying Squad officer immortalized by John Thaw. Taking the role of right-hand man George Carter (Dennis Waterman all those years ago) is Ben Drew, aka Plan B. The singer/rapper and actor, who recently made his directorial debut with Ill Manors, gives a creditable performance, which pleases Winstone no end.

“The chemistry between us was great and it was there from the start,” Winstone says of “young Benny”. He’d been impressed by his fellow East Londoner’s performance in the 2009 Michael Caine thriller Harry Brown. And thanks to his three daughters (actresses Jaime and Lois, and Ellie-Rae, who’s still in school), Winstone was also familiar with Drew’s music. “My girls had told me about his album The Defamation of Strickland Banks. And I’m not into all that rap gear. But I heard it and I thought, ‘This kid can sing soul n all – he’s the b******s. This is like going back a little bit, and it’s modern stuff, but I can understand it, I can hear the words.”

Sweeney director Nick Love shared Winstone’s enthusiasm, so filming was delayed until Drew’s schedule allowed him to join a cast that also features Damian Lewis, Hayley Atwell and Steven Mackintosh.

Being in the film (which opens in the UK on Wednesday 12 September) was, Winstone says, a nice way to complete a circle – one of his first TV roles was in a 1976 episode of The Sweeney. He played Second Youth.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he chuckles. “Kept on talking when I shouldn’t. I realised they had to give you another 30 quid if you spoke. So I was ad libbing all over the place.”

He worked with the late Thaw on four other occasions. “I liked John, he was a good man. But you can’t emulate what John Thaw did – he was an icon. He was brilliant, and that was the worry for me. So I had to think: what we’re actually making is a cops and robbers film, and then we called it The Sweeney afterwards. I had to get away from what had been done with Regan.”

Almost four decades on from that early TV role, Winstone is as busy as ever. He is set to play the villain in Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget retelling of the story of Noah, starring Russell Crowe. He has never met Crowe, “but I like how he goes about his business. And Aronofsky, my mate Mickey Rourke swears by him. He loves him to death, and The Wrestler was a great film.”

But for all that, Winstone does despair of what has happened to his beloved profession.

“I think there’s a lot of scumbags in our game, to be honest with you. When I first came into it you used to sit down with a man and shake his hand and it was done. Or if it wasn’t done, no one was screwed over. Maybe I’m being a bit of a romantic. But now there’s people coming into this game who are using private investors – 30 grand here, 100 grand there – and they all want to be in the film. And that money’s gone before the film’s even made. It’s gone into someone’s pocket. It’s almost like that film The Producers,” he laughs. “We don’t want a hit, we just want the money.”

“And it’s happening again and again and again. There’s dogs and scumbags in this game,” he concludes angrily, “and the British film industry’s got to sort it out.”

Actually, I can think of someone well qualified to knock some movie-making heads together. Ray Winstone for Movie Tsar?


70s British TV hits the flicks…  

1. Dad’s army (1971)- Three years into the life of the series, Captain Mainwaring and his hapless company somehow take on a downed Luftwaffe Crew.

2. And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) – Sketches from the first two seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Loopy brilliance.

3. The Muppet Movie (1979) – The first of many spin-off films to feature Jim Henson’s marvelous puppets – who were originally brought to TV by Lew Grade’s ATV.

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4. Pennies from Heaven (1981) – Dennis Potter’s 1978 serial gets a Hollywood makeover, with Steve Martin.