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As Jimmy Nail appears through the gloom of a damp and chilly late winter’s day, a black wool hat pulled down low over his small, dangerous-looking eyes, it is his randomly re-arranged nose which seems most prominent. Somehow it doesn't quite fit with his long, narrow face.
Despite the cold and damp, Nail insists we meet in a Central London park, desolate and dreary in the drizzle. “I thought it would be foon ta do it ’ere,” he booms in his pronounced Geordie accent. He stretches out his legs on a wooden bench, his huge boots pointing at the sullen sky.
Nail, now almost 47, is a man of whims. If he has decided we have to be cold and uncomfortable for an interview, then that’s that. People generally don’t argue with him. Looking and sounding like a thug once made him the highest paid actor on TV.
He first stunned the nation with his particular brand of looks and acting in 1983 as Oz, the thick, beer-swilling brickie, in the ITV comedy, 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet'. The series, about out-of-work labourers heading for building sites in Germany while avoiding the UK tax man, was such a hit that it made instant stars of all its actors and a handsome profit for TV production company, Witzend.
The BBC has talked about bringing back the series, with the original cast. But Nail says he is not sure about the idea. “The public has such a love for it, and such fond memories, that I’m not sure it’s a good idea to try to do it again.”
Nail, who didn’t like “being just a hired hand”, formed his own production company called Big Boy Productions and wrote his next TV series, 'Spender', himself. He went on to another series, 'Crocodile Shoes', and was the highest paid actor on TV in 1996, earning almost £1 million in one year.
When he gave up acting in 1997, which he admits was “a bit of a risk after all those cheques”, he focused on his musical career - and music had always been his first love. He decided to concentrate on gaining success in the pop charts with hits including 'Crocodile Shoes' and 'Love Don’t Live Here Anymore'. Earlier he had enjoyed big chart success with 'Ain’t No Doubt', which was penned by talented writer, Charlie Dore, and featured the hauntingly beautiful voice of backing singer, Sylvia Mason-James. The bulk of his audience has always been women. Nail poses exactly the kind of enigma they relish.
Growing up in Newcastle, as Nail tells me, he became a hardened drinker and a brawler. His nose is the way it is through being broken five times. In one fight he got an axe wound in his head. After kicking a policeman in the face during a brawl on a football terrace, he spent four months in Strangeways Prison, Manchester. Through the 1980s there were stories - accurate or not - about his drinking, his use of cocaine and wild sex sessions.
On meeting him, though,it is his gentle diffidence that strikes you. Highly articulate and clearly very intelligent, Nail is disarmingly unassuming. As he talks, he keeps his gaze averted, looking at the rooks and pigeons in the park. “When I was in 'Auf Wiedersehen' I think women just wanted to give me a wash and a change of clothes,” he says, rather naively. “I never encouraged this,” he says. “I don’t deliberately play lads’ games with women.” Men may find Nail’s battered 6’3” frame threatening, but apparently women sense he is as fragile as they are.
He described his voice as “husky and riddled with melancholia”, not a description you would necessarily expect to hear from a working-class Geordie man. “I like singing,” he says casually. “I was an accidental actor. Music was always my first love, my real passion. I just needed to prove myself and acting parts were a step along the way to this. It was a fluke I hit the jackpot as an actor.”
During his youth Nail performed in pubs with his own foul-mouthed band, the King Crabs. Drunk on lager, it is said he would appear on stage in a woman’s dress and sometimes end up naked. Possibly as a consequence of this, the band had quite a following of female fans...”some of the wilder element”, as Nail refers to them.
But,considering Nail’s background, the fact he even imagined he could ever win fame is remarkable - as he readily agrees. Born in 1954, he was christened James Michael Aloysius Bradford; “Aloysius” in honour of his father Jimmy’s Irish Catholic antecedents.
But he says his father, a shipyard worker, amateur boxer and professional footballer, was “a very hard man who was always working and hardly ever at home”. When Jimmy was 10, a neighbour slapped him after he had been cheeky and then thrown a stone through the neighbour’s window. The next morning his father went round and laid the man out. Nail was proud of it. That’s what dads were supposed to do.
At school, he says, the teachers also “used their hands a lot”. He recalls bitterly, “One tied my hands behind my back, put tape over my mouth and stood me in a cupboard. For years I fantasised about seeing that teacher again to confront him. Maybe it is lucky that never happened!”
Despite being seen as a nuisance at school, Nail says he always wanted to be “a success”, at first as a footballer, then, surprisingly, as an English teacher. But he didn’t get to grammar school. He passed his 11+ exam and believes that, because of his background and misbehaviour, he was deliberately sent to a technical college which, after he had been there less than a year, was reorganised into a secondary modern school. He says the place was little more than a borstal.
Nail’s primary school head teacher had told him, “You are very bright but you must learn not to misbehave. You can't keep getting away with it. I know a lot of the senior boys at the big school and they are going to make your life hell,” – and they did, once shoving Nail’s head through a plate glass window.
So Jimmy Nail saw little option but to become a trouble-maker in his own right. Finally, he got expelled from his secondary school for setting curtains on fire in the school hall.
But his mother, Laura, always knew he was clever. He studied the dictionary, read poetry and, at thirteen, composed a poem against the Vietnam War. Throughout, though, he worked at perfecting the art of pretending to be thick. It was a defence mechanism. Actually he was sensitive, but he survived by making out he was hard.
When he was thirteen his sister, Shelagh, died after a party on her twentieth birthday, when she had mixed alcohol with anti-depressant drugs. “I thought, why has this happened to us?” he says.“It seemed the bottom had dropped out of our world. There wasn’t much understanding of how to deal with those things then, at least not in my family. There was no discussion. I couldn’t broach it with my mum, never. It was all just too painful for all of us.”
“It corresponded with a decline in my school work. Everything changed all at once. The whole family fragmented. My mum had a breakdown. My other sister, Valerie, left home (she is now Head of Drama at Sunderland University), and my dad got on with it the way that Northern men do. He just closed himself off completely.”
“I lost my way completely. I would not do what anyone in authority wanted me to. I got into an awful lot of trouble; it was a real downward spiral that culminated, ten years later, in a prison sentence for violence. I loathe violence now. I don’t even like seeing it on TV.”
Prison changed Nail radically. When his father visited him in Strangeways and wept, it brought him to his senses. “It was one of the worst moments of my life, that.” But he would probably have pulled himself back anyway. He was ambitious and did not want to waste his time behind bars: “I knew there had to be something better than that,” he reflects.
Out of prison, he got a job sweeping up in a glass factory and quickly gained the name “Nail” when he stood on a six inch spike and injured his huge foot. He also formed his group, the King Crabs, which fast gained a cult following in Newcastle.
Later, with a friend, he set up a property business, buying up old houses, repairing and renting them out. By now he had been involved, by his own reckoning, with “many dozens of women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and ages”. He remembers few of the faces or names now. But it was in 1980, and as her landlord, that he finally met “the first and only woman” he has ever really loved, Miriam Jones, a student.
The macho Geordie lad was in love with an educated, middle class girl who cooked him ratatouille and shocked him by drinking beer. With Miriam he got a toe into a world where he could be himself. It was she who gave him what he calls “the blessed opportunity”, by persuading him to go to the audition for 'Auf Wiedersehen'. He refused to go at first, and it was she who insisted he must “get yourself along”. He went, of course, and has since, he says, “made enough money to live to be a hundred without ever working again”. He credits Miriam with saving him and turning his whole life around. “She was the making of me,” Nail admits. “And I’ll always be in her debt for that.” But Nail works hard at keeping his personal life out of the spotlight and declined to talk in any detail about his relationship with Miriam.
Nail was brought up to work, and is now one of that fortunate elite who do it only for pleasure.
Success and money ruin some people, but they have undoubtedly allowed the creative side of Jimmy Nail to flourish. He was widely acclaimed for his role alongside Madonna in the film of 'Evita' and he is fascinated by the movie industry. Recently he has been to Amsterdam to research a screenplay he has written about Rembrandt. He has also just released a CD of his favourite songs, 'Ten Great Songs and an OK Voice'. On 9th April he will be singing in Newcastle again. “The acting has been OK,” Nail concedes - “But it is the music that matters to me. Recording and, most of all, performing music live is what I have always lived for. I would want to be thought of as a singer and musician first...the rest doesn't matter really. Looking ahead, I'd see my emphasis being increasingly on writing...I'd like to write scripts for TV and films, maybe a novel, too. Plus poetry. And I want to get more into musical composition – maybe doing film scores or a musical one of these days.”
I wonder if Jimmy Nail has anything in common now with the people he left behind.
“After the first series of 'Auf Wiedersehen' I took a bus in Newcastle,” he says, “And people gawped as if I had come from Mars. To some people it must look like I won the Lottery. But it’s a double-edged sword, you know. I always wanted to be a success, ideally as a musician and singer – but I can’t handle people staring at me, even now. I have just never adjusted to it and probably never will.”
Presumably that is why we are both shivering on a park bench, rather than in a hotel lounge or a restaurant, I ask. “Aye,” he says. “Those smart places are always too crowded with gawpers and crawlers.”
The one-time Northern heavy says his life now is mainly about being at home with his two boys, Freddie, 13, and Tommy, 14.
“My children’s triumphs and joys are mine,” he says. “We lead a very middle class London life.” They have no idea what my past was like. Which is good. I was saying to the wife the other day how happy I am now, more than I have ever been before. I don’t want my family to know about what went previously, and I really don’t enjoy talking about the person I once was.”
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In this retrospective interview from 2001 tough-looking Geordie singer-songwriter and actor Jimmy Nail tells Nick Dent-Robinson about his childhood and how he was saved by the love of his life
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