Hair whipped back and donning a heavy leather jacket, Ray Winstone stalks film journalist Danny Leigh to the front of a small screen at the Hackney Picturehouse. The room is nowhere near capacity, but members of the actor’s old boxing club have filled a good few seats towards the rear.
As the two sit and settle smoothly into conversation, the atmosphere is understandably hushed – stunned, even. We’ve just sat through Scum (1979), Alan Clarke’s ice-cold and earthy portrait of young life in a borstal prison.
The film, which was remade after the original BBC version was banned two years earlier, was Winstone’s first big- screen role. His bruising performance as reluctant hard-nut Carlin is explosive and utterly convincing, packed with furious emotion.
We join the adolescent rogue as he’s inducted into a brutal regime, where adults beat and bully their young charges into shape – or not, as the case may be. The politics and dynamics are full on and fascinating, with Mick Ford’s delightful veggie inmate, Archer, providing an insightful social commentary. It’s a bleak vision peppered with glum landscapes and even sadder characters – heavy but vital.
“It’s a film really that shows what kids do to other kids and what establishment does to kids and what men do to men, you know?” Winstone says softly, soaking the words in his unmistakably gruff Cockney twang and moving on to explain how he got the part.
“I’d been kicked out of college that day and a lot the kids I was at college with were going up the BBC for an interview, and I went with them – just to say goodbye and have a beer with them after and all that.”
Whilst there, he was persuaded by a pretty receptionist to have a chat with Clarke, who, once their apparently fruitless discussion was over, escorted him to the exit.
“I got the part on the way I walked down the corridor,” he says. “I just really didn’t give a fuck. And so it was nothing to do with any talent because I had none – I had no idea about technique or anything like that. But it just shows you sometimes it pays to be a little bit of a fucker, you know? And it stood me good stead that, for a while.”
One of the reasons for the screening is that the star has recently penned Young Winstone, about his early life in London. Reflecting on his days growing up in Hackney and Plaistow, it looks at how the city has changed since the years soon after the Second World War – “sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.”
“London was a bomb site and it was where we used to play,” he says. “When they was building the rest of Europe they weren’t building England – they weren’t building London.
“But it was all right, I was pretty lucky: my dad worked in the meat market, the fruit market eventually, and we had uncles in the fish market and in the docks, where there was plenty of spillage, so we never went hungry,” he continues.
“But [the book is] about community – it was a community, you know. Then they built flats, then you moved round. You don’t know who your neighbour is anymore. And it’s really about that. But it’s not just about my life… it’s about that generation.”
After asserting that he’s “an Essex boy really,” he goes on to detail his rich family connections to Hackney and the East End, explaining that his father went to school on Lauriston Road and that many relations are scattered around “Vicky Park”. He also spent time as a boy living with his granddad on Well Street – the Frampton Park Estate – when his dad “had the right hump” with him.
He seems to drift into a haze of nostalgia, talking in a slow and fragmented stream of consciousness. Realising that his latest tangent might be going nowhere, he quickly plucks an anecdote from thin air: “In fact, when I was three I was in a push chair and a geezer flashed me by all accounts,” he says. “So I was flashed at an early age.”
After touching on Sundays spent with his cousins at the Landsdowne Club, and how he can’t help but remember his old street bathed in sunlight, the questions turn to Hollywood.
He describes Leonardo DiCaprio, who he worked with on The Departed, as a “smashing kid”, and proceeds to execute an uncanny impersonation of Martin Scorsese. He’s less taken, though, with Jack Nicholson, who’s a “fantastic actor to watch… [But] he does think a lot of himself.”
It’s a criticism you certainly can’t fire at Ray. Humble in the extreme and desperately likeable, he’s something of a working class hero. Contrary to his own self-deprecation, Scum is undeniable evidence of talent by the bucket load.
Slightly hunched, he walks out with his arm around the shoulders of a chum from years back, chattering away about old times.
Young Winstone is published by Canongate RRP: £20 ISBN: 978-1-78211-246-6