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As Stephen Tompkinson is cleared of GBH ALISON BOSHOFF reveals how he ended up single and struggling

He described himself in a recent interview as a ‘letterbox actor’. ‘If it comes through the letterbox, I usually say yes,’ Stephen Tompkinson remarked.

Just a joke of course. But it was almost three decades ago now that the fizzing chemistry between Tompkinson as Father Peter Clifford, opposite real-life girlfriend Dervla Kirwan as bar manager Assumpta Fitzgerald in the TV drama Ballykissangel, left audiences of 15 million spellbound weekly.

His last TV leading role was in DCI Banks, seven years ago. More recently he’s been a supporting member of cast, playing ice skater Christopher Torvill’s father in the TV drama Torvill & Dean, and writer Eddie Braben in a TV film about Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

‘It doesn’t get easier the older you get,’ he said. ‘Once you get past 40 the roles aren’t as prevalent as they used to be.’

He added: ‘I plan on acting for as long as I can remember the lines. Someone will be needed to play the 80-year-olds — David Jason can’t keep playing older forever.’

Actor Stephen Tompkinson, 57, (pictured) was accused of punching a drunken stranger, Karl Poole, to the ground after confronting him and a friend at the bottom of his driveway in the early hours of May 30, 2021. Pictured: Tomkinson arriving at Newcastle Crown Court

Stephen Tompkinson with Dervla Kirwan at the Criterion Theatre in London for a fashion show in November 1998

Stephen Tompkinson with Dervla Kirwan at the Criterion Theatre in London for a fashion show in November 1998

Aged only 57, Tompkinson didn’t quite look 80 when he emerged from Newcastle Crown Court this week — but he certainly appeared to have aged at least a decade thanks to his brush with the law. Pale, baggy-eyed, grey-haired and painfully thin, he was a shadow of his former self.

He was accused of punching a drunken stranger, Karl Poole, to the ground after confronting him and a friend at the bottom of his driveway in the early hours of May 30, 2021.

Mr Poole fell to the pavement and fractured his skull. Tompkinson was charged with GBH — an offence which could have landed him in prison for five years.

He’d denied the charge, saying he was not responsible for Mr Poole’s injuries, and had only made slight contact with his face, after Mr Poole came towards him in a threatening manner.

This week a jury cleared him, after a five- day trial. The past two years, however, have taken a savage toll, both professionally and physically, on Tompkinson. He told the court he had lost acting work due to the pending trial as his career was put ‘on hold’.

In the witness box, there was little trace of the charm which had helped him to become a fixture on our televisions for a halcyon 20-year period between 1996 and 2016.

And sadly it looks as if the stress of the court case has ended his romance with younger actress Jessica Johnson, whom he’d met in 2019 and starred with in a touring theatrical run of the play Educating Rita. Tellingly, she wasn’t in court to support him during the trial, and this week neighbours near the flat in Tynemouth, North Shields, which he moved into before Christmas, said he’s generally seen pottering around on his own.

Stephen Tompkinson's police mugshot after he was arrested

Stephen Tompkinson’s police mugshot after he was arrested

Previously, he and Johnson, 38, had shared a grand, £365,000 double-fronted, Victorian house in nearby Whitley Bay, along with her young son.

This was where he was living when he was woken, in the early hours of one Sunday morning, by Mr Poole and a friend, who were noisily larking around at the end of his drive.

A neighbour in the street said: ‘He moved on from here ages ago — about six to eight months ago. The house was rented by him. We have seen he was cleared of GBH today and I assume it’s a massive relief for him. We didn’t witness the incident — we didn’t even know it had happened.’

Another neighbour said he was so low profile — and so physically changed from his days as the star of prime-time TV — nobody knew who he was. ‘We had no idea. We never, ever knew he was here. No one knew it was him until we heard about what had happened on the news,’ she said.

So how did Tompkinson, raised comfortably in Lytham St Annes, and at the height of his fame, living in a large property in Weybridge, Surrey, end up single and jobless in a seaside flat in Tyneside?

The answer perhaps lies in what could be characterised as decades of bad luck. Quick to fall in — and out — of love, he’s seen two marriages and two engagements fail.

His mother Jo, to whom he was very close, died suddenly when he was at his professional peak. A confirmed workaholic, despite his success, Tompkinson confessed he was ‘plagued’ by ‘needless worry’ about the calibre of his performances, and his prospects as an actor.

There’s also been a problematic relationship with alcohol, meaning he hasn’t touched a drop in nearly 20 years. One friend said that he is an emotional man, friendly, but someone ‘who clearly has had his demons’.

His parents gave him a happy, Catholic, middle-class upbringing. He was said to be close to his bank manager father Brian and older brother John.

They also supported him as he learnt his trade at the Central School of Speech and Drama from 18. He remembers being ‘one of the youngest in my year and the only Northerner.’ He became friends with a gang who turned out to be the leading lights of their generation. Christopher Eccleston was in the year above him, James Nesbitt was in the year below. Rufus Sewell and Graham Norton were in the year below that. Through the years they have stayed in touch.

Straight out of college, he joined the BBC’s Radio Drama company and in 1989, aged 24, he married radio producer Celia de Wolff.

Tompkinson became a minor star thanks to his role as amoral Damien Day in the satirical Channel 4 series Drop The Dead Donkey, but his big break came at 30 when he was cast in the indie film Brassed Off, which became a huge global hit. A year later, aged 31, he was on prime-time TV in Ballykissangel. By then his marriage was already over and the pull between him and co-star Dervla Kirwan proved irresistible.

In an extraordinary twist, Tompkinson arranged for his new girlfriend to meet his (estranged) wife. He’s notably always stayed on good terms with his exes.

Kirwan recalled that the three of them all went out for dinner together ‘like something out of Woody Allen’ in the early days of their relationship.

She said: ‘I knew Steve hadn’t been living with Celia for about four years. Looking back, when I met her I suppose I did feel a bit nervous, but any nervousness was completely dismantled when I talked to her.’ Tompkinson, an eternal romantic, never saw his love affair with Kirwan as just another on-set fling.

Stephen Tompkinson leaves Newcastle Crown Court after he was found not guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Thursday

Stephen Tompkinson leaves Newcastle Crown Court after he was found not guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Thursday

He proposed marriage in Roly’s Bistro in Dublin in July 1997 and Dervla appeared equally smitten, declaring she’d found her ‘Mr Right’. They set up home together in Hampstead, North London but in 1999, even as the builders were renovating it, they split.

They managed to stay on good enough terms, however, to work together on a TV film, The Flint Street Nativity, which started filming five weeks later.

But just over a year after splitting from Dervla, Tompkinson had married someone else. He and interior designer turned publicist Nicci Taylor met by chance at a gentlemen’s outfitters in London’s Savile Row.

They were married in 2001 and have a daughter, Daisy. Soon afterwards, Tompkinson was cast in the ITV drama Wild At Heart, opposite Amanda Holden, which meant filming for four or five months a year in South Africa, a huge wrench for a new husband and father.

Friends of Holden remember how Tompkinson didn’t join in with the rest of the cast and crew who partied in the evenings but instead went back to his hotel room to call his young family.

By this time he had stopped drinking alcohol as well, a decision which was partly influenced by the sudden, unexpected death of his mother in 1995, from pneumonia.

He explained: ‘I used to drink a lot and enjoyed it. But it was becoming a problem. I think age had a lot to do with it. I wasn’t as quick at recovering from the after-effects of drink as I used to be. Also, my mum passed away out of the blue and that could have been an excuse for me to feel sorry for myself and hit the bottle even harder.

‘But that would not have been very respectful to my mum. So one day I decided to stop.’

Sadness was heaped upon tragedy when his second marriage ended in 2006, with the couple blaming the actor’s punishing work schedule. True to form, Tompkinson quickly found a new partner, Elaine Young, a diplomat, whom — again — he met by chance, in a theatre bar in Glasgow.

She’d asked if he would take a picture of her and her friends. ‘It was just one of those love at first sight things,’ he said.

They set up home together in Surrey and when daughter Daisy was 13, she opted to come and live with them.

‘It’s great having the three of us together,’ he said.

His next project, DCI Banks for ITV was a hit and, crucially, didn’t require months away, filming abroad. Tompkinson felt that all was rosy. In fact, he and Elaine were talking marriage after a decade together, when suddenly, bafflingly, they split.

What was to blame this time? Maybe his ‘obsession’ with work: he wouldn’t take a holiday longer than two weeks in case he missed out on roles. But he did say that as he entered middle age he had learned to be less intense in his pursuit of success.

He met his next, and most recent, girlfriend, Jessica Johnson, again by chance. Both were in separate productions at Live Theatre in Newcastle. Ms Johnson, who is originally from Sunderland, told Tompkinson that she thought he would make a brilliant Frank, the Open University professor in Educating Rita, and she could be Rita.

By the time that they had put together a touring production, they were an item and were living together in her native North-East. Tompkinson reflected that he knew well enough what washed-up Frank was experiencing.

‘A lot of actors have had glory days and better parts when they were younger,’ he said in 2019. ‘But the wedge gets a bit thinner the older you get, so you see quite a lot of bitter, disappointed people.’

He felt that the power of the show was in the unlikely romance and said: ‘People adore the idea of second chances and that it is never too late.’

How much he must be hoping that is true this week.