A tour of Ray Winstone's London

'The Sweeney' actor shows Dave Calhoun around his city

Rob Greig

Ray Winstone leaps out of a silver Mercedes and quicker than lightning he’s making a call. ‘It’s Ray. Raymondo. I’m here with Time Out and we’d like to come inside and take some smudges.’ Winstone has pulled up to meet us – ‘All right, boys!’ – in the car park of the Boleyn Ground, Upton Park, home to West Ham and a regular haunt since he lived round the corner as a boy in the 1960s. It’s like Jesus returning to the stable.

Winstone, star of films from ‘Scum’, way back in 1979, to ‘Nil by Mouth’ and ‘Sexy Beast’, lives in Essex with his wife and the youngest of his three daughters. It’s from there he runs his career, acting the hardman in landmark British films, appearing in TV dramas and making the occasional hop across the Atlantic. But today, to mark his role in ‘The Sweeney’, the 55-year-old actor is back in east London to give us a tour. He spent his first decade living in the area before moving to Enfield where his dad worked as a grocer. But this part of town has always been home: ‘I’m an East End boy.’

Rob Greig

The phone call over, a woman from West Ham’s club office arrives, there are hugs and kisses, and we’re whipped through reception, down the players’ tunnel and on to the empty pitch. Winstone points to the corner where he would watch as a boy. ‘That’s where I used to be. [Now it’s] the Bobby Moore stand.’ The young Ray would come here every other Saturday, taking turns with a friend who shared his shift on his dad’s fruit and veg stall in Poplar.

Our next stop is supposed to be his old family home. But first he wants to show us a local cinema. ‘Now it’s a Bollywood cinema, which shows you how the culture has changed round here. On a Wednesday afternoon I’d come here with my dad. He’d fall asleep and I’d watch the film twice.’ Did it cross his mind then that he might act? He shakes his head. ‘We never aspired to be actors. We wanted to be footballers or boxers.’

Winstone got into the ring himself at 12, joining the Repton Amateur Boxing Club in Bethnal Green, where the Krays fought. Three times London Schoolboy Champion, he boxed twice for England. What changed his mind about acting? ‘When I got a bit older and saw films like “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “This Sporting Life”: the Richard Harrises and the Albert Finneys, these working-class boys. People like Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins changed it all.’

Winstone was 17 when he went to study drama at a college in Hammersmith. ‘It was quite a lot of money to go to college, about £900 a term,’ he remembers. ‘But the old man found it somehow. I think he saw it as a way of keeping me off the streets.’

Rob Greig

Back in the car, Winstone is pointing out of the window, remembering people and places. ‘I feel like a tour guide,’ he laughs. We arrive on his old street. When he lived round here in the late 1950s and early ’60s, it was all bombsites – fun to play on but dangerous. We stop outside his old house, a two-up, two-down. ‘My nan was a furrier, quite a wealthy lady,’ he says. ‘She owned about 15 houses in the area and gave my mum and dad this house to set up in when they were having me. She was a shrewd old nut.’

He gets wistful about how things have changed. The old working-class East End he knew has gone. ‘Everyone knew each other. But then they built the high rises and it was divide and conquer.’ Immigration was starting to alter the area when he lived here. ‘I remember there was a West Indian man on the street – this is really un-PC – and all the kids used to chase him up the road and touch him for luck.’ He shakes his head at the memory. ‘He was a lovely old boy. He used to let us do it cos we’d never seen a black man before. Then it started to become a threat: them and us, because of a lack of education, and fear. You saw the divide happening.’

All this talk of change feels about right for his role in ‘The Sweeney’. He stars as Regan, the Flying Squad officer played by John Thaw in the ’70s TV series. Winstone loves the character: ‘He kicks down doors and asks questions afterwards. He makes mistakes; he’s old school, and that’s what I love about him. I’m a dinosaur, really.’

He has a laugh about his sex scenes in the film with the much younger Hayley Atwell, joking that he’s not afraid to get his belly out for the camera. ‘I can’t get fit no more,’ he laughs, hugging his spare tyre. ‘I’m a 55-year-old lummox. I’ve pulled all the birds I want to pull and I’ve got a lovely wife. Why would I want to stand there like Twiggy?’ He says he’ll have to put in time at the gym in the next few weeks to prepare for a role in ‘Noah’, a biblical epic directed by Darren Aronofsky of ‘Black Swan’ fame.

It’s because of ‘Noah’ that Winstone has had to spend a few hours at the US embassy this morning. He needs a visa for the US and has to jump through hoops to get one, since he’s got some blots on his record. ‘Mainly GBHs’, as he puts it, off-handedly. But it’s a conviction for possession of cannabis that the authorities care about. ‘When I was a kid, my first acting job away was in Torquay, and everyone had a party in my room,’ he explains. ‘I can’t smoke waccy baccy, it sends me mad, but everyone else was. The next day they spun my room over and found a bit. Rather than my dad finding out, I said, yeah, I’m guilty. Now I have to sit in a room in the airport in America for four hours every time I go.’

Rob Greig

We drive through Stratford on the way to our last stop in Whitechapel. It’s the middle of the Olympics and Winstone is sniffy about the whole thing. He loves the sport side of it, but thinks it’s a waste of money. ‘There ain’t no backend to this,’ he complains. ‘I pay my taxes to have better hospitals, better teachers for our kids.’

We pull up on the Mile End Road outside a Chinese restaurant that in the 1970s and ’80s was a nightclub. ‘I was there on the day it opened and the day it closed,’ he says with pride. ‘Then it was Nashville’s, the best club in the East End. There were good people here. Heavy people, but good. If we were doing all-nighters, this was the place to be.’

Winstone’s ready to head home now. ‘So that’s my London!’ His driver is back with the Merc. ‘I could have taken you to a million places. But these were the ones that shaped my life.’ Before leaving, he launches into one last story, this time about the brown leather coat he’s wearing. The coat, he reckons, got him the job in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’. ‘I met him at The Dorchester and he said, “That’s a great jacket, kid!

If you do the film, will you wear the jacket? Yes? You’ve got the part!” ’ He shakes his head at the ridiculousness of it all, this Plaistow boy making movies in New York. Then he’s off: he disappears into the car like a burly London genie, and – archetypal East Ender that he is – back to Essex.

Read Time Out's review of The Sweeney

  • The Sweeney

    Rating: 3/5

    Reality goes out the window as Nick Love drowns out logic in favour of bluff, noise and testosterone. Events exist in no known legal or judicial system, and it feels like police advisers were actively avoided or ignored.