He became famous at 17, when he landed a part in The Royle Family. Plans to pursue a career in medicine were put on hold while, as put-upon Antony, he became the butt of endless jokes and made countless cups of tea for his sweary, sofa-bound family. At 23, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps cemented his reputation as a TV comic actor. But along with his sitcom success, Ralf has had an impressive stage career. His debut, as a young George Harrison in Presence at the Royal Court, earned him an Olivier Award nomination. More recent West End productions include The Ladykillers and Dead Funny. And now he’s realised a career ambition – to appear on stage at the National Theatre.
Ugly Lies the Bone is a new show by American playwright Lindsey Ferrentino. Billed as a comedic drama, it explores the physical and emotional struggles of a soldier returning to her hometown on Florida’s Space Coast after a third tour of duty in Afghanistan. Jess’s face and body have been horrifically burned and she’s undergoing a revolutionary new treatment using virtual reality. Ralf plays an old flame Stevie – an affable, awkward gas station attendant who tries to rekindle their romance.
The play is an intense emotional roller coaster. And for Ralf it’s a career milestone: “It’s what you aim for as an actor. You’re right out of your comfort zone, playing an American, on a vast stage at the pinnacle of British theatre,” he says. Despite being an “absolutely authentic slice of Americana,” Ralf believes that the play will resonate with London audiences. “It’s about a town that’s had the life drained out of it with the ending of the Space Shuttle programme,” he explains. “But the remarkable thing is, that if you changed the details to a coal mine or a dockyard, you could be watching Billy Elliot or Brassed Off.”
The set is jaw-dropping – virtual landscapes form and dissolve in front of the audience’s eyes. “You can hear the feedback from the audience,” says Ralf. “I’ve played a lot of comedy, so I’m used to hearing laughs, but in this production it’s gasps.” So does Ralf think we’ll be seeing more theatre involving virtual reality? “I can see that there might be a hybrid where the audience has VR headsets and takes them on and off at different times in the play. I’ve just had that idea, by the way,” he laughs, “I’d better copyright it!”
Ralf already has two decades as an actor, writer and producer under his belt, but his performing career goes back even further. At the age of 12, his mum shipped him off to drama group in his hometown of Bury. The woman who ran it then set up her own agency, and Ralf bagged his first part at 13 in a children’s TV series called Sloggers. After that he got regular jobs in series like Heartbeat and Children’s Ward.
His big break came in his final year of A-levels. His agent called to ask if he wanted to meet Caroline Aherne to audition for a new series. Aherne was at the height of her fame, as Mrs Merton, and Ralf was completely starstruck. “I thought: ‘No way!’ I couldn’t believe it!” His recall of the audition is a little hazy, “I didn’t think it went brilliantly.” But he does remember that his Dad got a parking ticket. By the time Ralf got home, they’d rung to offer him the part. “It was the day that changed my life,” he says, simply.
Working on The Royle Family not only supercharged Ralf’s acting career, it also taught him an enormous amount about writing: “I wanted to have some control over my career and the parts that I played. I was really impressed by the way Craig [Cash] and Caroline worked. They had absolute autonomy. The first thing I wrote [a sitcom called The Café], was very much influenced by their gentle, character-based humour,” he says. Ralf has also picked up tips from another god of TV drama, Mark Gatiss, co-writer of Sherlock and Dr. Who. “I collared him at the BFI and asked him what to do when I found myself stuck, staring at a blank screen. He said: ‘Writing is all about staring at a blank screen. It’s hard work.’’’
The mention of Mark Gatiss leads us on to one of Ralf’s upcoming projects, a role that may or may not be a character called Steadfast in a TV series that may or may not be Dr. Who. Secrecy around the programme is legendary, Ralf explains, and he cannot confirm or deny the rumours. “Someone who visited the set in Cardiff took a picture of some actors’ headshots in the production trailer and leaked them. Twitter went insane. So the BBC released this tongue-in-cheek video online of me inside a police telephone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Make of that what you will!”
Before we wrap up, I ask Ralf about his experience of living and working in London. “I came down here from Bury to work on The Royle Family and the production company put me up in the Hilton on Holland Park Avenue. There’s a tendency for people to settle near the first place they lived when they moved to the city, so I guess that’s why I live in Shepherd’s Bush now.” He loves the mix of posh gastropubs, old-school cafés, ethnic grocery stores – and the fact that the area is near a “great football club” [for non-footie fans, that’s Queen’s Park Rangers]. Back in Ralf’s twenties, the West End was a clubbing destination, now it’s where he works (his production company office is near Oxford Circus). “I’m in town every day,” he says, “and I love Soho, but I don’t want it to become too gentrified.”
So what’s next for Ralf, apart from the rumoured role in Dr. Who? I’m startled when he tells me that he’s workshopping a second series of the mockumentary Borderline during the day and playing Stevie at the National at night. That sounds brutal, I say. “I’m pretty tired,” admits Ralf. And he has another writing project about to go into production – a TV series about a British detective in Hong Kong. “It’s the first thing I’ve written on my own,” he says. And judging by the passionate way he’s been talking about this strand of his career, I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
Ugly Lies the Bone runs until 6 June at the Lyttelton Theatre (nationaltheatre.org.uk)