Wild at Heart star Stephen Tompkinson talks about his Middlesbrough roots

PUBLISHED: 09:29 15 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:52 20 February 2013

Stephen and Robin take African children for a balloon ride from last year’s documentary

Stephen and Robin take African children for a balloon ride from last year’s documentary

Wild at Heart star Stephen Tompkinson is one of the most in-demand actors on TV. He talks to Michael Hamilton about his telly fame and growing up in Stockton

MH: What are your childhood memories?

Stephen: My dad worked for the Yorkshire Bank so we moved to Scarborough when he was made assistant manager and I was about four. A few years later he got his first branch as a manager and we moved to St Annes, near Blackpool.

We are a very close family. Before mam and dad got married, dads eldest brother married mums eldest sister. We used to go back to Stockton an awful lot.

I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Windermere Road and my grandma

and granddad lived further down the same road and opposite them in Grangefield Road was my dads brother and mams sister.

I have very fond memories of growing up in Stockton, endless summers playing down at the Rec and being taken to Ayresome Park, which is where mam and dad did their courting.

Its still very much a part of me. Every holiday was spent in Stockton-on-Tees with the family. I was about six when I first saw Boro play. It was Jack Charltons aces in those days.

I remember coming home and saying: Mam, I spoke to Jack Charlton and I got a silk scarf from him. I still have it.

A lot of my family are still there but Auntie Eileen and Uncle Bernie moved to Whitley Bay. Thats where we spent this Christmas because it was their 40th wedding anniversary, the day after Boxing Day.

We all went to Tynemouth beach and braved the elements. It was packed. Its a gorgeous beach and it was great to see it so full of families with people walking their dogs.

MH: Do you get to watch Middlesbrough these days?

Stephen: I do my best to see Boro when I can. Its been a bit of a traumatic season to say the least. We are all hoping Gordon Strachan can do it. Hes a character that everyone in the game admires and respects and I think hell come good if we give him time. Everyone admires Steve Gibson. Hes one of the most honest and faithful chairmen in the game - and long may

he continue.

MH: What have you got coming up on TV?

Stephen: Im doing another balloon adventure. Were going over to Australia this time. Theres an international balloon festival in April, a couple of hours outside of Sydney, and Robin Batchelor (the pilot from the last adventure) will be representing Great Britain in the race. It will go out on TV about September time.

MH: Did you have any hairy moments on your African balloon adventure last year?

Stephen: Every landing is dangerous because you are a few thousand feet up in a laundry basket. Every landing is potentially a crash. The technology hasnt improved since the Montgolfier brothers first were lifted into the air in the 18th century!

You control your vertical and descent but thats it. The rest of the time you are at the mercy of the elements. You just get pushed along by the wind - so you never know where you are going to land.

Last year there was one occasion when we were heading towards the Ngorongoro crater (in Tanzania) and we were told before we set off that if we landed there the balloon would be confiscated and wed be fined thousands of pounds and may end up in jail.

So we had to crash land it on a hillside full of sage just a few hundred yards from about 30 elephants.

We were rescued by two Masai warrior brothers who had seen the balloon flying over their village - they had never seen a balloon before. They were incredible and got us back safe and sound.

MH: Are you surprised at the success of Wild at Heart?

Stephen: I kind of thought when I first got the script I had a similar feeling that I had when I first read the Ballykissangel script. It ticked all those boxes that it is intended to for perfect Sunday night viewing. Its intended for the widest and largest audience we can possibly reach and it goes out in the winter when its cold and dark and you get these picture postcard shots of Africa in the bush and the animals, which are incredible. I never dreamed I would get that close to these incredible creatures. It really is an amazing privilege.

MH: Have you had any close calls as vet Danny in Wild at Heart?

Stephen: The elephants can be dangerous because of their sheer size and strength and the lions have obvious perils. When we are working with the big cats we are only allowed to film them for 20 minutes or so.

We never anaesthetise an animal just for the sake of filming - its because they are having a real operation. We ring around the farms and find out if anyone has a big cat undergoing procedures then we can incorporate it into our filming.

But even when they are full of knock-out drugs they keep their eyes open throughout the whole thing which is slightly disconcerting.

For one episode we filmed a female white lion, which is a spectacular creature, and it stops breathing and Dawn (who plays his girlfriend and fellow vet Alice in the series) and I have to breathe for it.

We have a real vet who helps us through all the procedures and makes sure we are doing everything right. He says at this point: Dawn, would you reach for an endotracheal tube (which you push down the lions throat to breathe for it).

But while shes busy getting that that you put your mouth over its nose and blow up its nostrils

So I was literally six inches away from this creatures eyes which are wide open and as I put my lips to its nose it lets out this very low growl and I felt just like the cat in Tom & Jerry when hes had all the air taken out of him! But at least Im here to tell the tale.

MH: You must have some funny moments too?

Stephen: In the first series I was supposed to be operating on a cheetah and we knew we were getting an anaesthetised one for the show but we were also practising on a prosthetic one.

In this scene it was hard to tell whether it was the real one or not because it had a green operating cloth over it. I knew it was the prosthetic one but Deon (who plays Anders Du Plessis in the show) didnt. So I got its tail and flicked his arm with it. He nearly had a heart attack.

MH: You did Grafters with Robson Green. That must have

been fun.

Stephen: We had a ball when we filmed Grafters. I got all the family along to Whitley Bay when we did it. Robson and I were friends before but it was great to get the opportunity to go to work together every day. We still keep in touch and coincidentally his last Wild Swimming Adventure show was directed by the same guy who will be directing my Australian balloon adventure.

MH: If you werent an actor what would you have liked to do?

Stephen: I wouldnt mind travelling the world as a cricket commentator, enjoying endless summers - until you got back to England of course! That would be a joyous job or I wouldnt mind teaching drama. I was lucky enough to have two fantastic teachers when I was at school

in St Annes.

MH: And what do you do when youre not busy working?

Stephen: Ive got a nine-year-old daughter, Daisy, and I love seeing the world through her eyes. Shes fantastic company so I try to spend as much time as I can with her. She loves coming out to Africa with me and shes grown up with a lot of these animals, which is a fantastic education for her.

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