My wild days are over: After two failed marriages and a disastrous engagement, Stephen Tompkinson gave up drinking. Now his sights are set on marriage number three
When Stephen Tompkinson returned to England recently after yet another lengthy spell in South Africa filming ITV drama Wild At Heart, he knew exactly what was on his ‘to do’ list. First, spend some quality time with his 11-year-old daughter Daisy and his partner Elaine, having not seen nearly enough of either of them during the previous five months. Second, organise Christmas. Third, trawl Surrey in search of a new home for them.
‘Elaine and I are looking to buy somewhere in Surrey so we can get into London easily,’ says 46-year-old Teessider Stephen, who’s been playing vet Danny Trevanion in the African game reserve drama for six years.
‘If that part of the world’s good enough for Chelsea footballers, it’s good enough for me. But seriously, once we find somewhere to live, everything else will fall into place.’
He's behind you! Stephen Tompkinson takes evasive action on the Wild At Heart set
The twinkle in Stephen’s eye when he mentions Elaine, his partner of four years, might suggest a triumph of hope over experience.
Two marriages – to a radio producer called Celia and more recently to Nicci, the mother of his daughter Daisy – ended in divorce and he failed to make it to the altar at all after famously becoming engaged to his Ballykissangel co-star Dervla Kirwan. So is marriage, perhaps even children, with 39-year-old Glaswegian Elaine, on the cards
I’m not ruling anything out,’ says Stephen. ‘Elaine’s sister got married last summer so the path is clear for us in that sense. But let’s get the house sorted first and then the picture will look clearer. And it’s a very nice-looking picture.’
His TV alter ego doesn’t provide much romantic inspiration. Danny Trevanion’s first wife Sarah (Amanda Holden) died in a fire, and he spends much of this latest series on his own, as his second wife Alice (played by Dawn Steele) is pregnant back home in Britain.
But Danny’s far too busy with the menagerie of animals he has to deal with to feel lonely. In the first episode he has to carry out surgery on an abandoned pet tiger and lead an elephant back to its home across a swollen river.
Does loneliness stalk Stephen when he’s stuck out in rural South Africa, either at the Glen Afric game reserve where Wild At Heart is filmed or at Pecanwood, the exclusive estate just down the road where many of the cast rent houses for months on end
‘No, because I’ve got people around me I’ve known for years. I reckon 60 to 70 per cent of the crew have been on Wild At Heart since it started in 2006 and we’ve become good friends.
All in this together: Stephen with co-stars Lucy-Jo Hudson and Bailey the cheetah
‘I obviously miss Daisy and Elaine when
they’re not here, but they both came out during the filming of this
latest series – Daisy was out for a whole month at one point. Not that I
saw a lot of her. She was on horseback within two hours of getting off
the plane and she stayed in the saddle for most of her stay.
'When she’s in South Africa she becomes this other kid, relishing the clean air and wide open spaces. And when they aren’t here, I’ve always got my iPad and Skype.
'Because there’s not much of a time difference I can see and talk to Daisy pretty much whenever I want. It really is a little technological miracle.’
Stephen’s own life has seen a noticeable upturn in recent years. Sporadic professional triumphs as a young actor – he first emerged as hapless TV reporter Damien in Drop The Dead Donkey before Father Clifford in Ballykissangel made him a star in the late 90s – have been replaced by more substantial and enduring jobs.
‘Once we find a place to live everything will start to fall into place’
He’s now one of ITV’s biggest stars, filming travel shows in which he hot-air ballooned over South Africa and Australia as well as playing the lead role in two current primetime series, DCI Banks and Wild At Heart.
Soon, his relationship with Elaine will have lasted longer than those with either of his two wives or Dervla Kirwan.
His decision to give up alcohol seven years ago has, he says, helped improve the quality of his life – ‘the clarity of thought and the extra time in your day that sobriety brings are so welcome’ – although don’t underestimate the impact Elaine has had on him since they met in a Glasgow piano bar in 2007.
‘She’s made the most enormous difference. She’s calmed me down and made me worry less about the future,’ he says. ‘I used to be a terrible worrier – about my career, about life in general – but she’s helped me realise you can’t enjoy the here and now if you’re always thinking about what might happen tomorrow.
‘Although that won’t stop me worrying whether Wild At Heart’s going to get an eighth series…’
NEVER WORK WITH FAME-HUNTING ANIMALS!
The last thing you want to hear when
you climb aboard an elephant that’s about to carry you into a deep lake
is that it hasn’t been behaving itself lately, so hold on tight.
Shishiru then tried his best to throw me off during a memorable half
hour at Adventures With Elephants, a large complex near South Africa’s
border with Zimbabwe that offers visitors the chance to ride some of the
most magnificent beasts on Earth.
It’s where Stephen Tompkinson filmed
key scenes for the first episode of the new series of Wild At Heart, his
character Danny leading an elephant from the unhappy confines of an
animal park across a river to roam free in a national park.
Running wild: Journalist Tim Oglethorpe on the back of rebellious elephant Shishiru
Like me, Stephen found the elephants a
law unto themselves – and far keener to get out of the cold water than
they were to appear on TV.
‘The plan was for me to be on one of the
elephants, rather than swimming beside it, but it quickly became clear
he just wanted to get from one side of the lake to the other as quickly
as possible, and I didn’t feature in his plans at all,’ says Stephen.
‘So I just swam in front of him and we pretended he was doing what I was
telling him to do!’
If the elephants were reluctant stars,
there have been plenty of furry four-legged prima donnas during Wild At
Heart’s six years.
There was the lion, Rommel, who would
only go on set accompanied by his clingy girlfriend, Ali Cat. ‘He’d
growl and bare his teeth if he didn’t get his way and we’d have to make
sure she was in the background while he was filming,’ says the show’s
animal handler Vicky Brooker.
Making friends: Lucy the giraffe, who was impregnanted by the much loved, and recently deceased, Hamley
‘Others have been blatant showbiz
wannabes. Bovril the cheetah would purr so loudly during takes we had to
dub him out later, while the late lamented Hamley the giraffe was so
fame-hungry we had to stop filming 11 times in one series as he kept
wandering into shot.’
Hamley may have ruined the odd scene
but he was a much-loved member of the cast. He died, aged six, after
being struck by lightning in 2010 and a plaque at the entrance to Glen
Afric game reserve reads Hamley – A True Star. ‘He’d come to the balcony
of my dressing room every morning on the second floor of the production
building to say hello,’ says Stephen. ‘Then he’d amble over to make-up
and say hi to them too.’
Hamley became so attached to the
people on Wild At Heart, he’d sulk when they were about to finish a
series and return to Britain. ‘He’d walk down to the offices and very
dramatically collapse to the ground, looking truly pathetic as he did
so,’ recalls Stephen. ‘One of his final acts was to make Lucy the
giraffe pregnant and she’s now carrying his baby. So we’re standing by
for Son – or Daughter – Of Hamley.’
To find out more about Adventures With Elephants visit www.efaf.co.za
Wild At Heart returns to ITV1 tomorrow at 8.30pm.