He was directing the cockney actor in Nil By Mouth, his powerful 1997 London-based domestic drama, and was setting up an exterior shot in Old Compton Street in Soho. "But there was this van that kept edging into the frame," remembers Oldman. "The driver was working on the market there and I very politely asked him whether he could move his van just two feet so it was out of the shot, but the bloke then asked for £500. So I'm standing there scratching my head and Ray comes up and says, 'What's the matter, Gal?'"
The perplexed Oldman tells Winstone his problem. "Leave it with me, Gal," says Winstone, who walks up to the van driver with his fists balled before blurting out, "Oi! Move your f****** van! Or you won't ever move it again!" Oldman chuckles at the memory. "The guy moved the van," he says.
The clear moral of this story is that one does not mess with Winstone. In many ways it is upon this mantra that much of the Hackney-born actor's career has been built. He's the archetypal man's man, a working-class hero, a bloke who's brought raw testosterone bubbling on to screens ever since he tooled up and bellowed "I'm the daddy now" in Alan Clarke's bruising borstal movie, Scum, back in 1979.
He is the go-to geezer when it comes to advertising products to men, from betting odds on television to commercial vehicles on radio. In his film career he's regularly stepped forward as a fighter, teaming up with Indiana Jones and King Arthur, among others. He's been Dickens's most infamous criminal, Abel Magwitch, and has even slain that nightmare monster of myth, Grendel, when inhabiting the animated and ancient warrior Beowulf. This month he's cracking heads and breaking bones once again, crashing forth as the iconic hard-man Jack Regan in a feature film adaptation of The Sweeney.
The film is based on the 1970s' ITV series of the same name, which starred the late, great John Thaw as Regan, a no-nonsense copper in the Metropolitan Police Force's Flying Squad, and Dennis Waterman as his partner, George Carter. Nick Love, the filmmaker behind adrenalin-fuelled movies such as The Football Factory, The Business, Outlaw and The Firm, directs the new, feature-length incarnation. His films appeal to young men, and he's recruited wisely, bringing on board rapper, singer and aspiring filmmaker Ben Drew (aka Plan B) in the George Carter role.
"A lot of people younger than 40 might not know The Sweeney TV show that well," says Winstone, 55, "but the idea is that my character is a dinosaur in it, and I think Ben Drew will bring it to a whole new generation. My generation knows about The Sweeney, and while there's a whole new audience that have heard, 'You slag, you are nicked,' and all that, they won't have seen the show."
British coppers were not the coolest-looking law enforcers in TV world until The Sweeney, which replaced the "mind how you go" world of Dixon Of Dock Green, bringing the action and flair of American police series to UK audiences. In a bid to keep the film version slick and cool, Love has shot a neon-infused London, which looks vibrant and modern.
"The way Nick Love has shot London is fantastic," says Winstone. "It's about time because they have actually lit London now. London four or five years ago was, well, not a second-rate city, but it wasn't lit. It wasn't dressed at night. But on The Sweeney we were shooting on these beautiful blue nights and all around us going to the City, where the Gherkin is, was lit up with neon and you think, 'F*** me, this is some city now.'
"If you watch the original Sweeney it was like old London after the war, still bombed-out houses in the 1970s, so London has come a long way in the past 30 and 40 years. I am really excited about the film – I love it – but you are also there to be kicked in the balls if it goes pear-shaped."
Whether he's kicked in the particulars or not, only time will tell, but there's no doubt that, on paper, Jack Regan represents an ideal role for Winstone – his version of the character is something of an anachronism, bidding to wage a shady war on criminals even as his squad is under internal investigation for its hard-handed tactics.
The Sweeney also brings the actor back to the very beginning of his career. In 1976 Winstone was enrolled at the Corona Stage Academy. Encouraged to try his hand in the real world, the teenager took his first job as an extra and pitched up at a pub in Hammersmith. He had landed a bit part on the third series of The Sweeney, an episode called Loving Arms.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he says, recalling his professional debut. "I was adding in lines and saying stuff, which I wasn't supposed to do. It was an extra 30 quid if you had a speaking line, but I didn't know that. Then, at the end of the episode, when we get away, and the Sweeney shoot at us, I jumped over a fence. They said 'That's not in the script, why did you do that?' And I said, 'Well, you never caught me.' And they kept that in. I got away!"
If Winstone showed a less than professional attitude back then, it wasn't down to a lack of enthusiasm. Far from it. Rather, at the time, he simply did not believe that he would go on to become a successful actor. Times were hard in the 1970s and Winstone thought he was puffing on a pipe dream.
"It was just me not really understanding the business that I was in," says Winstone. He met his wife, Elaine, while making the 1979 movie, That Summer, and they were relatively young when they had their first two daughters, Lois and Jaime.
"Being young, the money or lack of it never bothered me the first time," he says of his early days as a father, "but they give you a certain sort of oomph, kids, and your way of living changes because you want to do things right all of a sudden. We never ever thought about our financial position when we decided to have kids. It was just 'You'll get by. You'll do it.'"
Winstone didn't always get by and he's twice been declared bankrupt, in 1988 and 1993. "To be honest with you, I wasn't working enough," he concedes. "I was quite undisciplined about it because I never believed I was good enough or that I would actually stay at it as a career.
"There was some prejudice when I was in college because the way I spoke was a bit of a threat. Maybe it is inverted snobbery on my part but you do feel sometimes as if people look at you and think, 'He's not a member of the arts.' In a way that can destroy you or drive you on and it has driven me on. It has been like, 'I'll f****** show you.'"
The defining moment came with Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman's only feature as a director. Oldman wrote the lead role for Winstone. "And Gary let me go," he says. "He let me off the leash and trusted me. And when someone that talented writes something for you and actually has a belief in you, you think, 'Hold on a minute, I don't want to let him down and I don't want to let myself down.' And from that moment I started to take acting really seriously."
The move has paid off handsomely and Winstone's CV is littered with an eclectic range of projects including films as memorable as Sexy Beast, Cold Mountain, The Proposition, The Departed and, most recently, Snow White & The Huntsman, in which he lined up alongside Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and a host of other British notables as one of the seven dwarves. Now in his mid-50s and something of giant of the British TV and film industry, Winstone is a settled family man. He's a resident of Essex and when travelling into London for work doesn't like to come much further than the East End. We're meeting in a comfy and rather cool underground cinema in Shoreditch.
He is frank and honest in person, much as you'd expect, and he talks fondly of our location. Winstone is synonymous with this neck of the woods and questions about his upbringing take him back to misty mornings with his dad in the early 1960s, loading fruit in Spitalfields Market. "There were so many characters at the time, the old school, and my dad knew most of them," he recollects. "They were like uncles in a way."
Even the less than savoury characters had something decent about them. "They used to have old fighters down there, old scallywags, I suppose. There was an atmosphere about the place, and you met lots of different characters, good people. I have seen some strange things." He remembers a fight between two men who stopped midway through to take a quick cup of tea. "And then they went back out and carried on. It was kind of an honour among people. I took a lot out of that kind of time, a lot from being down Spitalfields Market."
If he misses the tight sense of community it's more than compensated by life in Essex. "I am there with my pigs and all that," he says. "I just f****** chill. I like village life. I live a mile outside of the village, but you get that community feeling in the pub. That is what I suppose someone my age looks for: a bit of community."
When he's not tending his pigs or mixing with the community, Winstone still has parenting duties to uphold. His elder daughters may have flown the nest – he has worked with them both on screen this year, Jaime on Elfie Hopkins and Lois on the straight-to-DVD Hot Potato – but he and his wife Elaine are still raising Ellie Rae, who has yet to hit her teens.
"Probably, having Ellie Rae mellowed me a bit," he says. "It was almost like a brick wall: whoomph. I am now mellow. I still have my moments, but they are few and far between and I am much more relaxed about things and other people. I don't get annoyed about other people so much unless it's really, really bad."
Which takes us back to Soho and Nil By Mouth, back in the late 1990s, and the incident with Gary Oldman and the van driver when Winstone was anything but mellow. The reason for his aggression was not just his natural courage and willingness to help a friend who was helping him. It also involved his family, and that really is the key to Winstone.
"I remember I said to Gal, 'All that bloke with the van wants is to make a few quid, have a drink. Give him 100 quid and he will f*** off.' But Gary wouldn't do it so I went up to this bloke and I said something like, 'Listen, mate, you are holding up the filming but more importantly you are holding up my time and I want to get home and see my kids.
"'So the best thing you can do is to f*** right off because you and me will fall out.' I wanted to see my kids, not stand there because of him so he got it. Like Gary told you, he went on his way." n
The Sweeney (15) is out on Wednesday.