James Michael Aloysius Bradford was born in Newcastle upon Tyne to father Jimmy and mother Laura. His father was an Irish Catholic shipyard worker, amateur boxer, and professional footballer (soccer, in North America). He describes himself as an angry, uncivilized kid who was expelled from secondary school for setting fire to curtains. When he was 13, his older sister, Shelagh, died at the age of 20. Feeling lost and confused, he spent time drinking, fighting, and rebelling against authority. He got into a fight after a football match and was sent to prison. After prison he worked in a glass factory. While sweeping glass he stood on a six-inch spike that went through his foot and thereafter was called "Nail", a name he later adopted professionally. Also at that time he played guitar in a rock band called the King Crabs. HIs other sister Valerie is now Head of Drama at Sunderland University.
Nail's wife, Miriam, encouraged him to audition for a television show, though he had no experience as an actor. He won the role of Leonard Jeffrey "Oz" Osborne on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, a situation comedy about construction workers on the job in the U.S., Germany, Spain, and Cuba. The show turned him into a celebrity. In 2013, members of the cast returned to Newcastle to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the show's beginning.
In 2000 he began work on reviving the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet series, this time for the BBC. It was filmed in 2001 and aired in 2002, with audience figures of over 12 million. Another series saw the brickies holed up in Cuba, and the final two-hour instalment, set in Laos, aired over Christmas 2004 attracting over 7 million viewers.
After the first two series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Nail found himself typecast before creating the detective series Spender, which he co-wrote with Ian La Frenais. The show ran for three series from 1991 to 1993 and also produced a tele-film and a novel. This was followed in 1994 by Crocodile Shoes, which he also created and starred as musician Jed Shepherd.
In 2008, Nail created and starred as Phil Parker in Parents of the Band, a 6 x 30 mins series on BBC1, broadcast between November 2008 and January 2009. The series revolves around a group of teenagers who form a band just for their own enjoyment, and their parents, who fully expect them to be nothing less than the next Led Zeppelin. Ratings were disappointing, around the three million mark, and there are presently no plans for a second series.
Although he made a living through acting, his first love was music. He had pop hits with "Ain't No Doubt", written by Charlie Dore, "Crocodile Shoes", and "Love Don't Live Here Anymore". His album Growing Up in Public (East West, 1992) featured Gary Moore, David Gilmour, and George Harrison. Crocodile Shoes (East West, 1994) was based on the BBC television series of the same name, in which he played a mediocre country singer. The album sold nearly one million copies in Great Britain. Big River featured guitarist Mark Knopfler. Ten Great Songs and an OK Voice (Papillion, 2001) included cover versions of "Walking on the Moon" by The Police, "Something" by the Beatles, and "Overjoyed" by Stevie Wonder. He sang on the film soundtracks for Evita and Still Crazy.
He was actively involved in the Sammy Johnson Memorial Fund, established to help young talent in North East England. To aid this, he participated in the Sunday for Sammy benefit concerts, until workload forced him to resign from the board.
Nail came out of retirement to act and sing in The Last Ship, a musical by Sting about the shipbuilders of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the hometown of both Nail and Sting. Sting grew up in Wallsend, down the street from the shipyards. Nail worked in the shipyards and is the son of a shipyard foreman. The show opened in Chicago. On Broadway, when ticket sales began to drop, Sting replaced Nail to try to save the musical, but it ended after a short run. Nail sang on the Original Broadway Cast Recording and on Sting's album, The Last Ship.
Nail played Parson Nathaniel in War of the Worlds at the Dominion Theatre, London in 2016.
He appeared with Madonna and Antonio Banderas in the film Evita (1996), directed by Alan Parker and adapted from the musical. Two years later, he co-starred in the film Still Crazy.
He played the role of gamekeeper Rabbetts in the film Danny, the Champion of the World, based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl.
In 2004, Nail successfully sued News Group Newspapers and Harper Collins Publishers. The lawsuit concerned false and defamatory allegations made two years before in an article in News of the World, a British newspaper, and Nailed, a biography which was the newspaper's source for the claims. He described reading the article as one of the worst experiences of his life. He reportedly received damages of £30,000.
His work has resulted in five BAFTA nominations (three in total for A.W.P., one for Spender, one for Crocodile Shoes), a Golden Globe nomination (Best Original Song – "Still Crazy"), an Ivor Novello nomination (for "Ain't No Doubt") and numerous other awards and nominations.
Nail married Miriam Jones. They have two boys, Tommy and Freddie and live in London.Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – (1983–'84, 1986, 2002, 2004)... as Leonard Jeffrey "Oz" Osborne
Spyship – (1983) ... as Metcalfe
Minder – (1984)... as Nathan Loveridge in the episode "The Car Lot Baggers"
Blott on the Landscape (1985)... as Edwards
Master of the Game (1985)... as Schmidt
Raoul Wallenberg (1986)... as Vilmos Langfelder
Nicking Kids (1986)...as Criminal 1
Lenny Henry Tonite (1986) as Guest Star
Shoot for the Sun (1986)... as Geordie
Spender (1991–93)... as Freddie Spender
Crocodile Shoes (1994, 1996)... as Jed Shepperd
Parents of the Band (2008) ... as Phil Parker
Morons from Outer Space (1985)... as Desmond
Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985)...as "Punk"
Dream Demon (1987)... as Paul
Just Ask for Diamond (1988)... as Boyle
Crusoe (1989)... as Tarik
Danny, the Champion of the World (1990)... as Rabbets
Evita (1996)... as Agustín Magaldi
Still Crazy (1998)... as Les Wickes
The 10th Kingdom (2000)... as Clayface the Goblin
Spender (1991–93) – actor, writer, producer, creator
Crocodile Shoes (1994) – actor, writer, executive producer, creator
Crocodile Shoes II (1996) – actor, writer, executive producer, title music composer, creator
Parents of the Band (2008–09) – actor, creator, executive producer, title music composer