Julie Walters at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2010. Photo: Richard Saker/Rex
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Julie Walters: “I don’t think I’m posh enough to be a dame”

The actress on work, travel – and why she'd be perfectly happy growing tomatoes. 

A former senior BBC executive likes to play a game called “Dead or Not?”, which involves throwing out the name of a Thatcherite cabinet minister or US secretary of state from decades past and challenging the participant to say if their obituary has been printed yet. Because of the fallibility of human memory and the achievements of private medicine, the sport has often produced extra­ordinary results.

Yet there was never a defeat as shocking as the one I suffered in the related game of “Dame or Not?”, when I told the press officer in the lobby of a London hotel that I had come to talk to “Dame Julie Walters”. I discreetly sought a second opinion from Google, because the actress is so loved by the public and by judges of acting that it seemed inconceivable that she had not yet joined Judi, Maggie, Penelope and Harriet in the highest female category of the British empire honours. Surely, I suggest to Walters, the DBE letter must be inevitable?

“I don’t know,” she says. “Is it? I don’t think I’m posh enough.”

Whereas theatrical dames have usually emerged from Rada, the Central School of Speech and Drama or Oxford University, Walters’s alma mater was what was then Manchester Polytechnic. Her most important performing college was Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in the mid-1970s, where she met Willy Russell, who created Educating Rita for her, and Alan Bleasdale, who wrote her a part in his television series The Boys from the Blackstuff.

The trailer for Educating Rita (1983)

Because of those roles, some people think of her as a Liverpudlian but the accent of her working-class, Irish-Catholic childhood in Birmingham remains unchanged in person. She has a musical ear for the way people talk, spookily reproducing the high, lisping tones of the late Labour politician Marjorie Mowlam in the 2010 TV film Mo. With that role, she achieved the rare feat of being nominated against herself in the Bafta Best Actress category, having played in the same year the assisted dying campaigner Anne Turner in A Short Stay in Switzerland. This gave her an unusual dilemma at the prize ceremony: “I had two different speeches in my head and I thought: ‘Oh, God, I mustn’t get mixed up and thank the wrong people.’” As it turned out, she won for Mo.

Somewhere between the recognition she has and the damehood she hasn’t stands the problematic unofficial British title of “national treasure”, in which order she is routinely included. “It’s just a press thing, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s a label put on someone of a certain age who’s been on telly a bit.”

“But don’t you also have to be quite likeable as well?” I ask her. “No one ever calls [I give the name of a notoriously unpleasant actor] a national treasure, do they?”

“That’s true. Well, it’s lovely if people like me. But I don’t know how to respond to it. I mean, there must be plenty of people who see me and think, ‘Oh, bloody hell, no!’ I don’t go to work to be a national treasure.”

The British empire is the subject of her latest contender for a Bafta award. In the ten-part Channel 4 drama Indian Summers – the start of a project that, if successful, may expand to five series – Walters is Cynthia Coffin, an earthy military widow who runs a club catering to the British officers and civil servants of the Raj while they summer in the Himalayan foothills.

Indian Summers trailer.

Walters is unusual in being gifted in all three of the main dramatic genres: tragedy, comedy and musical. In 2000, she played the tortured Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons – a woman who suspects that her husband is responsible for the deaths of soldiers like her son – and she reprised her windmill-limbed creation Mrs Overall for Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques: the Musical! in 2005. Her part in Indian Summers is nicely shaped to display her range: she jokes and sings but can also, with a shadowing of the face when Cynthia’s husband is mentioned, suggest a painful marriage.

The programme deliberately fills in the Indian side of the story that was largely omitted from the 1984 ITV series The Jewel in the Crown. “It’s about how the two communities dealt with each other. In The Jewel in the Crown there was only one Indian character, but in this there’s a major Indian family which becomes involved in the struggle for independence.”

What criteria does she use when choosing a role from a presumably large number of job offers? “People imagine a huge pile of scripts and it’s not like that. But I get a decent trickle of stuff. Most of it, I don’t want to do any more, either because it’s like something I’ve done before or simply because I’m older now, so I don’t have that same drive to keep going.”

She reveals that her acting CV might have been completed four years ago. “When I was 60, I thought [whispers], ‘I’m not sure I want to do this any more.’ I’d shaved my head for Mo and my hair grew back white and there was something about that that made me think I was in a different place and want to take stock. And so I didn’t really do anything for a year, except for a few days on Potter [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows]. And I thought: ‘How bothered would I be if no more work came in?’ I was quite happy on the farm [she and her husband run an organic venture], growing my tomatoes.”

Then Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre sent her the script of Stephen Beresford’s debut play The Last of the Haussmans, offering her the role of a former hippie in old age. “I thought, ‘I really want to do this!’ And I discovered that that feeling was still in me,” she says. “I realised that I didn’t want to give up and that the pleasure was still there. But it’s not the same as when you’re young, scrabbling for a career and needing to prove yourself. Now, whether I do something is governed by different things: is it different from other things I’ve done? Is it funny? Is it touching?”

A major factor, she confides, is who she will be working with. “If it’s someone who’s got a reputation from hell, then no. Life’s too short.”

“You have sometimes avoided a project because of an actor?”

“Yes. I don’t go to work to be with people who are prickly or difficult. I go for the pleasure of it.”

“Pleasure” is an interesting word, because some actors hate the job and are tortured and agonised on-set or onstage. “I absolutely love acting,” she says. “On Mo, [we were] doing a very difficult scene with Toby Jones and we did a take and I was happy and moved on. Toby said, ‘Some people would have done that one over and over again . . . You really love acting.’ And I thought it was such a strange thing to say. So I said, ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ And he said, ‘Er, no.’”

I tell her the story of a (very good) stage actor who, according to showbiz anecdote, is regularly to be found in the wings announcing his intention of quitting the profession after the run or even during the interval. Walters listens as if hearing science fiction: “Wow! That’s so interesting. I can’t imagine that.”


Julie Walters (L) and Victoria Wood in Julie Walters and Friends, 1991.

Before coming to meet her, I re-watched the 1982 series Boys from the Blackstuff, which gave Walters her breakthrough television part. It includes a marital bust-up scene in which she and Michael Angelis go at each other like boxers in the 15th round. Surely, I suggest, it’s hard to enjoy acting such material. “Emotional scenes are very draining,” she agrees. “With A Short Stay in Switzerland, I was glad when it was finished. I enjoyed finding and getting the character right but it just became so depressing, playing someone who was planning her own death. Mo wasn’t like that, even though she dies in the end, because she was such a life force.”

Along with Mowlam and Anne Turner, Walters has also played the educationalist Marie Stubbs in Ahead of the Class (2005) and the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse in Filth (2008). Would she now avoid protagonists who can be found in the newspapers? “That wouldn’t be a factor,” she says. “I’d look at how well written the script was and whether it did them justice. I was actually offered two scripts about Mary Whitehouse at the same time. But the other one was taking the piss out of her, which was very easy to do – very easy with anyone  – and so I went for the one I did, which was more balanced.”

Her aim in playing Mowlam or Whitehouse was to find the “real person behind the public figure”. The key to her uncanny interpretation of the former Northern Ireland secretary was that she was sent unedited footage from an ITV documentary in which the camera kept running between takes of the interview, so that Walters was able to watch Mowlam in “on” and “off” modes and switching between them. “That was invaluable. Someone’s intimate, private speech rhythms are different from their public voice and you have to get both.”

She was recently forced to reflect personally on this duality by a BBC documentary featuring clips from her acting roles and from TV interviews and awards shows. “It wasn’t hard watching myself in character – it was me being me that was embarrassing. There were bits I’d never seen, like being drunk onstage at the Baftas and being at the Oscars.”

A major reason that the nation treasures Walters is her collaboration with Victoria Wood. They first worked together in 1978 on a comedy review called In at the Death; later that year, Walters was cast in the TV version of Wood’s debut play, Talent. Their roles as friends – Wood the dour, uncertain one, Walters perky and glamorous – who enter a talent contest have encouraged the misapprehension that they met on a talent show rather than in a TV studio where, Walters says, they were “best friends from the first minute”. The play’s producer, Peter Eckersley, spotted a potential double act to sate the industry’s hunger at that time for a female Morecambe and Wise. French and Saunders were already on the comedy circuit but Wood and Walters beat them to TV and so can be regarded as comedy pioneers.

They have been busy on separate projects but a reunion seems likely. “Vic did just say, ‘Let’s have a cup of tea,’ because I think she’s got an idea for something. I think it might be a film.” Generally, Wood sends her the script and Walters seeks no input in the writing. As often in successful artistic pairings, they have opposite temperaments. “She is the calm one. I’m the nervous one. We’re probably more working friends than social friends but we are friends. I think a lot of Vic and I know she does of me.”

Ratings and other reactions will decide whether Indian Summers will go to a second season. “I wouldn’t sign up beyond the first series. I’m too old to be tied down like that and I’d like to choose if I do another one.” Her husband, Grant, who runs their farm in Sussex, was unable to come to Malaysia (which stands in for India) for the first series because it was an important time in the fields, but if she films there again, Walters is keen for him to travel with her to Cambodia and Vietnam, an ambition of theirs. She says he’ll get his holiday only if the second set of Indian Summers scripts is good enough.

She turns 65 this month, though 60 is more of a landmark these days, with the various discounts that become available. “I’ve got my travel pass. And at the cinema, I always say, ‘Senior, senior!’” She is more relaxed than many actresses about getting older. “As long as your career wasn’t based on your beauty, I don’t think it’s so terrible.”

There is no hit list of future roles but she has never done Chekhov and would like to – Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard seems a natural fit. “Acting is what I do. It’s the texture of my life and I’m not just a farmer’s wife,” she says. “I’m aware that I may be forced to give up one day. My health is generally fine. But my mother has glaucoma and my brother has it. And so will I be able to see? So now I tend to think that I’ll seize the good stuff while it’s there.”

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era