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

Photo:Getty
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.