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 Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis