Julie Walters at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2010. Photo: Richard Saker/Rex
Show Hide image

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

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage