Once upon a time in the Midlands

At times, Julie Walters's memoir sounds like a prayer to her loved ones

Not much happened in Julie Walters's early life, which is what made the first episodes of her self-narrated memoir That's Another Story (Book of the Week, 9.45am and 12.30am, daily until 3 October, Radio 4) such a whizz.

The stuff she conjured. Her mother snapping, "Put him back in" when Julie's fat brother was born. A boy called Robert, on Longwide Road somewhere in the Midlands in the late 1950s, eating a slice of bread and dropping the crust, only for the ten-year-old Julie to gather it up, detect the wetness of his saliva on the remains, and feel a frisson of desire. Mrs Waller, glamorous proprietor of the corner shop, standing in her pink pinafore and calling through to the back for her shy son Trevor, a boy Julie transformed in her daydreams into a creature so sexy, she was forced to rename him Tony.

The book was clearly written to be read out loud - specifically by Walters, the actress's talent for mimicry being the screw that held the whole construction together. Here's a bit from a scene at home on Julie's 15th birthday, spoken in the alternate Irish and Liverpudlian accents of her parents, with Julie's adult interjections in brackets. Her mother starts the story: "My waters broke (a slight vibrato begins). Your father and I got on the bus (she knows that I need to know and that she needs to recite it). The cord was around your neck. They got in the priest (I cast Father Gillespie in the part, our parish priest). They could only save one of us! Your father had to choose (this statement is made with a terrible, flat resignation. Like the best of actors she knows that less is more). He chose you! (Her voice is of a sad, bewildered child. My mother's father had never chosen her.) Yeah but it doesn't matter, it was all right in the end (my father soothes . . .)."

Walters incanted the whole thing with wit, but at certain moments like a prayer. A ceremony owed to the loved.

Walters's skill, and urge to dramatise, extends to giving the very look of words character. She described finding a piece of paper upon which her grandmother had practised writing her name: "Bridget Clarke, Bridget Clarke, Bridget Clarke." Walters delivered the words as though doing an impression of a stuck record. A small thing, an unnecessary thing even, but clever, cool.

And the voices kept coming. The woman on the phone at the British Drama League telling Julie to go to university if she wanted to be an actress. ("But I've only got four CSEs." "Oh dear.") The old ladies in the audience at Granada Studios during the recording of a sketch show written by Victoria Wood in 1981 ("Who are these girls?").

This was an abridged version of the book, so I'm not sure if Walters had more to say about the "craft" of acting on the page. It's hard for an actor to describe why they are good, but it's addictive when they try (see Antony Sher in Year of the King, or John Malkovich in any interview).

I guess that essentially the best are just that, and nothing more need be said. Besides, some of the very best have absolutely no clue what they are doing, and don't much care to find out (see Robert De Niro). A bugger, that.

Pick of the week

Private Passions: John Burnside
5 October, noon, Radio 3
The Scots poet and novelist reveals an eclectic choice of favourites, from sacred vocal music by Handel to Indian ragas.

The Color Purple
6-10 October, 10.45am, Radio 4
This week’s Woman’s Hour drama is the first ever UK production of Alice Walker’s novel.

The Blagger’s Guide to Country
7 October, 11.30pm, Radio 2
David Quantick on the genre’s frequent narratives of woe.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power