Julie Walters is rather enjoying being a Dame. Not because it makes her feel socially superior. Nor because, after 45 years at the top of her business, she believes she deserves it. Not even because of the practical assistance it affords when making a restaurant booking. No, she is loving it because the very idea makes her chuckle. And, as an hour in her constantly joshing, constantly joking company suggests, for Walters, having a laugh is at the heart of everything.
‘It has been noted,’ she says in a pitch-perfect upper-crust accent soon after our interview has started, ‘that you haven’t kissed one’s hand.’
Julie Walters is rather enjoying being a Dame. Not because it makes her feel socially superior, but because it makes her chuckle
There are those in the acting profession (mentioning no names, Ben Kingsley, or rather Sir Ben) who take a title very seriously indeed. It is safe to say Julie Walters is not among them. Thrilled as she might be, she says she has barely stopped laughing since she received the letter in April telling her she was to be elevated in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June. It was so unexpected, she had to read it twice to grasp its import.
‘I looked at the envelope and thought: ER – what’s that all about? I thought it must be something from my MP – I’m always writing to him [her latest bone of contention is a toxic waste dump near her West Sussex home]. But no, it was from the honours committee. All this highfalutin language, all these convoluted sentences, I’m reading it wondering what’s going on here, then finally I saw the word Dame. I shouted to my husband: “Grant, my God, I’ve been made a Dame. Get down on your knees this instant.”’
Walters, a graduate of Manchester Polytechnic’s drama department, had taken her first acting job at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre
Initially she was obliged to keep quiet about it. But the day it became public, she was – as she almost always is – hard at work on a movie. And she discovered that word had quickly spread.
‘I couldn’t walk on the set without people bowing and scraping. And the director was saying things like: “We can’t give her any notes, they have to go via the Palace.” Mind you, we were all tiddly: they’d opened champagne in celebration in the make-up caravan at about eight in the morning. God we had a laugh about it.’
Yet for all the jocularity, for all the anecdotal opportunity, there was one real sadness for her about the award’s timing: it came too late for Victoria Wood to enjoy it. Her great friend and collaborator died in April 2016. Which meant she couldn’t share the news with someone she knew would have relished it.
Wood and Walters were one of Britain’s finest comedy institutions: whatever they did together was guaranteed to be funny
‘How would Vic have taken it? Oh, she’d have ribbed me something rotten. The comedy value. Imagine.’
She pauses, her warm, inviting smile slowly fading, her eyes beginning to fill at the thought of what she has missed sharing. ‘Yeah, she’d have loved it…’
Across more than three decades, Wood and Walters were one of Britain’s finest comedy institutions: whatever they did together was guaranteed to be funny. Not innovative, perhaps, not cutting edge, but timeless in its ability to raise a smile. Theirs was a partnership that began in 1978. Walters, a graduate of Manchester Polytechnic’s drama department, had taken her first acting job at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, a repertory company that in those days nurtured an outstanding conveyor belt of dramatic talent.
‘Pete Postlethwaite, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, Trevor Eve, Alison Steadman: incredible,’ she recalls. ‘It was a great place. Tony Sher was there – Sir Anthony, I should say. We titled types need to acknowledge one another.’
It was, she says now, an incredibly fortuitous start. One she cannot conceive someone from a background like hers would find open to them these days.
‘It’s so much harder now,’ she says. ‘For a start there are no grants. And back then there was a celebration of being working class, all those kitchen-sink dramas, I benefited from that. Nowadays everyone’s posh and went to Eton. You’ve no chance if you speak like what I did. But things go in cycles. It will change. As the economy gets worse, different drama will emerge. As it did then, with Boys From The Blackstuff and its like.’
Julie in Coastal Railways With Julie Walters. For 40 years the phone has never stopped ringing with offers
It was soon after she left Liverpool that Walters first met Wood, at the Bush Theatre in London. ‘We were doing this sketch show, except we weren’t allowed to call them sketches, they were called playlets. She’d written one and we performed it together. It involved one of us thinking we were pregnant when we hadn’t even had sex. It was brilliant, brought the house down every night. At the end of it, she got invited to contribute to this young writers’ festival in Sheffield. She said: “I’ll write you a part.” I never thought she would. Well she did. But I couldn’t bloody do it. Someone else did it, it went on the road, then Granada TV picked it up. Vic rang me and said, come and audition for it on telly. I did, got the part and that’s really when it all took off.’
The partnership was clearly defined from the outset: Wood wrote the gags, Walters performed them alongside her and they both laughed.
‘She was so generous, Vic. She wrote specifically for the stuff I liked doing. I loved playing old people, and she loved bad soaps. So that’s where Acorn Antiques came from. I come from Birmingham so Mrs Overall had to have a Brum accent. God, I loved doing her. Sometimes we couldn’t get through it for laughing. There’d be angry messages from the producers upstairs: for God’s sake will you two stop laughing?’
What sustained the relationship, Walters believes, was that it was not all they had. Each busy pursuing their own thing, they would not work together for long periods, keeping in contact through Wood’s deft use of her mobile.
‘She was a brilliant texter,’ says Walters. ‘Whenever I did something that wasn’t one of hers she’d send me this cod critique that was always really hilarious. I wish I’d kept them. But you don’t think. I let them go. At her memorial service, her friend Pearce had kept all his texts from her and they were just hilarious. As he was reading them out, I was half laughing my head off and half in bits.’
Even as the pair collaborated as often as they could, Walters was developing into one of the country’s best-loved character actors. Although she self-deprecatingly refers to herself as someone ‘who can mop the floor in a range of regional dialects’, the variety of her work has been extraordinary. Her breakthrough came in 1983 when she landed the title role in Educating Rita, the film of Willy Russell’s stage play about a Scouse hairdresser who takes an Open University course under the jaundiced eye of a washed-up academic played by Michael Caine. Both were nominated for Oscars.
Since then she has barely stopped, playing everything from Adrian Mole’s mother through a terminally ill doctor in A Short Stay In Switzerland to Robbie Coltrane’s wife in the brilliant TV series National Treasure. She has done comedy and tragedy and all points in between. She has sung, she has danced, she has joked.
And it is true, she has mopped an awful lot of floors (she plays a housekeeper in both the new Paddington film and the forthcoming Mary Poppins update). For 40 years the phone has never stopped ringing with offers. Though, however much she is in demand, she insists she remains unconvinced of her own capacity.
‘I don’t know if I’m better. I know a few more tricks. I’m better in one sense: I’m not as anxious as I was. You get to a certain age and they give you awards for being old and still in the business. Which is nice, except they always come with clips of your past. And I think, oh Jesus don’t show that, it’s so awful. But at the time I thought: my, I did that well.’
Surprisingly, given her convivial spirit, she rarely spends time with actors away from the set. ‘About two or three years ago I bumped into Michael Caine in Soho. I was thrilled, I hadn’t seen him for years. We said we must meet up again but I haven’t seen him since. It’s an odd thing, films are like a short period of being in a family. I love that feeling. I keep thinking on every set that I’ll keep in touch but you never do.’
Instead, when she does get home, it is to a very different world, one of crop yields and compost heaps on the organic farm she shares with Grant Roffey, her husband of 20 years.
‘I’ve had relationships with actors in the past and it was all right,’ she says. ‘But I love the fact Grant is not part of the business. I use him as a sounding board, get him to read scripts, we discuss stuff. He’s very grounded because it doesn’t affect him.’
Rather than insider gossip, the conversation around her kitchen table is of agricultural matters, about the provenance of the food we buy, about what Brexit might do to profits (‘b***** them basically’). She is, she says, a recent convert to organic methods.
Walters with Michael Caine in Educating Rita (1983)
‘It doesn’t mean I won’t touch stuff if it’s not organic. I’m not one of those sorts. But yes, I prefer to eat organic, because I see how Grant brings up the animals. They aren’t full of hormones or antibiotics. They feed off ground that hasn’t been sprayed to b*****y. His pork doesn’t taste like pork I was used to as a kid. It doesn’t taste like p*** basically. And the eggs. They’re not like any eggs I’ve had before. I had eggs for breakfast on location recently and they were utterly tasteless.’
She has had plenty of opportunity to sample film-set catering in recent months. She may be doing cameo parts rather than lead characters these days (‘you don’t get many films where somebody of 67 is in the central role’) but she is still in constant demand.
‘Really, this past 18 months has been too busy for me,’ she admits. ‘I’m too old for it. I like being at home, like doing my vegetable plot, like watching daytime TV.’
Her favourite show is Pointless. ‘It’s absolutely brilliant. I love Alexander [Armstrong] and Richard [Osman] – they are so nerdy.’ Though she has turned down every invitation to appear on Pointless Celebrities.
‘Show up my ignorance? No chance. It’s great in the armchair, shouting at the telly: “You fool!” I’d be hopeless. I once went on a quiz and the first question I got was: where does this quote come from? I had no idea. Not a clue. It was from Educating Rita. I’d only been on stage every night for months doing it the year before. They put it in there to help me out, the easy starter and it just made me look a blithering idiot.’
The question for Walters, then, is this: why doesn’t she just stay at home and watch TV, help her husband with his farm? After all, now she is a Dame, surely she has earned the chance to kick back.
‘Nobody’s fault but mine,’ she admits. ‘I wouldn’t want to retire. I’m an actor, that’s who I am. Yes, if I found myself with a year off, I’d love it. But I intend to keep working as long as I’m healthy.’
Walters with Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot, 2000
Julie with Rupert Grint in Driving Lessons, 2006
Julie with Phil Collins and Ellie Beaven in the film Buster, 1988
Besides, she says, the parts she has been offered she simply couldn’t turn down. There was the Paddington sequel (‘Oh, I’ve got to do that’). Then the new Mary Poppins (‘come on, I can’t turn that down’). And then there was the Mamma Mia! sequel. ‘When they told me about that, I thought: but surely they’ve used up all the bloody songs? But they’d done another and it’s really good. I love singing. And we had such a laugh on the first one. Then there was the lovely Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, which is out soon. I thought I might get to go back to work in Liverpool but all my scenes were shot in Pinewood.’
Barbara Broccoli was the producer of that film. So naturally, when she met her, Walters couldn’t help herself: she lobbied for a part in the next James Bond. ‘I told her I want to be the new Rosa Klebb [the villain in From Russia With Love]. They should have a baddie woman. I’d love that. What accent would I use? Depends on the baddie – depends on the baddie,’ she repeats the phrase in Scouse, German and posh. ‘Maybe she should be from North Korea. Anyhow, I haven’t heard back.’
In between films she has even squeezed out the time to front a documentary series for Channel 4 on Britain’s coastal railways. Which is why we are meeting in a hotel in Cornwall. She has flown in from a film set in Glasgow to shoot the last couple of sequences. Four hour-long programmes of Walters travelling the country’s coastline by train, it is full of big skies, crashing seas and its presenter giggling. Astonishingly, it is the first factual series she has ever done.
‘I’ve been offered loads over the years: India, South America, everywhere. My agent usually talks me out of documentaries. But I thought this might be fun. I love the seaside. We used to go to Blackpool when I was a child – 26 Empress Drive, Mrs McGinn: don’t bring chips in t’house.’
As her impression of her childhood landlady shows, the series demonstrates what an accomplished improviser Walters is. As she journeys over cliffs and bays, past harbours and quays, you can see her constantly scanning for the next source of comedy. Which is usually Michael Portillo.
They should have a baddie woman in Bond. I’d love that. I want to be the new Rosa Klebb
‘Has Michael Portillo been in this cab?’ she asks an unsuspecting train driver in one episode. ‘It’s just I thought I could smell the cologne.’
None of it, she says, is scripted.
‘Basically I interview interesting folk we meet, just talk to them. I like that, I like people. As an actor that’s what you do: you are observing people.’
Though it is not an experience she intends to repeat. She is wary of becoming the new Michael Palin, or even a second Joanna Lumley, for one simple reason.
‘I think it’s very hard once you become a personality to go back to being an actor. People will wonder, who are they going to see? When the audience sees you playing a part, they’ve got to believe you are that person, not that you are just being you. It’s best people don’t know who you are.’
Which is without doubt the remark that comes closest to revealing the real Julie Walters. When she gives an audience she prefers to giggle and chortle, deftly side-stepping any probing with jokes and impressions. As she has for the past 45 years, what she delivers is entertainment not self-exposure. And maybe that is why she is so loved. She might be playing a part but ultimately that is who Julie Walters is: the Dame of Laughter.
‘Coastal Railways With Julie Walters’ starts next month on Channel 4