THE ACTRESS GREETED HER HONOUR WITH MUCH MIRTH
An audience with Dame Julie
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 Julie, 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.”
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 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 high-falutin’ 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.’”
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.
“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, Victoria and Julie were one of Britain’s finest comedy institutions – whatever they did together was always funny. Not innovative, perhaps, not cutting edge, but timeless in its ability to raise a smile. The partnership was clearly defined from the outset – Victoria wrote the gags and Julie performed them alongside her, and they both laughed.
“She was a brilliant texter,”
says Julie. “Whenever I did something that wasn’t one of hers, she’d send me this odd 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, Julie was becoming one of the country’s best-loved character actors. Although she 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, which also starred Sir Michael Caine. Both were nominated for Oscars.
Since then, she has barely stopped, playing everything from Adrian Mole’s mother to a terminally ill doctor in A Short Stay in Switzerland. She has done comedy and tragedy, and all points in between. She has sung, danced and 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 hasn’t 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, she rarely spends time with actors away from the set. “About two or three years ago, I bumped into Michael Caine in Soho,” she tells. “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 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.”
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. She is, she says, a recent convert to organic methods.
’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.”
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, I like doing my vegetable plot and watching daytime TV.” Her favourites are game shows, although she’s turned down every invitation to appear on one herself.
“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. It made me look a blithering idiot.”
The question for the actress, then, is this – why doesn’t she just stay at home, watch TV and help her husband with his farm? 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
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. “I thought, ‘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.”
In between films, she has even squeezed out the time to front a documentary series on Britain’s coastal railways. Astonishingly, it is the first factual series she has ever done.
“My agent usually talks me out of documentaries. But I thought this might be fun.
I love the seaside.” As she journeys over cliffs and bays, past harbours and quays, you can see her constantly scanning for the next source of comedy.
“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,” she explains. “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 has 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 she is – the Dame of Laughter.
‘ You get to a certain age and they give you awards for being old and still in the business’
Julie with her husband Grant, a former AA patrolman, who is now a farmer.
Her late friend and collaborator, Victoria Wood, was one of the people Julie most wanted to share the good news with.
Above: The British icon was pleased to be honoured with the BAFTA Academy Fellowship in 2014.
Top of t he mops! Showcasing some fancy footwork as Mrs Overall with Celia Imrie (lef t) in the musical Acorn Antiques.
The actress will be back with Christine
Baranski (far left) and Meryl Streep
for Mamma Mia: Here We
Go Again! With Michael Caine in
Educating Rita, her breakthrough role.