New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Jim White

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

I’m healthy.”

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.

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