‘When you’re work­ing, you feel a fail­ure as a par­ent’

On screen, from ‘Spooks’ to ‘Un­for­got­ten’ , and off, Ni­cola Walker finds drama in the or­di­nary. By Ben Lawrence

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THEATRE -

Ni­cola Walker is com­plain­ing about hav­ing a face that gives ev­ery­thing away. “You just have to look at me to know what I am feel­ing,” she says. “So I would be a use­less po­lice­woman or spy.”

This is ironic. Walker, 48, has found fame thanks to those very roles – and it is the vis­i­ble play of emo­tions across her solemn face that makes her so watch­able. In hit tele­vi­sion shows, from Spooks to Last Tango in Hal­i­fax to Un­for­got­ten, she takes os­ten­si­bly or­di­nary char­ac­ters and in­vests them with res­o­nant emo­tion – and, fre­quently, la­tent anger – to ab­sorb­ing ef­fect.

In Mark Raven­hill’s new play for the Royal Court, The Cane, Walker stars as Anna, a seem­ingly con­fi­dent head of an acad­emy school who re­turns to her par­ents’ home af­ter years of es­trange­ment. An an­gry mob is bay­ing for blood out­side their house hav­ing learned that, decades ear­lier, her fa­ther (Alun Arm­strong) had ex­er­cised cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment on un­ruly pupils. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing work about up­braid­ing the past, the idea of school as a busi­ness and the pur­pose of ed­u­ca­tion.

In the play, Anna is all in favour of pre­par­ing her pupils for the world of work, which was not Walker’s own ex­pe­ri­ence at all. The daugh­ter of a scrap metal merchant and a de­signer, she at­tended a pri­vate school on the border of Lon­don and Es­sex, where drama was en­cour­aged.

“I was never told that the pur­pose of school was to get a job at the end of it,” she says. “What was pushed on me was a love of learn­ing, prob­a­bly be­cause my par­ents didn’t have ac­cess to a great ed­u­ca­tion.”

She is sim­i­larly re­laxed when it comes to bring­ing up Harry, the 12-year-old son she has with her hus­band, ac­tor Barn­aby Kay. “It has made me not put pres­sure on him to de­cide what he likes and what he’s good at too early,” she says. “You know, have him prac­tis­ing the cello for seven hours a day or what­ever. I am prob­a­bly a very bad mod­ern par­ent.”

Walker her­self never con­sid­ered teach­ing. “The con­fi­dence and charisma it takes to stand up in front of a group of chil­dren ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fies me,” she says.

This is per­haps an odd com­ment from an ac­tress who has to stand up in front of hun­dreds of peo­ple ev­ery night. “That’s a dif­fer­ent kind of con­fi­dence and charisma,” she says. In­volv­ing not be­ing your­self, I sug­gest. “Ha, yeah,” she laughs. “Bingo!”

In per­son, Walker is friendly but not vol­u­ble, of­ten avoid­ing eye con­tact. It is sur­pris­ingly rare to en­counter an ac­tor or ac­tress who brims with self-con­fi­dence, but Walker seems par­tic­u­larly mod­est. I am told she is ner­vous about pub­lic­ity and on oc­ca­sion she im­plores me not to give too much away. (She has moved out of Lon­don, but she won’t tell me where, as she doesn’t like the idea of “be­ing placed”.)

Al­though she knew that she wanted to act from a young age, she found her­self in awe of the bril­liant young per­form­ers she en­coun­tered when she em­barked on an English de­gree at Cam­bridge. While there, she found her­self on the pe­riph­ery of the com­edy cir­cuit and be­came in­volved in the Foot­lights re­vue. “We al­ways had a lovely time in Ed­in­burgh,” she says. “Once we were spon­sored by Hol­sten Pils. A lorry

[full of beer] turned up and we drank our way through it.” She made a life­long friend of Sue Perkins, with whom she shared a flat for many years. It was, she says, “a ridicu­lous amount of fun” and led to her hav­ing to be “prised out of com­mu­nal liv­ing”.

De­spite a cameo as a hippy singer in Four Wed­dings and a Fu­neral, Walker es­tab­lished her ca­reer in straight theatre rather than film or tele­vi­sion. “When I look back at the Nineties, I re­alise there wasn’t very much TV I wanted to do,” she says. “I would au­di­tion for some­thing and make the best of it, but I felt pretty un­castable. There were no roles for women that I could recog­nise.”

More re­cently, she has worked with writ­ers such as Abi Mor­gan and Sally Wain­wright, who are

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