‘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
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