Not all laughs

Julie Walters, national treasure

At the Savoy hotel, the festive spirit is palpable. Christmas shoppers and upmarket office parties crowd the restaurant where I’m sitting with Julie Walters. And when I mention that my three-year-old daughter has only fully grasped the idea of Christmas this year, our foremost Brummie actress lights up.

“Oh wonderful,” she twinkles. “When my daughter Maisie was little, she used to come into our room at about one o’clock in the morning, after we’d just finished wrapping the presents, and she’d say, ‘He’s been already!’”

Last week a primary school in Exeter apologised to parents after a teacher taught her class that Santa was a myth. Assuming the nursery staff won’t do the same to my daughter, how does Walters suggest I sustain the make-believe? “We once left a Santa hat on the ground outside to show Maisie that he’d been,” she says. “And we used to write notes to her, using the soot from the fire.”

Some years Walters and her family go skiing over Christmas. This year she’ll stay at home on the 70-acre farm run by her husband Grant Roffey with 18-year-old Maisie and many organically reared cows, sheep and pigs.

She won’t be going to church. “I was brought up a Catholic and we used to go to midnight mass, which was wonderful.” (Walters says “wonderful” very, very often.) “I stopped going at 16. Nobody could answer the questions I had about goodness and Christianity not always going together.”

One thing that might occupy her instead of religion is a book for which Orion agreed to pay her £ 1.6m, a record for a showbusiness autobiography in Britain. It beats by £ 100,000 the fee paid to the radio DJ John Peel shortly before his death and is substantially more than another comic actor, Peter Kay, was paid for his memoir, The Sound of Laughter, which has outsold everybody this Christmas.

Walters says she doesn’t know why she was paid so much. “Whether they gave me thruppence or £ 10m it would not have made the slightest difference to what I will write.” The book will start with her own birth -she was delivered with the cord around her neck and nearly died, as did her mother, from whom she was separated for a week -and end with the birth of Maisie. “It’s not about dishing the dirt about who I’ve slept with and so on. I’m not interested in that.”

So we won’t learn much about her six-year relationship with fellow actor Pete Postlethwaite. We won’t read about her heavy drinking in the 1980s as she struggled to cope with fame. She has acknowledged going out and “getting slaughtered on champagne and not having any domestic life” until she met Roffey in 1985. They met in a wine bar in Fulham after she tipsily called out: “I bet there’s nobody in here that votes Labour, is there?” Roffey, then working as an AA man, put his hand up. They married in 1997.

And we won’t read about the agonising period after Maisie, then aged two, was diagnosed with leukaemia. She’s fully recovered, but Walters declines to elaborate. “I don’t want to speak about Maisie’s illness because she should be allowed privacy.”

So what will the book tell us? About her parents, presumably, a builder and a post office clerk. Her mother came from a tough Irish Catholic background and expected her children to make good. One of Julie’s two older brothers studied at Cambridge and left with a first. But Julie was thrown out of school for subversion. She had, by then, won a place to train as a nurse, which delighted her mother. But when she announced that she wasn’t interested in nursing and intended to act, “my dad and my brothers literally had to stand between me and her to stop her getting hold of me”.

She wasn’t interested in becoming famous, she says, she just wanted to play different characters on stage -to get inside people’s heads. So she studied drama for four years at Manchester Polytechnic and went for an audition at the Everyman theatre in Liverpool, then as fashionable and successful as any theatre in the country. “Willy Russell was resident playwright, and we had so many fantastic people there, Matthew Kelly, Geoffrey Durham, Trevor Eve, Antony Sher, Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman. Bill Nighy had his second-ever job there. Everyone thought, ‘Who is this god?’”

Jonathan Pryce, better known now as an actor, was directing Everyman actors in local pub shows and hired Walters with the promise of theatre roles. “Some of the pubs were really rough,” she remembers. “They were scary.” Switching to scouse, she says: “It was the cleaner, Winnie, who taught me the accent.”

Her first show was about a flasher: Walters played his mother. She also remembers doing a Shirley Bassey impression, “Burley Chassis”, and a show called Dick Whittington and His Pussy. “Sometimes the vice squad turned up, so we had to cut out the dirty bits. We could easily recognise them; they all had big feet and shaved heads.”

Soon after, she got a part in a play that transferred to London’s West End. Alan Bennett saw her and offered her something else. In no time, she was working with Victoria Wood and winning an Oscar nomination for the title role in Educating Rita, opposite Michael Caine.

Since then, Walters has lodged herself in our minds as a national treasure. Think of her in Educating Rita, as Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, or in Dinnerladies, Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls and, most recently, Driving Lessons, and it’s hard not to feel warmly towards her. “The parts that people remember me for tend to be comedy,” she accepts. “People love to laugh.”

But she does dark, too. October saw the publication of her first novel. Maggie’s Tree includes a miscarriage, mental breakdown, the death of a child, a suicide scare and the breakdown of a family. Reviewers have described it as cruelly funny and poignant, disturbing and blackly comic. It has sold well and been reprinted three times. But Walters fears that fans might be shocked.

She provides another startling departure from national-treasure mode on television over Christmas, as the scary villain in The Ruby in the Smoke. Adapted by the BBC from the novel by Philip Pullman, it’s a terrific Victorian-era thriller, with Billie Piper as the young heroine. A sequel has already been filmed.

Walters loved the script. “The fact that it was by Philip Pullman was great,” she says. “The first few lines, about the character’s false teeth, grabbed me at once.

And my character is so evil -I thought it would be interesting to get into the head of someone like that.” Walters recently received a letter of thanks from Pullman. “Maisie was so impressed.”

Not all scripts are quite so welcome. “I get sent a lot of parts that are functional. I would not do anything now that bored me. I would rather stay at home baking cakes,” she says.

Which is not to say she’s become grand. She wears a sober, chic outfit in shades of brown, with black Ugg boots. She’s constantly scrutinised and retouched by her make-up artist: Walters has spoken freely about needing to cover up menopausal flushing. But she looks younger than I expected, perhaps because she’s so often played older women.

Lately, she’s moved in the opposite direction with forays into nudity (in Calendar Girls) and sex (as the Wife of Bath in the BBC’s retelling of Chaucer.) As a long-term strategy, this rejuvenation appears cheaper and less painful than surgery. Is that something she’s considered?

“I would not have surgery because you would be letting yourself down. It’s like saying that you are not good enough as you are.” She knows many people who say they have not had surgery even though they obviously have.

“I’m not saying that I don’t ever look in the mirror and go like this” -she pulls up the skin around her eyes -“but I played a character who’d had surgery in Canterbury Tales, the skin was pulled right up so there were no lines, and I didn’t like it at all. The lines show who you are.”

When Maisie was little, maybe seven, she came home and asked if her thighs were fat. “They’d all been talking about it at school, but it was just the muscles spreading out when she sat down. Luckily she was not a binge eater.

“I really hope people will realise that appearances aren’t important. You don’t have to look like a stick with two cartoon breasts to be beautiful. I have always told Maisie that she is very beautiful. Dads should say that, too. You have to tell them that they’re beautiful and that you love them. That they’re beautiful inside.” She pauses, shrugs apologetically and grins. “People will think I’m a right old know-it-all.”

But despite her Establishment honours, including an OBE in 1999, Walters has not always felt she knew it all. “My mother’s attitude used to be that unless you are the very best at everything, you don’t exist.

So I took it very seriously. I would think it has to be perfect, and the audience has to breathe every breath with me. I used to feel really low if it wasn’t perfect.

If a friend had seen it, I would say, ‘Oh, no.’ They’d say, ‘We enjoyed the show, you are spoiling it’.”

It was Maisie’s illness that put work into perspective. Walters was 38 when her daughter was born and too old, after the illness, to have more children. We discuss the pros and cons of having an only child, and agree that they more or less balance out.

One thing siblings might do, I suggest, is prematurely spoil the magic of Christmas -just as Walters’s older brothers spoilt it for her. She agrees. But even only children find out the truth eventually, she points out.

“Maisie was furious when she found out. They’d been debating it at school. She came home and said, ‘I’m really angry that you didn’t tell me.’ But it has given her this wonderful, magic feeling on Christmas Eve. She still loves it. It’s wonderful.”