Things They Told Me #2: Julie Walters

Fifteen years since Acorn Antiques: The Musical! premiered in the West End to so-so reviews but packed houses (despite tickets topping out at a record-breaking £65), I've ventured into the vaults to dig out one of my all-time favourite interviews. Is that Mrs Overall I hear saying 'Oh, I am pleased' as she chokes on a macaroon?

Lunch with Julie Walters is a breathtaking experience. She’s 54 now, but so full of energy and enthusiasm it’s as if she’s plugged herself directly into the electricity supply. And the actress renowned for her versatility can’t decide which voice she wants to use. One minute she’s gabbing in her native Brummie, the next she’s affecting a frightfully posh old lady, then she switches into Mrs Overall – her famously batty creation from Acorn Antiques.

“I hardly wore any make-up for Mrs Overall,” she says of the much-loved tea lady who would usually enter a scene too early or too late, fluff her lines, then knock over a lamp stand or crash into the scenery on the way out. “There was just a bit of lipstick and the rest I did with my face,” she adds, scrunching up her facial muscles and transforming herself into a dotty old woman.

Two decades after the Crossroads send-up first aired as part of the Victoria Wood As Seen On TV series, Julie is back in character as Mrs Overall, only this time on the West End stage. Victoria Wood has penned an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular called Acorn Antiques: The Musical!, with Walters reprising her most famous comic character alongside Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and Neil Morrissey. The latter plays a theatre director who tries to dupe the cast into taking part in a dreary drama about urban blight, but Mrs Overall rebels and puts on her own musical instead.

“It’s lovely, nostalgic and wonderful,” the actress gushes about revisiting the loveable crone. “It’s great because I don’t have to think ‘Now how would she do this’ because it’s already up here.” She taps her forehead, then in her excitement knocks over a (fortunately empty) glass. “Oh God, I think I’m turning into the character myself,” she says of her scattiness.

When we meet Julie is on her lunch break from rehearsals in South London. A busy lady, she signed on for the new musical after completing a dramatic role as Marie Stubbs, who became headmistress at St George’s School in north-west London following the stabbing of previous head Philip Lawrence, in Ahead Of The Class, which airs on ITV1 this month.

Wonderfully down-to-earth, she jokes about refusing to dine with the riff-raff in the canteen (where Victoria Wood can be spied through the glass) as we head off to a “terribly posh” fish restaurant nearby. She’s exhausted from learning a complicated tap dance, but at least she won’t have to do the usual eight-shows-a-week slog. Julie didn’t want to spend that much time away from her 16-year-old daughter Maisie or her husband Grant, 47, so Victoria Wood (who isn’t normally in the show) agreed to play the role on Monday evenings and Wednesday matinees. “There’s no way I wanted to be up in London all week – I’d never get to see my family. I said I’d do it but only if I could have Mondays off, never thinking they’d agree, but Vic said ‘I’ll play the part on Mondays and Wednesday matinees too if you like’ so it’s worked out fab.”

The waiter arrives. Julie orders grilled sea bass, new potatoes and a mineral water. I was hoping she’d ask for two soups, in reference to that hilarious sketch where she played a dithering waitress who couldn’t manage a simple order. The character, who has to keep banging her hearing aid to get it to work, is another of Julie’s side-splitting funny senior women and in dramas she has often played older parts. What’s the fascination? “It probably has something to do with my grandmother, who was always slightly doolally. She had a couple of strokes and wasn’t quite with it. I’m fascinated by old people in general – the shapes they make, what happens to them physically and mentally.”

Ageing doesn’t phase her. “Infirmity worries me, but I’m not worried about these,” she says, pointing to the lines around her eyes. And plastic surgery is a definite no-no. “They don’t call it ‘plastic’ for nothing, do they? Nothing moves. You aren’t able to show any emotion.”

She looks younger than her 54 years and is in good health, thanks largely to the organic food from Grant’s farm at their home in Sussex. She has also shunned Hormone Replacement Therapy, despite the hot flushes that set in with the menopause four years ago. “I don’t think I’m a good candidate for HRT. The chances of you having a heart attack are very high, and there’s a history of heart attacks in my family. The hot flushes are annoying, but they’re a rite of passage. They usually come on when I’m anxious. I’ll have some little worry about Maisie and then I’ll have a flush.”

Maisie was three when her parents discovered she had leukaemia. She has since made a full recovery, but at the time she had to have chemotherapy and Julie was a devoted mother, rationing her work so she could be with her daughter as much as possible - but she admits she wasn’t particularly maternal until Maisie came along. “I was very much a single person having a good time, thinking ‘Kids, bloody hell, they ruin everything’, then I had my daughter and this very protective thing came over me. I saw a little wounded bird in the garden and thought ‘Will it be alright?’ I’d watch Tom and Jerry and cry out ‘Don’t hurt the mouse’. I remember watching the news and a baby had gone missing, and it was as if Maisie had gone.”

She sips her water. She’s not teetotal, but her heavy drinking days are behind her. That was back in the eighties, when the film version of Educating Rita launched her to international fame. “It was a way of dealing with it, really,” she says of the booze. “Then gradually I found I didn’t like it anymore, which was around the time I met Grant. I remember thinking ‘This life is fairly empty’ – being wild, going to all the parties - and then he came along.”

They met in 1988 in a pub in Fulham. “It was one of those snotty pubs, full of Hooray Henrys,” Julie recalls with a smile. “I stood up and said ‘I bet no one here votes Labour’ and he replied ‘I do, actually.” Worried that she wouldn’t make it home in her inebriated state, he offered to walk with her. “When we got there I said ‘Come in, young man’. He did and he never went home.”

Grant proved a calming influence, although Julie admits to still being “a bit of a show-off” and proves it over lunch by talking at full volume. ‘Wallflower’ isn’t a word you’d ever use about her. Growing up in Birmingham as the youngest of three children and educated at a convent school, she always knew she wanted to act. “I would impersonate people off the telly and my brothers would love it. At school we had to mime something and the other kids had to guess what it was, and I remember one of the nuns saying ‘You should go on the stage’.”

When she finished school her mum persuaded her to go into nursing, but the lure of acting proved too strong and she joined the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Since then she’s never looked back, forging loyal bonds with writers like Alan Bleasdale (Boys From The Blackstuff), Willy Russell (Educating Rita) and, of course, Victoria Wood. They met when Walters, who was studying English and drama at Manchester Polytechnic, had shown Wood around the campus. Victoria didn’t get in, but recognised a kindred spirit when they meet a few years later at the Bush Theatre in London.

Proving as adept at comedy as she is at drama, Julie has amassed three BAFTA awards and was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1983 for Educating Rita. She was thrilled to be flown first class to Los Angeles for the ceremony. “But I never expected to win. Everyone knew Shirley Maclaine was going to get it [for Terms Of Endearment], so I was able to relax. I didn’t even have a speech ready.” She lost out again when she was nominated as best supporting actress for Billy Elliot in 2000, but it’s the love of the job, rather than the prizes, which motivate her. Nor, it would seem from the myriad of Hollywood scripts she has rejected over the years, is she motivated by money. She smiles. “Well, sometimes it’s about the money.” Could she, perhaps, be referring to the Asda adverts? “Yes, of course,” she admits with a laugh.

Working with Victoria Wood is a pleasure, not a chore. Walters has been a staple member of Wood’s repertory company, from early stage plays, through As Seen On TV to dinnerladies, their most recent collaboration where Julie played a nymphomaniac mother. “She’s a hard worker so she expects people to work hard, too, but we do have a laugh and I feel I understand her humour. I guess socially we don’t see each other that often. I live in Sussex and she lives in North London, and I don’t come up here much, unless it’s for work. But we do stay in touch and I find that with old friends gaps don’t really matter. In fact, they only matter to people you’re not very close to. They pester you with ‘Why haven’t you been in touch?’ which is so annoying. I always want to say ‘Because I’ve been f—king busy’.”

When she’s not busy working, she’s busy making cakes (“although I’m not marvellous at it”) or enjoying time with her family. She has also been writing a novel, but it’s taken her the best part of a decade and she still hasn’t finished. So what’s it about? She affects a stern tone, rather like the Queen, and says: “I’m not telling you because you’ll probably pinch my idea and write it in about two minutes.”

Wolfing down the rest of her sea bass, she apologises about having to rush back to rehearsals. Slipping on a beanie hat, she scrunches up her face. “Maisie hates me wearing this, she thinks it’s so unflattering.”And what does she think about her mum being a so-called national treasure? Julie laughs. “I don’t know what I think about that myself. What does it mean? Coach parties welcome at weekends?” With this she dashes off, leaving me laughing.

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