From the moment she burst onto our screens more than 30 years ago, we instinctively felt that Julie Walters was one of us. She still is.
At this stage of her career, with a CBE and a raft of awards for TV, stage and film, she would have every reason to stand on her dignity. But here is Julie making her way from the make-up chair to the studio set and a line wafts past: ‘And then, of course, I lost the corn plaster in the bed…’
Delivered with innate comic timing, and that familiar inflection, it could have been a favourite from a fondly remembered Victoria Wood sketch, but it’s not. It’s Julie chatting to the stylist about her corn – and trailing laughter in her wake.
A BAFTA award
She saw a clip of herself for the first time, accepting a BAFTA in 1984 for Educating Rita, on a recent tribute TV show Julie Walters: A Life on Screen. ‘I was just gobsmacked to see my speech.’ She looks horrified. ‘I was absolutely plastered! I kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you. They don’t do it now, but then you had dinner first, which was a disaster. But God, is that what I was like?’
The TV accolade – which she forgot was on TV (‘hopeless!’) and had to watch on iPlayer crouched on the sofa with her husband Grant – served as a reminder of how many brilliant performances she has given, how many well-loved characters she has created: from Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, to playing politician Mo Mowlam on TV, via her film roles in Harry Potter, Calendar Girls, Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia! Not forgetting her ancient, shaky waitress: ‘Two-o-o-o soups!’ ‘I still get people saying that to me in restaurants.’
And now she has added another classic character: Cynthia, a widow who runs the Royal Simla Club in Indian Summers, Channel 4’s epic ten-part period saga, which is currently enthralling us on Sunday nights. The drama starts in 1932 and traces the rise of Indian Independence and the decline of the British Raj – unlike Jewel in the Crown – from both sides. It follows the lives of English ex-pats who move in the heat of summer to the cooler climes of Simla, a little England in the foothills of the Himalayas. After just one episode, you long for the box-set.
Cynthia, who has continued to run the club after the death of her husband, is the linchpin of the steamy, tangled social life: ‘She’s Machiavellian,’ says Julie with relish. ‘Her morals are based on what’s practical for her, and she’s powerful in so many ways. She connects a lot of it up.’ She’s not posh. ‘She was a working-class girl, and she’s pushy. If she’s not at the centre of things, she’ll make things happen. She’s a tough old cookie.’
Read our review of Indian Summers
The series was filmed last year in Penang, Malaysia. Julie travelled out each time a week early: ‘I’m too old now to just go out there and start shooting,’ she says. She turned 65 in February, but looks a decade younger. She is tiny and slender, and quick and twinkly. ‘I worked out how many days and hours of jet lag. Otherwise I’d never remember the lines. I have to learn things ahead of time now, which I’ve never had to do in my life. The night before, I’d just have a look and lie in the bath and think, “Oh yes, right”. The next day I’d hardly look at the lines, and they’d be there.
‘Now? I’m going through them, going through them.’ It’s a worry to her. ‘Sometimes I do them on the plane. And I rehearse them at home, when I’m out walking the dog. And I’ve met people! I think, “God, what do I say?” I pretend I’m on the phone.’ She mimes the cringing action and bursts out laughing. ‘There’s no signal where I am!’
Julie Walters on The Eighties
But, she says, ‘I do remember being in your car with you.’ We haven’t met for decades, although we knew each other a bit in the Eighties. I’d interviewed her around the time of Educating Rita, and we once shared a riotous lunch fuelled by numerous custom-built pink piña coladas. ‘Oh dear, the things we did in those days. The Eighties! We didn’t give a damn then. Great fun!’
Both single, bizarrely we each subsequently met men called Grant, eight years younger than ourselves. Julie and Grant Roffey have been together for 30 years (married happily in 1997), we 25 years (happily unmarried). We marvel at the coincidence, and I tell her I have a terrible joke: we’re both Grant-maintained. She kindly roars with laughter: ‘I’m going to use that’.
She and her Grant, a former AA man, live on an organic farm in West Sussex: ‘It’s like coming home to The Archers,’ she says happily. ‘When it was small, I used to collect eggs and feed the orphan lambs, dear little chaps, but now I’m a silent partner. Not so silent! We talk about the farm incessantly, and it’s a rest for me, and I’m happy with that. It’s so different from my world. I like the pace of it.
‘I come from a family where drama was injected into every bloody thing. My mother was very dramatic, and we’re all a bit, “Ooh!” Like that.’ She gestures for effect. She is wonderful company, a brilliant raconteur: timing impeccable and with a fund of accents to choose from.
‘Grant’s someone who takes the drama out of everything. He’ll just say, “It’s a TV programme, isn’t it? And half the world isn’t going to see it.” He’s very down to earth and I like that, it makes me feel better.’
They have a 26-year-old daughter Maisie, who survived childhood leukaemia. ‘She’s gone into horticulture and countryside management. She’s more like Grant, and she does help him.’
Julie had a difficult relationship with her own mother: ‘Nothing was ever good enough. My brother told me she was jealous of me, of my relationship with my dad. I can’t imagine being jealous of my daughter, can’t imagine it! Still it was difficult for her; her dad was a bit difficult.’
Keeping romance alive
She and Grant allow one another their differences, their own stuff: ‘And we always talk about problems,’ she says. ‘Because it’s not easy, is it? A long-term relationship. People think they are somehow. They’re not. It’s always got to be bloody romantic, and it isn’t.’ They still leave each other notes, however, and he brings her flowers every week.
‘But he’s a friend, that’s really important. I know he’ll have my back, and I’ll have his. We do look after one another. And it takes a lifetime, doesn’t it? I’m only beginning to look at him and think, “God, you’re like this about this?” I never realised that. He looked this big, indestructible person when I met him; that’s what I wanted. Of course, he’s a human being with everything going on.’
They famously met in a bar on the Fulham Road in London: ‘I was completely plastered, wasn’t I?’ She laughs. ‘I’d been doing Macbeth up at Leicester. Came home and went with my friend Ros to the bar, and we had about three bottles of champagne. It was the Eighties. Knocking it back. It was full of Hooray Henries. I remember saying, “I bet nobody here’s a member of the Labour Party.”
An instant attraction
‘And he turned round and said, “Well I am, actually”. I went, “Cor, you’re massive! Look at this bloke’s neck. God, it’s as big as my thigh!” I was so embarrassing. We started talking about God knows what, and when Ros and I left he said, “I’ll see you home”. And we staggered out with him. So we walked Ros home, then he walked me home. I said, “Come in!” He said, “No, it’s all right.”
‘I said, “Come iiiiinnn! I’ve got a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau!” He moved in and never moved out. It was instant for me.
‘I remember saying, “Do you want my children?” That first night –terrible things! – it was driven by alcohol; I was shy like that. Who’d have sex without alcohol? Especially the first time. He was really sweet about it. Before we were together, I don’t think I’d ever done it sober.’
Julie doesn’t drink these days: ‘Except, say, if I go on Graham Norton where you have to be jolly with people you’ve not met before, and I have a glass of champagne. But I don’t like the effect on my body.’ She discovered she has a problem with yeast: ‘If I were to have Marmite, it would just take the roof of my mouth right off.
‘Anything with yeast makes my eyes go funny, makes me a bit wheezy. And before, when I’d had a few drinks, the next day I’d always have these flu-like symptoms. I thought everybody had those, and I was telling this gynaecologist, whom I was seeing for something else, and she suggested a skin test to see if I was allergic to anything. And the yeast went, “Whoo!” So now I know.’
With the onset of the menopause, when she was 50, she noticed that if she had a drink, sleep went out of the window: ‘Waking, waking! I was up’.
Read about what you can and can't eat if you have a yeast intolerance
She has talked for many years about this. ‘I still get hot flushes. That’s 15 bloody years. Still, it’s nothing like I did then. Ripping off your nightie and Grant thinking it’s something else! “No – don’t get any ideas!”
‘Oh God, weird! It was like a chimney and came from the base of my spine. I was doing this TV called Murder, and every take there’d be, “Stop! She’s having a flush!” At the National, I’d come off stage for a quick change and have to shout, “Garth, the tray!” And this guy would come with this big tin tray and fan me,’ she says, demonstrating.
‘Harry Potter, I was in a wig and padding, and they had to put this big tube of air conditioning in my face.’ Her telling of it is hilarious, but she confesses it was dreadful.
Read about the best ways to deal with hot flushes
The ageing process
Julie pays little attention to the ageing process, feels she’d be letting herself down if she had plastic surgery. But she makes sure she gets concessions: ‘Wherever I go, it’s, “Senior!”’ she calls out. ‘I love it!’ She had her cataracts done and doesn’t need glasses for the first time in 30 years: ‘I feel reborn’. She keeps fit by walking.
There are, however, palpitations, which came on with the menopause: ‘A few. I’ve been checked out and they say, “Oh, it’s fine”. Sometimes it feels as if there’s somebody in there trying to get out. “Shut up!” I go. As soon as I’m home they disappear so it must be an anxiety thing, or an excitement thing. And alcohol interferes with the electrics of the heart, another reason it’s best not to drink. I’m fine. Apart from that bloody corn on my toe, of course! God, it’s painful.’
Older and wiser these days? ‘I hope so,’ she says. ‘Aren’t you? I feel more able to say what I think about things; people seem to excuse us more when we’re older. And I don’t believe in regrets. We have a path that we go along, and you make decisions and you get on with them.’ Life is happy and balanced at the moment.
Read more about cataract surgery
There’s just her memory: ‘People I know really well, I forget their names. That’s deadly. And once I forgot where Grant’s from. It’s Ashford. But could I remember the name?’ I did the same, I say, with my Grant’s suburb of Sydney. ‘Still, there are people younger than us who are worse,’ she laughs. ‘And facts do pop back up. My Grant says, “Oh, it’s just buried under so much stuff”.’
She’s on her way and flings her arms around me: ‘Last time we met we were single girls rocketing around town, drinking cocktails. Who’d have thought we’d end up meeting for Saga Magazine?’ She laughs. ‘When I came into the studio, I said to the girls at the desk, “Saga shoot,” and they sort of giggled. I thought, “How dare you!”’
‘There’s loads of us!’ I tell her. She takes up the mantle: ‘We’re the baby- boomers! We’re the boomers and we’ve not stopped. Still booming!’
This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month
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