People we love: Lesley Manville

Danny Scott / 21 March 2017

The star of BBC Two’s Mum and long-time Mike Leigh collaborator talks ahead of her new role in ITV Encore’s new drama Harlots.

You’re 61 now. Are the parts for older women more realistic?

It’s better than it was but, my God, we’ve had to fight for it. At times it felt like we were bashing people over the head screaming, ‘Don’t you get it? Not every woman on screen has to be 25 with a fabulous body!’ For years women were shoved in the cupboard at 40 and kept there till 65, when they could be wheeled out to play granny parts.

You’ve described Mum, which is coming back later this year, as a bit like Mike Leigh’s work.

It’s all about the characters. Believable, ordinary people… Cathy is the kind of woman you might meet in the supermarket.

Acting can’t have been easy for you as a single mum.

Up until Alfie was three, I’d take only theatre jobs, which meant I could be with him all day. As he got older, one of my sisters used to look after him. Looking back, I don’t quite know how I managed it. I suppose that’s the thing about life. When you’re confronted with a situation, you just have to get on with it.

You’ve admitted you used to have a bit of a working-class chip on your shoulder.

It wasn’t really about being working class: it was about education. At the RSC and the Royal Court, I was surrounded by wonderful, talented people who had rather grand university educations. For a while, I felt… intellectually inferior. But I soon realised that had nothing to do with me being a good actor.

Now you’ve been drawn to the role of potty-mouthed madam, Lydia, in Harlots.

Oh, come on! Any actor would jump at the chance of playing her. She’s a strong, no-nonsense woman who’s had to fight her way up every step of this dark, dangerous, male-dominated city. But behind that hard-hearted exterior, there’s also real compassion for her girls. She looks after them… nice rooms, decent food and clothes. If I’d been an 18th-century prostitute, I hope that I could have worked for someone like Lydia.

Presumably, playing Lydia involved a lot of research?

Months of reading books about Georgian London, different types of brothels and the myriad reasons why women turned to prostitution then. Obviously, there were a lot of desperate, poverty-stricken women who had no other option, but there were others who saw it as a legitimate job. Well-to-do ladies would travel from Weybridge, have sex and go home.

Georgian commuters?

Exactly! It was a way of making a living and controlling their lives. Remember, this was an era when a married woman lost everything. Even if you had money, it automatically belonged to your husband. Prostitution gave them independence.

Can you see a peculiar connection between yourself and Lydia?

People call me an acting chameleon and I kind of like that word. If you look at Cathy in Mum, she’s about as far away from Lydia as you can get: sweet, kind, generous. But in both roles I had to find something in my own life that I could draw on. For Lydia, it was that time when I was a single mum, struggling to find work… struggling to keep things together.

Yes, Cathy is very different from Lydia, but she is also a woman who was trying to ‘keep things together’.

That’s true, yes, but Cathy handled the pressure in a different way. Although she’s surrounded by the everyday madness of life, she can look at it and smile. She opens her heart to it all and tries to make it better; tries her best to make everyone feel OK.

Some of your most acclaimed roles came post-50. You were nominated for a TV Bafta for River in 2015.

River was such a joy… a detective series that took the genre somewhere new. And I got to work alongside the brilliant Stellan Skarsgård.

Another post-50s actor!

Maybe the message is finally getting through. People who are over 50 regularly go to the cinema and they watch a lot of TV. And, just like everyone else, they want to have an emotional connection with the characters they’re watching. They want to see people like them. They want to see people they can believe in.

Harlots is on ITV Encore from late March. The second series of Mum will be on BBC Two later this year. Check listings for timings.

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