The Girl From The Black Country: An interview with Julie Walters

UPDATE May 19th 2014: Julie Walters was awarded the 2014 BAFTA fellowship last night for her lifetime achievement in acting. In the interview I did with her in 2011 she spoke with real passion about her fear for whether a working class girl like herself could possibly make it as an actor today because of tuition fees and the resurgent power of those from wealthier, more privileged backgrounds. At the award ceremony she joked about her mother warning she would end up “in the gutter”. The same story told in my film, has the added context of class and university fees.

It could be the plot of a film. The working class girl from the small town who became a big star, goes home. One of Britain’s most renowned actors, 7-time BAFTA winning, 2-time Oscar nominated  Julie Walters, has  just done that. She returned to Smethwick, in a deprived part of the West Midlands, this week to talk to school children. It was with the Film Club charity, which uses cinema to inspire and engage young minds. But could a young Julie today make it big like she did? Julie Walters is not so sure. For my exclusive report, I got to go along with  her. I particularly enjoyed using clips from the film that made her, Educating Rita and a film that inspired her, Billy Liar.

As a child Julie Walters spent a lot of Saturday afternoons on the sofa with the curtains drawn watching old movies, putting herself into the parts. The films on TV in her day were 30s and 40s ones. Bette Davis was a favourite. But Billy Liar, which is featured in my C4 News report, and other new wave social realist films starring working class talents such as Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and her future co-star Michael Caine made it seem like you could really do it. What comes across most strongly in her discussion with the children is how much she always wanted to perform, and how talented and dedicated she was; putting on drama skits in her lunch hour with her friends.  But unconventional too. Recalling how she used to  muck about during rehearsals for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she admits to her audience how the drama  teacher she had a secret crush on, declared in frustration, “Do you know why you’re playing Moth? Because you’re such a bloody nuisance!”

After watching her charm and engage 50 or so children in the hall of George Betts Primary school, we speak in a quiet classroom.  They know her best for her role as Ron Weasley’s mother in the Harry Potter films, and Mamma Mia! but Julie Walters is the product of a lifetime of watching films as well as making them. And that film education is something she believes can inspire, not just future actors or directors.

“Kitchen sink really did it for me,” she enthuses. “Not that my parents were rowing and beating eachother all the time or anything, but they were about my class… Suddenly actors weren’t frightully posh people putting on an act. That was an inspiration.”

Researching Smethwick ahead of the interview I found it had been a microcosm for the national battles for equality and social mobility over the past century. In 1918 Christabel Pankhurst narrowly lost her fight to be Britain’s first woman MP. In the 20s the future fascist leader Oswald Mosley was the local Labour MP, and in the 1960s Malcolm X famously came to Marshall Street, Smethwick after a racist generation election campaign against “coloured” people buying houses there made headlines around the world. Conservative campaigners allegedly used the slogan “If you want a n****** for a neighbour, vote Labour. It worked.

15 then, Walters remembers the excitement of Malcolm X coming. Her girls’ grammar school, Holly Lodge, backed onto Marshall Street. She didn’t understand the significance of the racial politics of his visit till later, at university. And it’s that issue of social mobility through education that was clearly her passion.

Despite opposition from her Irish Catholic mother to going On The Stage, Walters felt able to abandon nursing for a degree in drama and teaching at Manchester Polytechnic because she had a full grant. She got a job at Liverpool’s renowned repertory Everyman Theatre, where other working class talents were being nurtured — Willy Russell, who wrote Educating Rita which made her name — and Alan Bleasdale, whose Boys from the Black Stuff gave her one of her first TV roles.

Walters smiles when she thinks how “you actually felt sorry for middle class kids” at drama school. “In 1970 it was very fashionable to be working class.” More reflectively she admits, “I was lucky to get into the business at at that time.”

Walters says she’s not political, but is cynical about what she terms the “Sam Cam”  and Cameron “set” of old Etonians. As someone who was at Oxford University in the mid 80s, at the same time as Cameron and much of his cabinet, Walters’ remark sets me thinking. The 80s was the last time I remember it being socially desirable to have inherited money and be aristocratic.  The 80s (Educating Rita aside) was dominated by posh heritage dramas on TV and film: the Jewel In The Crown, Brideshead Revisited, the Merchant Ivory films. Does Walters see a parallel in the current vogue for Downton Abbey and  The King’s Speech?

“Kitchen sink drama was in the 60s which was a real boom time, wasn’t it? And [Educating] Rita was in the 80s which was also a boom time, so I think that’s interesting. I think there is a certain retreat.. to more escapist stuff. We don’t want to know about people struggling, because they are struggling.”

Cinema is cyclical, she argues. Certainly the vogue for escapism is not new. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance extravaganzas and Cagney gangster films of the 30s were the escapist fantasies of the Great Depression.

But Walters feels angry because she believes a girl like her, could not make it as she did: “I had a full grant to do what I did. And subsidised theatre is getting smaller and closing.. which has nurtured young writers and actors and directors… I’m frightened. I’m frightened for young working class kids coming up. Not just because it’s difficult to be an actor, but because it’s so difficult to go to University in the first place. No matter how much they say, “We’re going to look after the poorest”, you know, who IS that, exactly?”

Looking back at the interview tape, I notice  how concerned Walters looks. The jauntiness, the self-deprecating jokes, the mimicry, has stopped.

Having discussed Alfie and all those other  60s heros, in my edited report I found a young lad with charm and a hint of that cockiness. During the Q and A, 13 year old Holly Lodge boy, Josh Wilkins turned out to be the only pupil to know who Bette Davis was, and struck up quite a rapport with Julie Walters. She told him she recognised a fellow “subversive” like her.

I ask him afterwards for his view of the old girl who’d made it big. “She was very funny and entertaining. I look up to her a lot,” he smiles. And does he have any ambition to be an actor? “Not an actor. I want to be a goal keeper. I am a goal keeper ” And then, after some thought. “But if that doesn’t happen, Im doing DT GCSE and I will try my best to be an engineer and” (he gives me a beautiful grin  and gestures with his fingers rubbing together) “to earn a little money, if you know what I mean.”

Not just Julie Walters, I think Michael Caine would be proud.

Note: The Film Club charity has now become part of Film Nation under the BFI’s Education arm. 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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