It’s cocktail hour at a bustling London bar, and I need to relax the nervous, middle-aged mother of six sons aged from 11 to late 20s (three of her own, and three to whom she’s step-mother), who is married to a senior BBC executive. “I’m very frightened,” says Sarah Lancashire. “I don’t like talking about me. I only speak when I have something to say and won’t share my personality. Acting is a subtle combination of hiding and revealing yourself, and as I’m not an extrovert, this is painful for me.” So, shall we order an exotic New England Iced Tea (vodka, rum, gin, tequila and cranberry juice)? Brandy? Mother’s ruin (gin)? “No,” she says. “English breakfast tea, decaffeinated – caffeine makes me poorly. I can’t tolerate it.”
Not a promising start, although she’s exceptionally friendly, becomingly modest, devoid of pretension, and will later reveal a surprising passion that brings tears to her eyes. Before that, though, let’s have tea. “You be mum,” she says.
She’s one of the few soap actors who has gone on to have an award-winning career in television and theatre. From 1991 she spent nearly six years in Coronation Street as the blonde barmaid with a big heart and big hair, the alluring yet still somehow innocent Raquel Wolstenhulme. She returned to the Street briefly in 2000.
“Soaps are a double-edged sword,” she admits. “There can be prejudice from some writers and producers who feel you will lower the currency of their work if you’ve been in one. You have to rise above such ludicrous prejudice. Sometimes it’s necessary for soaps to hang on to an audience by sensationalising, but it’s a beast I don’t understand any more, an art form that has fostered extraordinary talent. It’s a great arena to learn your craft before you move on. There’s no such thing as a ‘soap’ actor, though. We’re all actors and work across an enormous amount of media – radio, television, or standing outside a supermarket in a Weetabix outfit. I haven’t done that, but when I see someone doing it, I think ‘There but for the grace of God...’”
She hated the celebrity Coronation Street brought her and knew people were disappointed when they met her because she was less a sexy barmaid than a homebody who wanted a low profile – largely so that her two sons by her first marriage (at 22 she married a composer, Gary Hargreaves) would have a normal life. “I also felt itchy after three years. I need to grow as an actor. The wonderful thing is you never stop learning, and as my only interest is trying to perfect what I do, it’s wonderful because I’ll never succeed, so I’ll have to keep working.
“I won’t say I’d never go back to a soap because an actor’s life is so precarious. You can have the most wonderful patch when everyone wants to work with you, and in the blink of an eye the phone won’t ring for a month, even a year. I’ve had long periods out of work, sometimes because I exiled myself, praying for better parts, but often I couldn’t afford to. There’s some truth that roles for older women are harder to come by, but it’s wrong for actors to monopolise the ageist thing. In every profession you reach an age when people look at you suspiciously. Accountants, bankers, teachers are all pushed aside. I don’t worry because I’ve never been on a particular trajectory. That could be interpreted as a lack of ambition, but it isn’t, it’s knowing what’s important – and for me it’s family. I have many blessings and I count them all.”
This week she stars in a six-part BBC1 series, Happy Valley, as police sergeant Catherine Cawood who leads a team investigating a botched kidnapping in the Pennines, with alarming results. It’s by Sally Wainwright, who also wrote Last Tango in Halifax – but it’s still that staple of the schedules, a cop show.
She insists it’s “dark, funny, and human. Cathy happens to be a policewoman, but within a few minutes of the start she’s sitting in a headmistress’s office explaining she’s raising her difficult grandson after her daughter was raped and committed suicide, and she’s not sure she has the emotional strength. The final three episodes show her having a slow nervous breakdown.” When we meet, Lancashire hasn’t yet seen it. “I will eventually. I’m my own harshest critic. Watching your own work doesn’t get easier.
“I gave up worrying about how I look a long time ago. You need an enormous lack of vanity to commit yourself to a project. You submit yourself to a writer’s needs, which are far greater than yours. We’re a strange breed in front of a camera – one cog in a large wheel – which is why so many of us return to the stage. We like being in control. There’s a wonderful sense of freedom as well as the opportunity to try to be better than you were the night before. I’m in talks at the moment about a new play I might do next year. The writing is so exhilarating, it’s as if someone has given me an injection of vitamin B12.”
After her first marriage ended in 1997, she vowed never to remarry. “I married for life,” she once told me, but changed her mind after falling in love with then BBC head of sport Peter Salmon, who had three children from a 20-year relationship. She and Salmon have a son together and live in Twickenham, south-west London – although Salmon, now director of BBC North, said in 2010 he’d settle permanently near the corporation’s base in Salford, joining those his job it was to persuade to move. She smiles. “I’m not talking about that. Twickenham is where my home is, and it wouldn’t be fair to comment.”
She once said she liked to be “owned spiritually”. “A sense of belonging is very important to me, to know who I am. My profound duty in life is as a mum and provider – not a chattel. I couldn’t be provided for. I’m terribly self-sufficient. I don’t like to make waves, just to get on with it. I worry, though, what people think, and when others say they don’t, it saddens me. We should care what they say.”
Last time we met, in 2000, she admitted she was a “contradiction”, which seems true, and was also a “top-of-the-list neurotic”, which she clearly is no longer, although she has suffered depression to the point of contemplating suicide in the past. “I don’t want to go there. I’m not comfortable with it,” she says. “I’m philosophical. It’s difficult to describe yourself.”
Fifty this year (“It doesn’t register on my radar. I don’t understand why anyone celebrates these supposed milestones”), she looks content with a career that’s as successful as could be. She has had to leave the BBC1 series The Paradise, in which she played Miss Audrey, head of ladies’ wear, because it clashes with filming the third series of Last Tango. In this hit drama about the late-flowering love of widowed septuagenarians Alan and Celia (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid), Sarah plays Celia’s daughter, Caroline. “We work together well,” she says, “It’s the closest I’ve come to being in a theatre company on television.
“We all assumed it was just one series and had no idea it would be received so well. Sally [Wainwright] writes equally brilliantly for men and women and is brave enough to reveal the flaws in human nature. I didn’t think it was unusual to have a romance between older people, it was about time. I’m much more comfortable with those older than myself, and always have been. I’m far more interested in people in their 60s, 70s and 80s with their experience and history. I suppose it’s because I was brought up in a multigeneration family and still live in one. My mum [in her 70s] lives with us and hopefully the tradition will continue with my own children. It’s unusual in this country, but it’s healthy and loving to have so many generations under one roof, and enlightening for children.
“Young people get a raw deal today. They have so much choice, but very few opportunities. They compete for jobs, have to work with no pay and feel terribly grateful to people who would never have done that. It worries me because my children’s prospects are so different to mine. I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to own a house, or if they’ll be living at home when they’re 35.”
Television, she says, can have a powerful effect, and cites Caroline’s lesbian relationship in Last Tango. “I’ve received more letters from all over the world than in any other role. I won’t divulge the contents because they were written very bravely by women sharing emotions they’d never told anyone. I feel privileged and proud. Sally was brave enough to depict two women in a loving relationship as normal for the first time.”
Lancashire grew up near Oldham, with three brothers. Her father, Geoffrey, was a scriptwriter who wrote 150 episodes of Coronation Street (before she joined the cast) and her mother Hilda was his assistant until they divorced. Lancashire says that growing up she lived in a fantasy world, found it difficult to relate to reality and suffered low self-esteem: “I never craved adulation, fame or status.”
After school and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she spent four years teaching drama at Salford University, which she loved because it gave her confidence. “Occasionally I still help young actors who seek to go to drama school. I have certain passions in life, but don’t know if I could have made a career out of them. The biggest, which drives my husband and children insane, is Roman antiquity.” She pauses, sips her tea. “Even as I say it my heart begins to beat faster.” And her eyes start to water.
“I had the most glorious classics teacher and she obviously made a mark on me. When I walked through the gates of Pompeii for the first time I had to say to my husband, ‘Just stop. I can’t breathe.’ It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I’m very lucky to have a real passion – you can spend a lot of time looking for one, wondering what it could be.”
She also hankers after running a tea shop. “Hard work, but that’s another secret passion. Perhaps I could combine them: a tea shop in Pompeii. I would be in heaven.”
She ponders the thought, ecstatic. “Someone else will do it now.”
Happy Valley starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1.