It is rare to find an actor as compelling in person as they are on screen. Lesley Sharp’s North Country voice, modulated but not flattened by 30-odd years in London, is curiously calming – she would, you imagine, make a fine horse whisperer – and her blue eyes are warm and watchful. Best known as DC Janet Scott, “the sensible half” of the Manchester crime-fighting duo in ITV’s Scott & Bailey, she brings an unarguable integrity to each performance – a quality that has placed her in high demand with our best writers and directors.
Not only has the 48-year-old worked with Mike Leigh (Naked) and Paul Abbott (Clocking Off), but she also enjoys a close working relationship with Russell T Davies, the man who relaunched Doctor Who.
Indeed, he once tipped her as an ideal Time Lord. It’s a compliment she has always been inclined to laugh off – “I think he was kidding around”. But you can see where Davies was coming from. With just the right blend of charisma and intensity, Sharp at the helm of the Tardis would be something to see.
She can currently be seen in the second series of Starlings, Sky1’s Tuesday-night family drama. Sharp plays family matriarch Jan, the kind of woman who can make a pound of mince stretch to feed all-comers. Jan’s married to Terry, played by Brendan Coyle – Downton Abbey’s Mr Bates – who is a hard-pressed electrician.
“It’s a representation of a family that I absolutely recognise,” she says. “They’re not rolling in money, but they really make the best of everything they’ve got and they’re very generous. They use what they have to enjoy the warmth and comfort and creativity of family and friends, and that’s more important to them than glamorous cars or holidays or houses.
I think there’s an awful lot of people like that, but somehow they’re not represented very often on screen.
“The other thing I really like,” says Liverpool-born Sharp, “is that it totally undermines the notion that northerners are a bit tasteless and a bit thick. Jan is intelligent and subtle, and I think it’s important to point out that not every woman with a northern accent wears leopardskin and wants to get sprayed orange. Every so often, I look around and have a sabre-rattling moment about this, because it does seem that Scots, Welsh and Irish are ‘allowed’ to be part of the Establishment – they’re allowed to be members of the judiciary, politicians, prime ministers even – but somehow northerners are still portrayed either as dullards or as vaguely comical. Even if they’re in positions of power, like John Prescott, they’re ridiculed.
“And it’s particularly bad for women. Take Betty Boothroyd – a scathingly intelligent politician on a par, intellectually, with Margaret Thatcher – and yet there’s still something about her, and I’m sure it’s to do with how she speaks, that’s reduced her to being ‘cuddly’. It’s extraordinary that such prejudice should persist in 2013, but I think southerners do think northerners are another breed. And they’re not. We’re not.”
Adopted as a baby by a Scottish tax inspector and his wife, Sharp grew up in Formby on Merseyside. It was a happy family, but it left her fascinated by other people: “I’m really curious about what it is that makes people behave in the way they do, how they fit with the other people in their lives.” Acting, she reasons, may be easier when you’re adopted because, without a clear sense of identity, you can be anyone you please.
“One of the things I really notice about Starlings is that all Jan’s kids are completely secure in who they are and where they’ve come from. That can’t be underestimated. I recently took part in Who Do You Think You Are? [coming soon on BBC1]. I can’t say much about it at the moment, but finding out my birth family’s history was a huge thing for me.”
Married since 1994 to actor Nicholas Gleaves (DS Andy Roper in Scott & Bailey), Sharp is the mother of two boys. Starlings is her first grandmother role – not, perhaps, a transition universally welcomed by women in the profession.
“Why not?” she asks. “I’m certainly old enough to be a grandmother. I didn’t feel I’d stepped through some door into a different terrain, but I think it’s interesting that it should be an issue, that being seen as a grandmother should be terrifying to women.”
Ageing well, she points out, is more about acceptance than denial. “Over the years,” she says, “I’ve had such issues with the way I look. I’ve been very self-critical, and then there’s this awful, critical, spiteful voice that appears in the media. It’s everywhere – not just in those magazines where they ring people’s knees – and it’s very damaging. There has to be a bit of a backlash, though, because those people with puffy cheeks and crazy eyebrows just under their hair-line – it’s become a look in itself, hasn’t it? And, actually, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It takes away a few lines on your forehead, but you still don’t look young. It’s just another version of ageing.
“There comes a point where you just have to get on with what you’ve got. We can’t all have faces like Elizabeth Taylor or Angelina Jolie. But as you get older, I think you just go, ‘Actually, it’s fine.’” This sounds less like a judgement, more an article of faith. “Yes,” says Sharp with a prayerful gesture, halfway between hope and thankfulness. “It’s all just fine.”
Starlings stars tonight, 9:00pm, Sky1