Julie Walters on class, Indian Summers – and growing old disgracefully

“It’s shocking how that flow of working-class talent has just stopped. It will change the population of actors, which is terrible, really. It won’t be representative of society”

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“Ask Julie Walters about her practical jokes,” Henry Lloyd-Hughes says with a grin, shading his eyes against the intense heat of the Malaysian sun. “She’s responsible for more corpsing on this set than any other actor.”

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Which is, to say the least, surprising. The set is Indian Summers – Channel 4’s multimillion-pound epic about the slow decline of the British Empire. The cast is mainly young – key leads Lloyd-Hughes, Amber Rose Revah and Nikesh Patel are all under 30. Horseplay from them you might expect. But 64-year-old national treasure Julie Walters?

“Well, it’s just daft actor things,” she waves the question away. “Pulling faces off camera if someone’s boasting… that sort of thing. You need a bit of fun sometimes, otherwise it’s all rush, rush, rush, get it done. You just know the ones who are going to be mischievous – like Henry – and we have a bit of a laugh.”

And she lets out a great shout of laughter that sounds like Rosie Mulligan, her high-energy lone wolf novelist character from Mamma Mia!

Does that mean, like Mulligan, she’s growing old disgracefully? “I hope I’m growing old disgracefully in the right way, and gracefully in the right way,” she reflects. “I haven’t had facelifts, for a start. I think you’ve got to be yourself, and not worry about it. But there’s nothing wrong with slowing down a bit.” She leans forward conspiratorially: “There are times I use it, I’ll be honest. I say, ‘Look, I’m 64; I am not going to do that now – I need to sleep.’” She laughs. “I don’t believe in trying to be 30 – I find that really embarrassing. Older people: please, get over it.”

It’s fair to say that everyone’s slowed down just a little on the Indian Summers set. The show is set in Simla – the summer capital of the British Raj, perched high in the Himalayas and the backdrop to countless scandals, infidelities, plots and political adventures. Shooting in Simla itself proved impossible – India’s middle class now holiday there and it’s dotted with modern hotels – so the production team found a deserted hill station on the island of Penang in Malaysia, then hacked it out of the jungle to provide the set. And the Malaysian jungle is hot, in the way Taylor Swift is perky – annoyingly so.

Not that Walters is complaining. She rarely gets offered exotic locations; since graduating from the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool some 40-odd years ago, she’s found she gets offered a lot of parts in Manchester. “Which is fine, don’t get me wrong,” she nods, “but it’s hardly a sunshine posting.”

Although that’s not why she accepted the role of cockney matriarch Cynthia, landlady of the Royal Simla Club – think Angie Watts running the Queen Vic. Although she sometimes doubts her own left-wing credentials, it’s the politics of the show she responded to.

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“People love period dramas, but the Empire is gradually becoming a forgotten piece of our history,” she explains. “I find it very interesting how the British viewed their position, the idea of, ‘We are above the Indians.’ It’s an extraordinary ignorance that they laboured under. [Books like] A Passage to India, or The Raj Quartet almost underlined that. When it has been portrayed in the past it has not been balanced. Indian Summers has corrected that – it’s more honest.”