Earlier this month, Julie Walters was made a Dame. As the Queen awarded her the honour, they had a little chat. Walters recalls: “The Queen said, ‘It’s so marvellous that you’ve got this, I’m so pleased. How long have you been doing acting?’
“I said ‘43 years’ and she replied, ‘In so many different things, well done.’”
Well said, Ma’am: from Mo Mowlam to Molly Weasley, from Mrs Overall to Mamma Mia! to a sexual predator’s wife in last year’s scorching National Treasure, part of what makes Julie Walters a worthy Dame is her infinite variety.
But I have to tell her, as she takes a well-earned breather at her farm in West Sussex, that I never pictured Dame Julie Walters presenting a programme about trains.
“Ha! I’m often asked to do documentaries and my agent always says, ‘Don’t do this unless you’re really passionate about it’. The thing is, I’ve got a romantic thing about trains, I really have. I remember steam trains at Snow Hill station in Birmingham from my childhood, going down there with my parents and meeting people and how exciting it was.
“And then there’s the filmic thing with Strangers on a Train and Brief Encounter and of course Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express. So when this came up I thought, ‘Well actually, I quite fancy this.’”
The result is a four-part series that is really just an opportunity for more of the British public to meet one of their enduring favourites (the phrase “national treasure” having been rendered off limits ever since the Channel 4 drama), and for her to meet them.
She’s well aware that she is, as she puts it, with another raucous laugh, “stepping into Michael Portillo’s trousers”, but her approach is distinctive – it’s Walters that makes the programmes watchable. People just really like her – and she likes them. She may be acting royalty, but she’s happiest among the masses.
“That’s the side of it I loved,” she says. “Just meeting the people. I’m really curious about how people live their lives, how they ended up where they are, why they do things and all of that. I suppose that’s part of being an actor as well – that you’re curious about other people, unendingly curious.”
Walters, it’s apparent, could make a pretty good career out of this presenting lark – except that she’s a little bit busy with the day job. The coastal railway journeys were filmed in between roles in the newly released Paddington 2 film and Disney’s forthcoming Mary Poppins Returns.
Then she made an indie film called Country Music with Jessie Buckley, and when we speak she’s in the middle of shooting the follow-up to Mamma Mia!, a decade after the first one. “I’m knackered!” she says. “When Mamma Mia! finishes I’m going to lie down.”
For Walters, solace comes at her organic farm, which is run by her husband, Grant. She spends time on her vegetable patch, though 2017 hasn’t been a vintage year. “No, not good this year. The skin on the tomatoes was like leather, and me brassicas? Don’t ask.
“For Grant it’s seven days a week and it’s very hard work but he loves it. He was up at four this morning and he won’t be back until about seven tonight, he’s gone to market today. We talk about it endlessly – the farm is the main topic of conversation.”
What they don’t talk about is retirement. “I don’t have to continue working now, I could retire, but I don’t. I often think, ‘What would I do if I was forced to retire?’, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in your life. I’d maybe get into baking and things like that, I don’t know. I think I’d probably write something. I’d have to do something, though. I couldn’t just sit and do the crossword.”
For the time being, however, there’s the task of promoting Mary Poppins, which stars Emily Blunt as the famous nanny and Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw as the now grown-up Banks children, Jane and Michael. Not just grown-up, but with children of their own.
Walters plays Ellen the housekeeper, still in post and looking after the family home. “She’s gone a bit dotty really and is losing it and can’t find things and forgets things and the place is falling apart. That’s why Mary Poppins comes in again.”
It’s not a major role, but it does contain a Walters first. “For the first time in my career I get to fly. Get in a harness, sing a song, fly across the London sky… I can’t tell you – it was like a religious experience.”
Not only has she made her aerial debut this year, but for Mamma Mia! this 67-year-old has been singing and dancing once again. When we speak she’s just come home from a week spent on set at Shepperton studios, shaking a leg with Cher.
“I love her! Last time round I sprained my ankle but luckily – touch wood – no injuries yet. I’m not a dancer or a singer and we’re all ten years older, probably ten pounds heavier. But it’s been joyous. You want to tell the young cast that it doesn’t get any better than this. Do they realise how fabulous this job is?”
She acknowledges, though, that it’s not all oranges and sunshine in showbusiness. When we talk she’s sitting beneath a photograph of her long-time friend and collaborator Victoria Wood, who died of cancer 18 months ago. “I always look at that picture when I go past. Sometimes, when there’s nobody around, I look at it and say, ‘Where are you?’ I still find it difficult to take in.”
If her friend’s death still causes her immense sadness, then the recent revelations about the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein have made her furious. “I only worked with him once and I wasn’t a young girl, either, so I didn’t see it. But the stories that have come out have made me very angry more than anything. It was shocking – but also not shocking, somehow. The extent of it was so disgusting and awful.”
Walters started out at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, a setup that she describes as “very right-on”. “I felt equality with everybody I worked with, so I didn’t feel like I was a little girl and they were quite big men – that wasn’t apparent at all. So I’m very fortunate. I know that stuff has gone on because it’s now being talked about hugely, but I wasn’t in Hollywood then and by the time I got anywhere near that sort of thing I was older.”
Though Walters wasn’t in Hollywood, many people thought she should have been. After Educating Rita saw her nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1984, the world was her oyster. “I did have plenty of offers then but I don’t ever regret not taking them. Because I’m British, I guess, and I like British writing and British work, and I love it here. I think the way you look is much more important in Hollywood than possibly it is here. If something amazing came… but nothing ever has, nothing really amazing. People go and move there to try to do something else with their careers – but I don’t want to do anything else with my career particularly.”
I have a suggestion – she’s just been to see the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and observed her closely, as she likes to do. There happens to be a series called The Crown on Netflix at the moment that we know is going to be recast in a couple of years.
Would a newly minted Dame consider playing Her Majesty? “I’d be interested – it’s a brilliant Peter Morgan script, so possibly. But who could follow Helen Mirren? I couldn’t.” She pauses and thinks about it. We both know she could.
Britain’s Coastal Railways with Julie Walters is on Sunday 8.00pm Channel 4
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