Getting Lesley Sharp to open up is akin to cracking a walnut with a recently Vaselined nutcracker – you have to stick at it.
“I’m an actress, not a politician,” says the star of Sky 1’s new comedy drama Living the Dream, when I ask how she votes. “And my private life is my private life.”
But we all want to know what drives this quietly earnest, socially aware and award-winning actor. Think of Sharp and you think of intense, restless characters like DS Janet Scott in Scott & Bailey and DC Margaret Oliver in Three Girls, the drama telling the woeful true tale of the Rochdale child sexual abuse scandal. However, her new series features no one being horribly murdered or exploited – or at least not in episode one.
Living the Dream is a broad comedy based on a British family’s relocation to Florida: The Durrells for common people. “Ordinary people with ambition,” she corrects, sitting straight-backed on a huge sofa that most people would slump on.
She’s not difficult, of course, just very serious about what she does. Mention Suranne Jones, Sharp’s Scott & Bailey co-star from 2011 to 2016, and she brightens. “If you really like and respect someone you’re working with,” she says, “well, hello… Bingo!”
Part of the pleasure, Sharp feels, was the show’s positive view of women. “Female cops loved the way we calmly, quietly, cleverly, went about our jobs and Suranne and I loved hearing that. The women weren’t riven with sexual anxiety. They weren’t trying to up-end each other. They were there for each other. Oddly enough, it’s rare to see that on television.”
Is that because men write so much TV drama? “Possibly,” she says, giving me a look that says, “Definitely.”
Sharp clearly favours some male writers, for she has worked with Russell T Davies three times, on Bob & Rose, The Second Coming and a 2008 episode of Doctor Who. Now she has Living the Dream, made by Big Talk productions, who made Cold Feet, and Sharp is currently appearing on the London stage as Irina Arkadina in The Seagull. “It’s a play,” she tells me. “By Chekhov.”
Sharp was born in Manchester after her birth mother, Elsie Makinson, had an affair with a married tram driver called Norman Patient. She was put up for adoption as a six-week-old baby and grew up on Merseyside.
Sharp was especially close to her adoptive father, Jack, an inspector of taxes. “He shuddered when I told him I wanted to be an actor. The profession was not stable financially.” Hardly a problem for Sharp nowadays, especially working for Sky? And no, she won’t tell me how much she’s being paid to do Living the Dream.
When she does speak, Sharp is more metropolitan than I expect, after seeing her in so many northern roles. She was in Red Riding: the Year of Our Lord 1980 and Clocking Off, and her film appearances include Mike Leigh’s Naked (in which she delivers the matchless description of a successful relationship: “Living with somebody that talks to you after he has bonked you”) and The Full Monty.
“I didn’t want to be classified as a northern actress,” she says. Was that to escape the presumptions about northerners having a limited repertoire? “Less about being northern and more to do with the class system that’s rife still.” Does that bug you? “That’s just the way it is.”
Like Sharp, Living the Dream starts in the North and then gets out. Sharp and her co-star Philip Glenister play Yorkshire couple Mal and Jen Pemberton, who take their teenage kids, Tina and Freddie, to run a trailer park in Florida. But don’t bank on it being inhabited by eccentrics. “They are going on an adventure before all that middle-aged stuff kicks in,” says Sharp. “I think there’s an awful lot of middle-aged people like that out there, but they’re not represented on TV very often.”
Glenister is 54 and Sharpe, at 57, is well into middle age herself. Married to the actor Nicholas Gleaves (they have two children), she’s had “a long, long, long, long, long career”. Initially successful as a stage actor, in 1986 Sharp appeared in Jim Cartwright’s Road, a bleak depiction of Thatcher-era Lancashire, at the Royal Court in London.
When director Alan Clarke saw it, he cast Sharp in his film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, possibly an even bleaker depiction of Thatcher-era Yorkshire. Although on the surface a sex comedy, it was also about a community where young girls are effectively abandoned.
“It’s terrifying,” says Sharp, “because 30 years down the line not much has changed. That’s the thing about Three Girls I found most upsetting. Young women feel their only options are to hook up with guys who’ve got vodka and cigarettes because they can’t actually imagine a future that’s any different. That’s terrible.”
If Three Girls was an illustration of the harm men can do, Living the Dream is a warm portrayal of male inadequacies. Mal’s decision to buy a Florida trailer park is ill-considered, overoptimistic and apparently disastrous.
I wonder which show best catches her own feeling about men. “I don’t like to generalise about men, but I do feel there’s still a long way to go if we want a society that is civilised, kind and tolerant, not biased, bigoted, homophobic or racist. Men and women, alike, we’ve got to keep chipping away.”
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In a way, she’d prefer life to be organised like a Scott & Bailey shoot. “We were all on the same wavelength. We had an off-screen chemistry and that came through and people loved it.”
She just wishes more women would reach out to one another. “You have to talk about the things that make you sad and angry, that you feel could be changed, and you have to listen.”
See, she does open up after all.