In the glass-fronted central London offices of law firm Noble & Hale, a woman sweeps past the banks of paralegal desks with bowls of branded boiled sweets and trainers hidden carefully in the footwells. It takes a few moments to register that this imposing, glamorous figure, tailored jacket, blonde highlights and all, is Nicola Walker, last seen playing a downtrodden cop in Unforgotten, a careworn farmer in Last Tango in Halifax and a lovelorn ghost in River.
New six-part BBC1 drama The Split, created by River’s writer, the Bafta-winning Abi Morgan, is a departure for Walker: the role of divorce lawyer Hannah Stern offers a welcome lead for someone who has been steadily moving up the credits since her career-making debut as Ruth Evershed in Spooks in 2003.
“Dressing up was the thing I was really terrified of,” admits Walker, who was reduced to tears by Hannah’s vertiginous heels. “It’s not a world I understand, even in my own life. I’m used to being given no makeup, a pair of wellies and pushed on, but the clothes are a suit of armour for these lawyers. It does give you a sense of power, and you have to look reassuringly expensive for your clients.”
The Split is a rich soup of family trauma: Hannah, smarting over her mother’s refusal to hand over control of family firm Defoe’s, has jumped ship for the bigger, brasher Noble & Hale. Hannah is at a crossroads, and Walker conveys the lawyer’s cares with all her customary warmth and melancholy. The latter isn’t much in evidence with the actor in person, who is wry, cheerful company, both on set and when we meet some months later. She is, I note, wearing heels.
“Hannah has three kids, a lovely husband [played by Stephen Mangan] and a successful career,” says the 47-year-old actor. “It should be good, but it’s not. She spends all this time dealing with other people’s problem marriages, but her own personal life is becoming very complicated. There’s all kinds of chaos underneath the surface of this seemingly successful, driven, independent woman.”
Spending time with a real-life divorce lawyer was crucial to cracking the character. “It was helpful to see the combination of absolute professionalism and compassion, but a controlled form of compassion,” Walker explains. “You don’t see this job portrayed on television or film, and I realised that as actors we’re often doing impressions of other actors doing impressions of real people. This time, there was no research [on screen] you could do. You had to meet the real people.”
She herself is married, having met fellow actor Barnaby Kay in 1994, during a Royal Court production of The Libertine. Perhaps it was just as well that their wedding in 2013 came well before a series about divorce lawyers. “The Split is actually really hopeful,” she protests with a grin. “Although it’s left me reeling slightly, thinking about what we do to each other in the name of love, within the contract of marriage.”
So why sign that contract, after almost 20 years together? She cringes. “I don’t know if I should tell the truth – it doesn’t sound very romantic,” she laughs, before explaining it was to give their son, Harry, 11, a sense of security. “I find the whole ceremony of marriage a bit like going to work,” she says. “Putting on a lovely dress and make-up, learning lines, someone doing your hair… I can see that would be really appealing if you don’t do it for a living. It’s a public performance. Though we had a really lovely day because we didn’t do that. We had a tiny family thing.”
Family is as central to Walker’s life as it is to The Split. Born in east London and the daughter of a scrap-metal dealer and an interior designer, she was encouraged to pursue acting by her mother, however unlikely her chances of success then seemed. “There wasn’t really anything I wanted to do other than acting,” she says. “Which is ridiculous because there were no actors in my family and we didn’t know anything about acting. It was so beyond my understanding – I should have been making other plans. It all came from going to my local youth theatre in Essex. Then I got my agent when she came to see some fringe shows I was doing with Cambridge Footlights.”
Heading to London after graduating in English, Walker moved into a flat that sounds elike a sitcom waiting to be written. Her flatmates were writers Emma Kennedy (of The Kennedys and also 2012 Celebrity MasterChef champion); Sarah Phelps (writer of Ordeal by Innocence and other recent BBC Agatha Christie adaptations); and Sue Perkins, whose comic stooge Walker played in Footlights. They have remained close, and Walker has appeared in both Perkins’s 2013 comedy Heading Out and Phelps’s 2007 Oliver Twist.
“I found two sisters,” she smiles. “With Sarah and Sue, it felt very much like the Defoe household [in The Split], except we didn’t have any money and got a lot more drunk. It’s easy to access, that delight in the company of brilliant, funny women.” This marks out The Split as particularly unusual for a primetime British drama. Alongside its female-led ensemble, 80 per cent of the heads of department, from composer to location manager, are women. Over recent years, Walker has worked extensively both with Jane Featherstone (executive producer of both The Split and Spooks) and Nicola Shindler (on Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey), so the experience is not as unusual for her as it might be for others.
“For a long time, it was, ‘Until women get into positions of power, nothing’s going to change’,” she says. “It was really unusual that the crews on Spooks were a real mix of men and women, and you’d struggle to see many women with parts that weren’t clichéd back in the late 90s. Now we’ve got female commissioners and executives like Jane and Nicola choosing the stories they want to tell, and actors like Sarah Lancashire putting in performances like in Happy Valley. I don’t feel we’ve ever seen that woman on TV before, and I hope people feel the same about Hannah.”