From Smethwick schoolgirl to national treasure, Julie Walters recounts some of the highlights of her new autobiography to Alison Jones.
When Julie Walters mother sent her to prep school she hoped it would mould her into the model middle class child. That mingling with doctors’ daughters would knock off her Smethwick edges and disguise her origins as a builder’s daughter.
Julie, however, was having none of it.
Her defiance left with her with hands stinging as her elocution teacher walloped them with a ruler, but she refused to lengthen her vowels and rid herself of the accent that is now, oh the irony, hired by a bank to sell their financial services to the middle-class masses.
“It felt like a betrayal, changing my accent, nobody talked like that. Not in my family, not in my street. It felt like saying my mum and dad were no good.
“It felt like survival. If I gave in on that I may as well not be on the Earth, it felt big to my little self. Like I was defending my very being somehow.”
Julie had a flare for the dramatic, even at primary school, something she admits she inherited entirely from her Irish-born mother Mary.
In fact Julie, 58, begins her autobiography That’s Another Story with the her mother’s annual recitation of the trauma surrounding her daughter’s birth.
She emerged with the umbilical chord round her neck and the priest delivered the last rites as Julie’s father was asked to chose between his wife and child.
Fortunately both survived and Mary had a horror story to regale her with as she wished her happy birthday.
It was from her dad, Thomas, a slightly built, wiry man, kept thin by the cigarettes he had smoked since he was 10, that Julie got much of her natural comedic ability. He would often tease the man who helped out with his decorating business by sending him to the ironmonger’s to buy a box of bubbles for the spirit level.
“No one could make my mother laugh as my father could,” Julie writes in her book. “There was many a time that I would walk into the kitchen and find her doubled up, face bright red, unable to get her breath to the point where I though she might even get sick, because of some story or joke that dad had relayed to her.”
“My dad had a great turn of phrase,” she confirms. “My mum was funny in slightly different ways.”
Julie’s stories of growing up with her mum dad, two brothers Tommy and Kevin and an ageing Irish grandmother who refused to talk to her son-in-law for 15 years because she believed her daughter married beneath her, are at times laugh-out-loud funny, Julie’s humour honed by years spent acting the class clown in order to be accepted by her more confident peers at school.
It could also make famous the house she grew up in Bishopton Road, a somewhat quirky, three storey, end-of-terrace house, part of which was once an electrical shop.
It was here Julie honed her improvisational skills, running a pretend corner shop from the pantry, acting out the dramas she imagined were going on behind the plastic strip curtain at the grocery shop down the road.
“My childhood was so entangled with the house and where we lived because in those days you didn’t really move out of the area. A lot of my childhood was spent playing in the street and Lightwoods Park down the road.
“It felt like a massive great house, it was always freezing and draughty.
“It has been chopped up into flats now. I went and saw some of the people who lived there and I sat in my parents bedroom and had tea. That was bizarre, it was their sitting room
“I sort of felt sad and didn’t recognize it but I thought ‘I can still smell it’, not in a nasty way but I could still kind of smell my home.”
It was a happy childhood. She was her father’s favourite, though her relationship with her mother was more combative.
It was her mother’s eagerness for Julie to better herself that inadvertently led to one of the unhappiest experiences of her young life – when she was sent to the convent prep school at the age of five, where the nuns kept order by terrorising their charges.
In one horrific incident a girl was beaten simply for commenting on the silence after one of the nuns left the classroom for a few minutes.
She was dragged into a stationary cupboard and beaten some more before being left in there for the rest of the day while the nun ordered the rest of the class to send her to Coventry.
“I was frightened most of the time I was there,” says Julie.
“Some people say ‘well slapping kids was what we did in the 50s, it was acceptable’, but I think it was out of control. I saw a couple of very frightening incidents.
“I think the nuns did it because they could. Nobody was going to say anything so it was all right to lose your temper. No one was there but the children and no one was going to listen to them, children had no voice.”
Indeed she was so scared of the nuns that when she and a group of friends were cornered by a paedophile, they blindly did what he asked because they were terrified he’d report them for playing in the front garden of an empty house while they waited for the bus.
After groping under their skirts and getting them to reveal their knickers, the man was looking for the chance to take them into the house when they managed to escape, claiming they had to catch the bus.
The girls never spoke of it again and it wasn’t until years later Julie revealed what had happened.
“Nowadays if that happened you would go straight home and report it and people would be out looking for him, it would be on the news. But back then children didn’t have a voice in the way they did now. Anything sexual was sort of swept under the carpet, you never heard about it. We were so terrified of the nuns that we didn’t talk about, it, never mind that a man had tried to take us away and God knows what would have been the result of that if he had managed it.
“Actually writing down the incident made me see it from an adult’s point of view and I thought ‘oh my God. I can see what his plan was’. It was very cathartic, writing about it, I am a great believer in what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
She attended Holly Lodge Grammar School in Smethwick where she excelled in sport. She was Worcestershire 200-metres champion in 1966. She was also the class entertainer but was paralysed with self consciousness about her background.
At the age of 14 she was so anxious about what she should wear when one of the “coolest girls” invited her to a recording of Thank Your Lucky Stars (where Janice ‘I’ll give it foive’ Nicholls had her 15 minutes of fame) that she feigned illness, which then manifested itself in a genuine sickness so severe there was talk of taking her to hospital.
After school she took a number of office jobs before she started training as a nurse, to the delight of her mother who had wanted to be one herself.
However, Julie’s heart lay in the real theatre, not an operating theatre, and 18 months later , rallying her brothers and her dad behind her, she broke the news to her mother that she was to study drama in Manchester.
“For someone who had such a lot of self doubt, it was almost like I had a superiority complex when it came to acting,” she recalls. “I didn’t know any actors and I had never done it, only a little bit at the church hall and when I was 11 at Holly Lodge, but I had this total belief that that was what I was.
“I went into the profession thinking ‘No one is going to play this part better than me’. Now I realise there are lots of people that could play the parts at least as well so I don’t feel like that but I have always been very happy in it, I have always felt this is where I belonged.”
Her mother’s anxiety, she believes, stemmed, to some extent, from a fear of the unknown. She wanted her children to prosper but in careers that she recognised.
“Mother did drive us. She wanted my brothers to be lawyers and doctors and things like that. But she made us think what we did want to do.
“She wanted us to be competitive. She was frightened for us. She had done something scary and left home (she fled the family farm at the age of 26, saying she was going to visit England, and never went back). She knew she was destined to take care of that farm, she was arguably the most intelligent of all of them, and she felt ‘why should I?’ It was a brave thing to do. But I can imagine that made her feel very insecure being in a strange country.”
Though Julie worked with some of the most famous names in British theatre and television (she once dragged director Mike Leigh in to rescue her from a spider in her bath and she lived with the actor Pete Postlethwaite for several years) the reality of life as an actress in the 70s and 80s was less than glamorous.
She recalls having to wee in pint glasses while doing pub theatre, stepping over drunks in seedy bedsits and showing her mother round the flat she was living in while performing in London – which was right opposite the Soho Sex Centre.
Films brought her star status – while promoting Educating Rita in America, Burt Reynolds gave her a lift in his helicopter after inviting her to dinner – however, she has always preferred “the adrenalin fuelled excitement of theatre”.
“I never wanted to be famous, I wanted to be on a stage with people looking at me and me telling a story but I never thought ‘Oh I want to be a star.’
“I have periodic dots of glamour. It is more glamorous for the people who aren’t in the films in a way because they can just go and dress up and look fantastic and no one is going to say ‘look what she has got on’.
“You run the gauntlet of press and mostly people are lovely but you have to be up for it, it takes a lot of energy, especially for someone like me. I use a lot of energy just to lift up a cup.”
The book finishes with the birth of her own daughter, Maisie, but does not go into the details of her later career or Maisie’s childhood battle with leukaemia.
“There is not going to be a sequel,” Julie says firmly. “I just wanted to talk about the early years because they are more intense, more formative. I have no real desire to talk about my acting career hugely of late because a lot of those edges have gone off. It is something I have done for 34 years.
“My immediate plans for my future are to go and have a nice lie down.”
* Julie Walters CBE and winner of five BAFTA’s and two Oscar nominations, will return to her Midlands’ roots for a special event organised by Screen WM and BAFTA in association with Radio Times.
The special event will take place in front of an invite only audience on October 7, at Birmingham Hippodrome will feature an exclusive on-stage interview looking back over Julie’s phenomenal career.
That’s Another Story by Julie Walters is published by Orion Books, price £18.99