The QT

Thursday 23 May 2024

First class delivery guaranteed from an actor drawn to tough roles

After Mr Bates vs The Post Office, something personal… Julie Hesmondhalgh tells David Whetstone about her recent TV hit and the ‘delicate’ show she’s to perform in Newcastle
Actor Julie Hesmondhalgh is bringing a personal show to Live Theatre in Newcastle

Julie Hesmondhalgh – and the name, she advises, is pronounced ‘Hesmondhalsh’ – was stopped in her tracks recently. Somebody asked her about Coronation Street.

The actress appeared in the ITV soap opera for 16 years, playing Hayley Cropper, the first transgender character in any British ‘soap’.

So despite having bade farewell to the role a decade ago, Hayley taking her own life in a moving departure from our screens, Julie was always being asked about Hayley and ‘Corrie’.

Only recently, not so much…

Since Mr Bates vs The Post Office aired over New Year, training arc lights on a scandal that has glimmered in plain sight for years, THAT is what people have wanted to talk to Julie about.

“Oh, yes, all the time,” she says in her broad Lancastrian brogue. “Across all social groups and demographics, to the point where I’m shocked if someone asks about Hayley.”

Mr Bates vs The Post Office rallied the nation. Credit: ITV

In the drama Julie played Suzanne, partner of former postmaster Alan Bates (Toby Jones) whose dogged persistence brought the flaws in the Post Office’s computerised accounting system to light along with the attempts to cover them up.

Suzanne, as played by Julie, was seen as a supportive and stoical presence, only occasionally venting spleen when Alan appeared to be faltering in his campaign – notably when she suffered a cancer scare.

The success of the series, in its political impact as well as viewing figures even modern soap operas rarely achieve, Julie attributes to its unifying quality.

“Everything nowadays seems to be one group of people being pitted against another.

“I think everyone found some consolation in the fact that this was so clear cut, such an example of systemic corruption that everybody could get behind it.”

Julie played Suzanne, the wife of former postmaster, Alan Bates in the ITV drama. Credit: ITV

But we’ll return to that.

It is for reasons far removed from the Post Office and flawed software that Julie will be appearing on stage – alone – at Live Theatre next month.

In These I Love she will be remembering her beloved late father, John Hesmondhalgh, and their lives together.

He died in 2013 and Julie left Coronation Street some months later in what she recalls as ‘an absolutely bonkers year, as you can imagine.’

“After I’d finished shooting my last scenes, I took myself off to the Lake District with my dogs, just to get my head around the huge changes in my life – and I took this electric blanket box full of old notepads and diaries that my dad had left behind and that my mum had dug out after the funeral.

The way I describe it is the healing power of daftness, trying to find a way through dark times with laughter and fun

Julie Hesmondhalgh on These I Love

“I read them and they were absolutely astonishing.

“They dated right back to when he was 15 or 16 years old, in the 1940s.

“He had a very tragic childhood did my dad. He lost his mum very shortly after he was born and then his dad, when he was 16, in absolutely terrible circumstances.

“He’d had a thwarted education but here was all this beautiful poetry and these diary entries from across decades and I just devoured it all on this little trip away.

“This show, about my childhood and my brother’s childhood in Lancashire in the 1970s and ‘80s, just poured out of me really.

“In many ways it was just a typical working class childhood and adolescence but owing to this extraordinary man, my dad, it was full of fun and laughter.”

A grainy holiday snap of Julie and her dad

Of the show, she says: “It’s only a little thing and quite delicate.

“I’ve done it a couple of times before, just as a reading, and people have seemed to really respond to it. There are a lot of cultural references that I hope people will enjoy.

“The way I describe it is the healing power of daftness, trying to find a way through dark times with laughter and fun. Daftness certainly saw my dad through a very difficult childhood.”

Recalling her father’s love of books, poetry and music, she says: “He was quite unusual in that respect.”

Her school was “just an ordinary comp” but teachers back then had time for extra-curricular activities. There was an orchestra and there were plays and pantos.

None of this was viewed as a potential career but at college in Accrington an inspirational drama teacher and former actor, Martin Cosgrave, steered not only Julie but four of her fellow students towards drama college.

Julie as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street. Pictured with on-screen husband, Roy, played by David Neilson. Credit: Joseph Scanlon/ITV

“I feel I was very privileged to get a full grant to go to LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) and then sign on for housing benefit while I set up a theatre company in London.”

The career took off. In 1994 she appeared in a Catherine Cookson drama, The Dwelling Place, and then came Coronation Street and groundbreaking storylines that made Julie a household name.

Always drawn to roles related to activism and social change, she calls these her “happy place”.

Having taken leave from Hayley Cropper to appear in a play called Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, playing the murdered teenager’s mother, Sylvia, she took the decision to quit the ‘soap’.

“I was thinking, I’m loving doing this, playing a different character and telling a different story. So I spent a few months really thinking about it and talking to the people I loved and then made the decision.

ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office laid the Horizon scandal bare

“I didn’t expect anything. I thought I’d just go and be a jobbing actor again.

“What’s happened subsequently has exceeded anything I could have hoped for.”

Subsequent TV credits include Inside No. 9, Catastrophe, Happy Valley and Broadchurch, and recently she went to America in a play called The Jungle, set in the Calais refugee camp.

“It’s just been such an adventure,” she enthuses.

But in terms of impact nothing can have compared to Mr Bates vs The Post Office and she says she would have been heartbroken if she couldn’t be in it.

“It was so much my cup of tea. I’ve been working in the arts for years and have seen that art has a part to play in changing hearts and minds about massive issues.

People who’ve been pitching those ideas for years will now be getting calls saying, ‘Perhaps we can try this now’. They’ve realised there’s an appetite for it.

Julie Hesmondhalgh, on Mr Bates vs The Post Office

“When I went to the read-through and saw how invested the producers, the director and the writer were in it, I knew it was going to be great.

“I loved that it was very simple in the way it told the stories. It did what art does when it works, makes you put yourself in other people’s shoes.

“This huge story that’s spanned 20 years, that we all knew a little bit about but not all the detail because of the nature of it… it just made it so comprehensible.

“People were outraged and it was just one of those magical TV moments.”

Julie spent a day with Alan Bates and Suzanne and the two women stay in touch, just as Julie bonded with Sylvia Lancaster.

For some time no TV company wanted to take on the Post Office drama, she says, because they didn’t think it would sell overseas.

Julie’s book, An Actor’s Alphabet

“I think we’ll see a slew of dramas like this now. People have been very reticent to make dramas about stuff like the infected blood scandal. Shocking! And the WASPI women (campaigning for state pension equality).

“People who’ve been pitching those ideas for years will now be getting calls saying, ‘Perhaps we can try this now’. They’ve realised there’s an appetite for it.”

But first there’s Julie’s very personal one-woman show, coming to Newcastle after the only other performances in Bolton.

Julie appeared at Live Theatre for the first time recently to promote her book, An Actor’s Alphabet.

“To my shame I’d never been before but I really loved it. I have huge respect for Jack (McNamara, artistic director) and what he’s trying to do there. When he said, ‘Have you got anything you’d like to do here?’ I mentioned this little piece about my dad.”

Julie will perform These I Love on March 1 and 2 at Live Theatre. All three performances are sold out (call the box office on 0191 232 1232 to get on the returns list) but it can’t be long before Julie’s on our screens again in something unmissable.


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