Julie Hesmondhalgh on being in Coronation Street and why she's excited about coming to Yorkshire
Asked where she stores her many awards (two from the Royal Television Society among them) she reveals they are on the windowsill of her bedroom in the family home in Tameside.
But she counters: “I’m not the only one in the house who has awards. Kershy (her husband, the actor and writer Ian Kershaw) has got quite a few of his own as well.” So where are his? She laughs and reveals: “Down in the cellar, where he has his desk. In the corner, next to where we store all the dog food and the bags of stuff that we’re going to send to the charity shops.”
Born in Accrington (she’s proud of being made a freeman of the town), Julie doesn’t think she had anything of a theatre background, nothing to set her on the path to being one of the most popular actors in the country today.
At the same, she says she was never one “to sit in the corner, quietly occupying myself.”
“I was the youngest of two children and because my brother David is seven years older than me it was like being brought up by three adults rather than two.”
She was, she says, “forever giving one-person concerts and arranging puppet shows, getting involved with the Brownies and events at the local church.” Looking back, she acknowledges how big a part the town’s amateur dramatic societies and her teachers played in her life.
Julie says she was lucky to have such supportive parents, too. “They would have been behind us whatever we decided to do. There was no question about that. They were always there for us and their attitude was, ‘It doesn’t matter what you want to do, or go and be, just give it your all, do the absolute best that you can.’ It’s the same for our two girls. All you can tell them is, ‘If that’s your choice, go for it’”.
Julie’s father was a butcher’s boy but had an inquiring mind and enjoyed books and music. He also had a playful side. “There is, I learned, an amazing healing power in being as daft as you want to be at times. It’s a release. My dad was equally as happy with Chopin, Graham Greene and the Two Ronnies”.
When he died, which was about the time Julie was about to leave Coronation Street, she discovered a box of diaries he had kept over the years. They were full, she discovered, of observations and poems. And these became the basis for a performance piece, based on her father’s work, called These I Love.
Playing Hayley Cropper in Corrie (she was with the soap, on and off, between 1998 and 2014) was Julie’s introduction to a wider audience though she had been steadily working for years on stage and screen.
She left Accrington to go to LAMDA, the drama school in London, and found herself part of a group of friends from the same small town. “There were more of us from that tiny catchment area than there were lads from Eton,” she laughs, “so we must have been doing something right. Actually, I put it down to drama teachers and facilitators from my school days.”
Joining the cast of Corrie was another turning point for Julie and changed her life in two ways. The first was that, as the character of Hayley became more prominent and her storylines increasingly powerful, Julie found she could lend her voice to issues and causes she felt needed support.
She also found love, and a husband, with Ian. It was, by all accounts, a whirlwind romance, which started on the Corrie cobbles. Ian has been writing a lot for the show recently and his wife contributes: “That’s why, for me, I think that it is back on form again.”
She also put his writing skills to the test. “I said, ‘What point is there in having a good, strong dramatist in this house when you never write anything for me?’” He took the hint and “kept disappearing into the cellar”.
The result is The Greatest Play in the History of the World, which will play in Scarborough, York and Hull, hopefully starting next month, albeit in a slightly altered shape. Julie says: “When we did it in Edinburgh at the festival in 2019, and then at the Trafalgar Studios in London, there was quite a lot of audience contact but – because of social distancing – that won’t happen this time.
“We’ve given it a lot of thought and I think we’ve got the solution – you’ll have to turn up to see what happens. Please, don’t worry. It’s not that awful ‘forced audience participation’ thing. It’s something rather different.”
As well as returning to the stage, Julie will also be seen in a forthcoming new BBC drama series The Pact. “I love the information tag line they’ve given it – ‘Five friends, a sudden death and a tissue of lies’. Which tells it how it is,” she says.
“Because of all the Covid restrictions, it really wasn’t an easy one to make. Normally a film set is a very close affair. People get to know each other very well but we actors had to rehearse by Zoom for the most part and when we got in front of the cameras it was all very intense because of time restrictions. We all wore masks until our scene, then we took them off at the last moment.”
It was a strange experience in other ways, too. “The oddest thing, though, was that when you are doing TV or film there’s generally an awful lot of camaraderie and socialising. Not with The Pact, sadly. No drinks in the pub afterwards or in the hotel bar.
“The people we all talked to most for the entire shoot were our drivers, who picked us up and dropped us off. Masks are essential, we all know that – but they hide a lot of things. Smiles, naturally. But it sometimes comes as a bit of a jolt to see someone without one and then discover you never knew they had a moustache.”
Because of the diverse roles she’s played (in series such as The A Word, Black Roses and Broadchurch), and the gritty subjects she’s tackled, she hopes that people trust her.
“Hopefully I can express things for those who don’t have a voice. If I’m useful in that way then I am delighted beyond belief.”
The Greatest Play in the History of the World is due at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, May 18-25, York Theatre Royal, June 1-5 and Hull Truck Theatre from June 7-12.