Julie Walters: “Somebody tried to abduct me when I was a child”

National treasure Julie Walters on the theatre that changed her life, and her beloved friend Victoria Wood

At 16, I was at Holly Lodge Grammar School for Girls, Smethwick, which sounds very posh and wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of people chose not to send their kids there because they thought it was so rough. But I loved it. I really hated primary school, a Catholic preparatory school. The nuns slapped you about the head. I was frightened of them. So how can you learn anything?

When people don’t feel like they have a place, school life is difficult. But I was good at sport and I made people laugh. I was never in school plays but I would fool around and entertain people. I didn’t work terribly hard. I played basketball, hockey and was a runner – 200m Worcestershire Champion in 1966! I watched so much Olympics recently, it exhausted me. I ran all the races with them, not breathing. That was very hard in the 10,000m. When Mo Farah fell over, it really hurt.

I was interested in boys but too lacking in confidence to push myself forward. Some girls at school were like women in their 30s. I was more like someone of about 11. I would advise my younger self not to worry about how much boys fancy you. I was always terribly flattered if someone fancied me. That seemed more important than what I thought about them. No! Really look at them. Don’t worry, there are plenty of them. Don’t take any shit.

Julie Walters in Educating Rita, 1983.

We were a working class family without a book in the house but we all did further education of some description and my brother went to Cambridge. That was because of my mother’s drive. We were expected to do something with our lives. We weren’t going to work in a factory or a shop, though my dad was a builder and my mum packed chocolates in Cadbury’s. She was not having that for us. My mother wanted me to be a nurse. “You can go anywhere in the world!” she’d say.

We lived in an end of terrace house in Bearwood, Smethwick, which is now one of the most deprived areas of the country. It was a big, freezing old house, with a park at the end of the road. I was never allowed to go there because there were strange men, according to my mother. I didn’t know what that meant until somebody did try to abduct me when I was a child. We were playing in the garden of a big old empty house. And this man found us and basically assaulted us. “Lift up your dresses.” Nothing terrible, but he was trying to take us. I didn’t fully realise until I wrote about it in my autobiography. I recently wrote to one of the other girls, and she has had nightmares about it as well.

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To be 16 in 1966 was incredible. I recently saw Ron Howard’s documentary on The Beatles. You could see all the girls screaming. I never did that, but I Wanna Hold Your Hand was playing when I was first kissed. It was just gorgeous. A great time. Then at college I embraced hippydom. I loved it. I had the long hair, huge bell bottoms, that Indian effect – the smell of patchouli is really evocative for me. I smoked dope. Everybody did. I liked it. Free love.

I knew nothing about politics at 16. But Enoch Powell’s Rivers Of Blood speech was about Smethwick. I didn’t take it all in until I met my first college boyfriend. There was an anti-Apartheid demonstration and he said we should go. I said: “should we?” And he said: “What, do you condone Apartheid?” I had to find a dictionary to look up condone! Then I tried to look up Apartheid but didn’t know how it was spelt. So I was educated mainly by him.

Reading The Female Eunuch [by Germaine Greer] confirmed all the things I had felt. Here was someone more intelligent and older writing about how women were treated as second class. And I’d grown up feeling that. I remember my mother saying, ‘you must work, you don’t have to get married’. She was like that from life experience rather than reading about it. Strong women talking about that really affected me.

I didn’t look very far ahead. But when I started nursing, it felt like a career for life and it wasn’t what I wanted. I lay in the bath at home and said very quietly: “I want to be an actor”. People told me I should be on the stage, but I’d never said it out loud. I still didn’t know what to do about it, but I’d said it. Then my boyfriend told me about a course at Manchester Poly. I left nursing. Mum went mad, of course. But I felt I could make it as soon as I went to drama school.

He walked me home and mended my washing machine. What more could a girl ask for?

I really feel for my younger self. I want to put my arm around her and say: “You are all right, you are mate!” I can feel her innocence. I feel for women coming into the business. It is a tough old game, full of rejection and people commenting on you, physically.

The Everyman [theatre in Liverpool] was a wonderful place. We felt like we were changing the world. Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Pete Postlethwaite, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, Anthony Sher – a fantastic group of actors, and Alan Dossor, who recently died, was the most extraordinary director. This was a theatre that was about community. It was for the community. We went out into the community, doing pub shows. We embraced the community, and they loved it.

A lot of my roles have dealt with class. I Julie Waltersvictwas very conscious of the class divide. I remember visiting my brother in Cambridge when I was 16 and thinking it was another world. I remember feeling quite angry at middle class people. Their privilege. “Middle class actresses? You should be fucking good, you have had all the privileges.” Which is a load of rubbish, of course. Acting isn’t about that. Although nowadays, getting to drama school bloody is. People can’t afford it.

Meeting Victoria Wood was like a gift. From the moment we met, we just laughed at the same things. We would look at people and laugh – not in a nasty way – but we’d see the human frailty and how funny it is. I knew I’d met someone very special. I was very lucky to meet her. I thought, “If I could write, this is what I would have written.” It was like she could see inside my head. This year has been hard. I still can’t get my head around the fact that Vic is gone. I can’t get my heart around it. She was such a powerful presence. And for me, personally, we went back such a long way.

Educating Rita was massive for me. It was like a parallel to my own life. I never thought the film was very good at the time, because I had done it on stage, which was very different. But it opened up my career. Then Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff was completely groundbreaking television. To be part of that, which also felt revolutionary, was incredible. And I met Alan Bennett very early on, a wonderful person to work with. I was so lucky.

To be part of that, which also felt revolutionary, was incredible

People are really nice to me. You can say I’m loved, but it is not really loved. I don’t know how you define it. But it is nice to feel that people are affectionate. That is lovely.

I’ve been with my Grant for 31 years. It was instant. He moved in the night we met and never moved out. I was pissed in a posh bar, saying, “I bet nobody here is a member of the Labour Party.” And he turned round and said, “I am actually.” I looked at him and thought, oh, he’s a bit of all right. I probably said it as well, being drunk. I remember saying something ridiculous like: “Look at the size of this man’s neck!” He walked me home, and that was it. He mended my washing machine. What more could a girl ask for?

My younger self would think it was wonderful that I live on a farm. Living in the country was always a fantasy. My own patch of green. I still love it. I love the peace. I love walking and being out in all weathers. In the dead of winter it is fabulous, watching it change. These days, a role has got to be good to make me want to leave my home.

National Treasure starring Julie Walters begins September 20 at 9pm on Channel 4