How we met: Alan Bleasdale & Julie Walters
Sunday 28 November 1999
Julie Walters is one of the country's best-loved comedy actresses. She has appeared in all but two of Alan Bleasdale's television dramas, as well as two of his stage plays. She is also known for her roles in the films `Educating Rita' and `Prick Up Your Ears'. Born in Birmingham, she lives in Sussex with her boyfriend, Grant Roffey, and their 10-year-old daughter, Maisie
ALAN BLEASDALE: I was unbelievably lucky that Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite were the first actors I ever talked to. It was the winter of 1974-75. They were working at the Everyman Theatre and sharing a flat in a derelict area of Liverpool. I was a teacher in my late twenties, married with two young children and a third on the way. My first novel had just been accepted for the princely sum of pounds 300, and they wanted to talk to me about adapting it for the stage and touring it in pubs and clubs.
I turned up at their flat expecting the smell of illegal substances, overflowing ashtrays and empty wine bottles after a heavy night's debate about life and art and the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre. But the place was immaculate. Pete was up and about, and Julie had gone swimming. Pete had the build of a lumberjack, Julie thankfully didn't. Pete had all the confidence and knowledge I lacked, and Julie made me laugh out loud. They decided for me that Pete would play the lead, and Julie would play, among others, a show-stopping, sexually explicit grandmother. She plays old and mad like no one else.
It was another seven years before Julie and I worked together again. It's nearly always work that brings me back to my friends in this profession. I find socialising for its own sake almost unbearable, having grown accustomed to the silence and shyness that often come with being an only child.
I was stunned when she agreed to appear in my play Having a Ball at the Lyric, Hammersmith. I was far from sure that the part she was to play was colourful enough for her. And I was right. What had been a raging success in the North came down to London and got hammered by the critics. It was a terribly unhappy time for me. I still have this desperate image of Julie, in rehearsal, trying to breathe life into a still-born character. I left London as soon as the reviews came out, armed with a note of loving regret from Julie about the play's reception, coupled with her pleasure that I had finally overcome my shyness and talked to her properly.
I remember getting on the train at Euston determined to write something for Julie that was worth her while. Before I got to Watford I was writing The Boys From The Blackstuff, with her in mind.
When asked what Julie is like, the only answer I can give is "What you see is truly what you get." Except that beneath that dizzy warmth and wit and generosity, there is a spine of tungsten steel. Julie always pushes herself to the limit. She has to go to the edge and look over, just to see what it's like.
After my wife and our immediate family, it was Julie I reached out to when my mother died and our eldest boy developed epilepsy. And I hope I was some comfort to Julie and Grant when their daughter became seriously ill. It is one of the great joys of my life that both Tim, my son, and Maisie, their daughter, are now fine and flourishing. You certainly find out who your friends are when times are grim, and who you want them to be.
Julie has always been there when I've been in bits, as well as in the good times, during the frenzy and fun of film-making at five in the morning in a muddy field in southern Ireland. We don't see as much of each other as we once did, but our phone and fax bills can get ridiculous at times, and of course, I will always write for her. Not because of friendship, but because I am not totally daft.
JULIE WALTERS: My first professional job was playing Granny in a stage adaptation of Alan's first novel, Scully, at the Liverpool Everyman in 1974. Because Alan has the one eyebrow instead of two like most people, he looked a bit cross and intimidating. I was a bit frightened by him. I remember thinking he didn't like me. But, looking back, I think it was because he was shy.
Our friendship really began when I did Having a Ball in 1981. It was the first time we'd talked properly and we got on like a house on fire. We're from similar backgrounds, and there's something very familiar about him ... perhaps he reminded me a bit of my brother.
We don't see each other much because he has travel phobia. We fax a lot. We have faxual intercourse. I send three lines saying "I haven't heard from you for ages" and he faxes back this great long novel which is always brilliant and funny. He has a great eye on the world. The best one I ever received, which made me sick laughing, was when he was making a film in the Virgin Islands. Major problem for Alan. It took everyone else 17 hours by plane. It took Alan 13 days by boat, train and boat. So he has to come back on the QE2, the safest boat in the world, and for the first time in living memory, it runs into a hurricane and 60ft waves. Alan is at a dinner dance when the grand piano comes unhitched from its mooring and ploughs into a man in a wheelchair. The maitre'd is carving a joint when he loses his balance, lurches forward and stabs someone in the chest. By the time he docks at Southampton, Alan is in a terrible state.
Then there's the hypochondria. I started out as a nurse and I used to describe diseases to him, but I've had to stop. He's dragged himself to hospital on more than one occasion, thinking he's had a heart attack.
We all missed him during the filming of Oliver Twist. We made it in Prague. Because Alan won't fly, he had to get there by train and there was a strike on the French side of Eurotunnel, so he never got to Prague. He sent me a fax after he'd seen the rushes. I'd been worried about my performance, as usual, so it was great to be reassured. It's like pleasing your Dad.
Obviously I'm flattered by the fact that he's written things for me. He makes me feel very special when I work with him, like I'm the most important person in the unit. There was one thing I didn't want to do once but we didn't fall out over it. We agreed to differ. It becomes more and more important to be surrounded by people who understand you, and who you understand.
`Oliver Twist' starts tonight at 9pm on ITV and continues for four weeks
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