Maxine Peake: An arresting new role

From Shameless to Little Dorrit, Maxine Peake is no stranger to landmark television. As the actress hits the beat for her latest role, she speaks to Sophie Morris
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Maxine Peake seems to be hiding under a tangle of chunky knits and scarves. She peels most of them off before climbing into our velvet-padded booth in the Soho brasserie where we meet, and explains in her soft Lancashire voice that she has come straight from an audition for the upcoming remake of Clash of the Titans, a kitsch fantasy film based on the myth of Perseus and Medusa. The original was a huge hit in the Eighties, but she's sure she won't get the part. "I've got to get in the frame of mind of thinking I'm the best person. You can cast yourself out of a part by thinking someone else would be better," she admits, exhibiting a self-deprecation which appears again and again as she discusses the parts which have made her name as a television character actress of extraordinary consistency over the past decade.

Her most recent roles have been the sinister lesbian Miss Wade in Andrew Davies' adaptation of Little Dorrit for the BBC, and Elizabeth Lilburne, wife of the Civil War agitator John, in Channel 4's The Devil's Whore.

There seems no reason she shouldn't turn her hand to Titans, as Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier both did, especially since she already has a feature film under her belt – Clubbed – which opens on Friday. Based on Geoff Thompson's autobiography Watch My Back, the film traces the experiences of Danny as he navigates life as a nightclub doorman in the rough underworld of 1980s Coventry. Peake plays Danny's wife and was drawn to the part by Thompson's script.

She also downplays how she came by her part in the Red Riding trilogy with Paddy Considine, which will appear on Channel 4 in March and is tipped as one of the landmark drama events of the spring. "A few people had already dropped out and they must have thought, 'Oh, Maxine's from Manchester, and her sister's a policewoman'," she says.

Red Riding is an adaptation of four novels by David Peace which blew the lid on corruption, negligence and paranoia in the West Yorkshire police force in the wake of the Yorkshire Ripper's crimes. Peake plays a Manchester policewoman sent, with Considine's character, to investigate the neighbouring force. She was already a fan of Peace's work – "his writing is seductive in a dark, bleak way, even though crime isn't my sort of genre" – but Considine was the real bait. "I had met him before for a reading and I was very goofy and walked off mid-conversation because I was so star struck," she remembers. She was close to repeating this trick when she worked with Andy Serkis on Little Dorrit, who turned out to be "really intense, but very lovely". "I do get worked up about actors I admire," she confesses, "even though they always turn out not to be intimidating."

When she made it on set with Considine for the part of the Red Riding trilogy in which she features, Nineteen Eighty, her nervous anticipation was at least not in vain. "He was brilliant to work with. He is very generous and very open. I usually go home and dissect scenes, but with him I never thought there was something else I could have done. He just gets it, and you react to him."

For its cast alone – Sean Bean and David Morrissey star – Red Riding should be put down as a March must-see. "I've only seen a trailer," admits Peake. "But it looked like nothing else I'd seen on British telly for a long time."

Despite the insecurities, a series of brave choices have demonstrated Peake's range since her first job in Victoria Wood's Dinnerladies in 1998, straight out of Rada. Back then she weighed 15 stone and the opportunities to play anything other than a character whose name was preceded by the word "fat" were non-existent. "I remember my manager ringing about a part in a film to say I would be great for it, and the casting woman saying 'Yes, but we want normal girls'. I realised that I wasn't classed as normal."

Peake took stock of the negative impact her weight was having on her health and career. It was clear she would always be pigeon-holed at the size she was, so she took herself off to a slimming club and lost the excess. The roles which came up afterwards shocked her, especially the chance to play the bolshy sex-mad Veronica in Shameless, the Paul Abbott-penned bleak comedy set on a rough housing estate near Manchester.

"I remember a friend asking me what I did if I had a sex scene coming up, and I said, 'As if anyone would ever ask me to do a sex scene!' Then came Shameless, and Veronica's huge breasts were described in the first script I saw. If you look through the series you see I've started going to the gym because so many of my bits were on show."

Shameless was a huge hit, and Peake stuck it out for three series, but eventually bored of playing the same character over and over again, blaming her short attention span. Afterwards she was determined to shake the association and when the part of Myra Hindley in See No Evil came up she was desperate to get it, even though other actresses were reluctant to portray such a reviled woman. "I didn't really think about the consequences," she says. "I have a need to do stories I want to tell."

The stories Peake has chosen so far, such as revisiting the part the Levellers and the Diggers played in the English Revolution, indicate the educational aspect to good drama, but she is far from the quintessential introspective luvvie. "I think drama is definitely important. It offers people up to different views and different worlds," she says, before qualifying her words: "But I don't want to get too worthy. I'm not, 'Oh, drama and theatre can change the world'."

This down-to-earth perspective almost stymied Peake's progression when she first arrived at Rada, without the will or the Oxbridge education to join in its intellectual aspect and muse on juxtaposition and Milton. She panicked a little until the practical parts of the course came into focus.

After 12 years in London she has recently moved to Salford, close to Bolton where she grew up. The housing market was at its peak when she realised there was no one area in London where she was desperate to live. In Salford she loves her street and its sense of community. "I'm really northern through and through," she says, even though she had never expected to be drawn back there. "That's where I'm from and it's my home." She is not looking forward to the cultural injection the relocation of various BBC departments should give the city. "[Regeneration] is ripping the heart out of Salford. They're knocking down houses and building properties people can't afford. It's really sad."

She says there are one or two jobs she regrets taking, and is most proud of Hancock and Joan for BBC 4, in which she played Tony Hancock's lover Joan Le Mesurier. The part of John Prescott's lover, Tracey Temple, in Confessions of a Diary Secretary was presumably less gratifying. Though she jokes that she has no work in the diary for 2009, I suspect Peake is rather more picky than she admits. She has considered the impact the recession is having on drama production and worries about slashed budgets and who will make cutting edge drama if Channel 4 can't. That said, a lack of decent scripts in production seems a far more plausible reason for her to be out of work than being pipped to the post by better actresses.