Actress JULIE WALTERS talks with Minty Clinch
In a profession in which women traditionally struggle in their 40s, Julie Walters works as and when she wants. It's the humour that does it, the rare ability to define shades of accent and behaviour that she established in the heady days of Wood and Walters. In a high-profile spring, she illustrates her versatility in two archetypal Walters roles, Paula in Melissa and Marjorie in Intimate Relations.

Channel 4's Melissa is Alan Bleasdale's tribute to Francis Durbridge, a TV mystery writer whose work he admired as a child in the 1950s. Reinvented as a 1990s mover and shaker - a glitzy role for Jennifer Ehle - Melissa is partnered in a PR company by Paula, a drunk with an ineffectual husband, played by Adrian Dunbar. "Alan knows I'll do anything he writes for me," says Julie of an association that goes back to Boys from the Blackstuff. "Paula is loud, boozy and outrageous which, for some bewildering reason, he associates with me! I like her because she's a real exhibitionist when she's drunk. She goes to lots of Ab Fab-type parties, has a few too many and behaves really badly.

The first three episodes of Bleasdale's Melissa form a prequel to Durbridge's original, with the main characters meeting up aboard a cruise ship to South Africa. Gradually the tally of murders mounts, starting with strangers, then homing in on the charmed circle of vivacious travellers that includes Paula and Melissa.

This high-profile scenario marks a departure from the home-based socio- economic dramas that launched Bleasdale's career. "Alan has created a really complicated history," Walters explains. "These people have had lunch together, worked together, partied together and inevitably gone to bed together for years. It sounds like a good life but it is also dangerous, fast-moving and riddled with insecurity. Beneath the surface, Melissa and Paula inhabit a harsh and rather desperate world."

It is typical of Walters that Paula has absolutely nothing in common with Marjorie, the latest in a line of characters that incite others to murder. Intimate Relations, a gritty 1950s psychodrama is a labour of love for first-time director, Philip Goodhew. Inspired by a bizarre murder at a picnic in the New Forest, it probes a decade marked by emotional repression in the aftermath of war. No one is more repressed than Marjorie, a pillar of the lower middle classes. Trapped in a loveless marriage with the one-legged husband she despises, she channels her frustration into dominating everyone around her.

"She's a sociopath, who has got to have what she wants," Walters comments cheerfully. "Maybe I was the only actor Philip dared asked to play her. The description at the beginning of the script is quite unflattering: `A very plain, drab woman with glasses'. I suppose anyone looking for an actor to play a middle-aged monster dials my number first. Anyway, I had no hesitation taking her on, though there were times when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, `My God, she's so appalling, I'm not sure I can go through with it.' "

The worst moments for Walters took place under Marjorie's bedspread, as shared with the lodger (Ruper Graves). "You don't see much of Marjorie, you'll be glad to know, but I dreaded the sex scenes, as I always do. On this occasion I was more embarrassed, especially because Rupert is so much younger and so good looking. I felt I'd come off pretty badly but when we did the scenes, he was lovely, a real gentleman."

Intimate Relations is the kind of low-budget film that only gets made if names like Julie Walters support it. Goodhew even based the production in his native Abergavenny so that he could use his parents' house as lodging for the crew. No one was paid until the film was sold. But this did not deter Walters. "I only accept jobs I really want to do, which means no formula stuff," Walters insists. "I was always adamant that I wouldn't do rubbish and I've never compromised on that."

Due to her successful TV partnership with Victoria Wood, Walters became a household name in the 1970s, a position she capitalised on in the 1980s, most notably in Educating Rita which won her an Oscar nomination in 1984. When America sat up and took notice, she received offers from Hollywood, most of which she rejected. At one time, she was paid pounds 15,000 a year for three years by Disney not to work for any of their rivals while they looked for a suitable comedy for her. "It was daft. My agent would ring up and say, `Another cheque has come through', and we'd have a good laugh about it."

The good times ended abruptly in 1990 when her daughter, Maisie, was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia. Through the anxious years of chemotherapy and convalescence, Julie worked part-time and mostly in Britain. Now that the prognosis is encouraging, she is free to go abroad again - her American series, Julie Walters is an Alien, is slated for the autumn - but the focus of her life remains the 70-acre farm in Sussex where she and her partner, Grant, breed sheep and pigs.

Despite a solid urban background in the West Midlands, Julie doesn't hesitate to analyse the breeding preferences of her livestock. "We ate Moriarty on Sunday. He was our ram but it was time for him to go because the girls didn't want him around. We'll rent another one for the next bonking season." With Grant fulfilling a house husband's role, Julie won't be retiring for a while yet. Nor is she likely to run out of comic invention down on the farm.

Melissa is on Channel 4 in five parts, starting 12 May at 9pm

Intimate Relations open on 20 Jun

1950: Born in Smethwick into a strict, working-class family

1968: After a `subversive' education at the Holly Lodge Grammar School, enrolled for an SRN course at Birmingham General Hospital

1970: Switched to drama at Manchester Polytechnic, a calling card for the Everyman Theatre where she found regular work on qualification

1978: Met Victoria Wood at the Bush Theatre, the start of a partnership that led to Granada's Wood and Walters

1980: Opened in Willy Russell's Educating Rita at the RSC Warehouse, a seminal role that launched her on the wide screen opposite Michael Caine three years later

1980s: Combined a film career on both sides of the Atlantic with stage and television at home. Worked for Alan Bleasdale in Boys from the Blackstuff,which led to roles in GBH and Jake's Progress. Film parts as Cynthia Payne in Personal Services (1987), Phil Collins's wife in Buster (1988) and a gin- drinking vamp in Killing Dad (1989)

1990s: The illness of her daughter, Maisie, in 1990, put her career on a part-time footing. Resumed in The Rose Tattoo at the Playhouse Theatre in June, 1991. Films include Just Like a Woman (1992) and Sister My Sister (1994)