By Lauren Edwards
At the weekend, my teenage daughter and I watched Mamma Mia (the one with Cher) for the millionth time. As we rolled our eyes at the silly storylines and sang along to the Abba songs, she asked whether Julie Walters character was ‘Ron Weasley’s Mum in Harry Potter?’ After I confirmed this, I also pointed out that she had played so many different characters over the years and that she was so much more than Meryl Streep’s scatty sidekick.
There were people asking ‘Can women be funny?’ People still ask that. It’s like asking: ‘Can women breathe in and out?’
Dame Julie Walters (CBE and OBE) was the hilarious Miss Overall of my childhood, shuffling about Acorn Antiques and serving up her ‘two soups.’ She was the ballet teacher to Billy Elliot, Michael Caine’s aspiring student in Educating Rita and the charity-driven widow in Calendar Girls. In fact, she has appeared in more than 60 films, countless television programmes and trod the boards in numerous plays.
Born in Edgbaston in February 1950, and named Julia Walters, she was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers. Her Irish mum, Mary, was a postal clerk from County Mayo and her dad, Thomas Walters, an English builder from Birmingham. Walters attended convent school and her Mum pushed her towards a career in nursing, despite her desire to become an actor.
At the age of 19, Walters was working as nurse in Birmingham and her then boyfriend was a student at Manchester Polytechnic. He told her about a drama course that was running at his college, and she took the plunge, left nursing, joined the course, and met Victoria Wood. The comedy duo became television gold throughout the 1980s in sketch shows such as Victoria Wood-As Seen on TV, as well as appearing together in Dinner Ladies in the 1990s as well as one-off drama’s such as Pat and Margaret.
When I auditioned at drama school in Manchester, they said, ‘So you want to be an actor?’, I said, ‘No, I am an actor and whether you take me or not is another matter.
Walters has the rare talent to jump from dramatic roles such as Angie in the gritty drama Boys from the Blackstuff to her hilarious comedic performance of Mrs Bird in Paddington. She has been awarded four BAFTA television awards and two BAFTA film awards, two Emmy’s, a golden globe and has received two Oscar nominations.
However, the last film she completed, The Secret Garden, could well be her last as during filming, in 2018, she was taken ill and was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer. She had 30cm of her lower intestine removed followed by a course of chemotherapy. As the true professional that she is, Walters returned to the set of The Secret Garden just a month later to finish filming her scenes. Thankfully, Walters has now been given the all-clear, but it has forced her to reassess her life and has decided to take a long, perhaps permanent, break from acting.
After I had the operation, I was thinking about the future. I thought, I don’t want to work again. Unless it’s another Mamma Mia!
Walters and her husband, farmer Grant Roffey, live an idyllic life on their 70-acre organic farm in Sussex, where they farm chickens, sheep, and cattle. The couple have been together for 33 years and married for 13 years. They have a daughter, Maisie, who is 32 years old. Walters is the patron of the domestic violence survivors’ charity Women’s Aid and in 2018 she helped deliver a petition to No 10 Downing Street to safeguard domestic abuse refuges.