Nicola Walker: ‘I looked, but I couldn’t find any other children of scrap metal dealers at Cambridge…’

In a Soho hotel, Nicola Walker is considering whether her ‘feisty face’ (her description, not ours) has been good for her career.

‘I’ve often played women who are downtrodden, or who are incapable of love, but I would hope I’ve never played them like that,’ she muses. ‘The character I played in A View from the Bridge [in the West End, then on Broadway] is traditionally played like this sort of little wren in a cardigan. I didn’t do it like that.’

Over the last 25 years, Walker and her face – its feistiness softened by those luminous, blue-grey eyes – have brought this mix of resilience and vulnerability to a range of indelible performances, from Gillian, the latterday Bathsheba Everdene of Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax, to the quietly determined DCI Cassie Stuart in ITV’s superior detective drama Unforgotten.

It’s a quality that’s also much in evidence in her latest role as a high-flying but empathetic divorce lawyer (with something of a weak stomach for family break-ups) in new BBC One drama The Split.

‘I hadn’t really read a script like this before, which focused on family, and didn’t paint anyone, male or female, too perfectly,’ says Walker, whose character, Hannah, has recently walked out on the family firm, and now faces her own mother and sister (Deborah Findlay and Annabel Scholey) as rival briefs in a bitter, high-profile divorce case. ‘It’s very honest about people, and their attempts at loving each other.’

Hannah’s queasiness about divorce is a result of her father popping out for a newspaper 30 years earlier, and never coming back (until now). ‘The sisters have defined themselves through the absence of their father, and defining yourself through an absence is quite a dangerous emotional position to take,’ considers Walker. ‘As far as Hannah has concerned, he is dead.’

Created by Abi Morgan, the BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning writer of Sex Traffic, The Hour and The Iron Lady, The Split has been made by veteran producer Jane Featherstone’s Sister Pictures, and directed by Jessica Hobbs (Broadchurch). Though the powerhouse cast also includes the likes of Stephen Mangan (as Hannah’s husband), Anthony Head (as her father) and Stephen Tompkinson, it’s the female talent who are front and centre, on both sides of the camera.

Walker thinks it’s ‘fantastic’ that more women are ‘deciding what sort of drama to make, what stories to tell’ and agrees with Weekend’s assertion that we’re living through a golden era for female-led television, dominated by brilliant actors like Sarah Lancashire, Suranne Jones, Keeley Hawes, Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Sheridan Smith (to say nothing of Walker herself, of course). ‘But it’s also worrying that that’s only down to quite a small number of creative individuals,’ she cautions. ‘I can probably count on my hand the women who are making that change at the moment – the writers and the directors and the executives and the commissioners.’

That said, she is on record as having admitted she only got into acting in the first place (as a member of Harlow Youth Theatre) as a way to meet boys.

‘Partly that’s true, I can’t lie,’ she laughs. (In person, Walker is unfailingly cheerful, despite sitting down with Weekend late in the afternoon, having finally abandoned repeated abortive attempts to eat lunch.) ‘But I went to an all-girls’ school, and single sex schools are just not right.’

Her father was an East End scrap metal dealer who was able to afford to send her from Stepney to a private school in Essex. ‘He was really good at scrap metal,’ she explains. ‘There’s a lot of money in scrap.’

Even so, when she arrived to read English at New Hall, Cambridge, there can’t have been a huge number of children from scrap metal families…

‘No,’ she says. ‘I did look, and I couldn’t find any other scrap metal daughters and sons. But I did find Sue Perkins and [future TV screenwriter] Sarah Phelps. I think that’s partly what drew us to each other: we were at a college that prided itself on taking people from different backgrounds, and their parents had normal jobs as well. You smell that on each other.’

Perkins was assigned as her “college mother” – a Cambridge tradition whereby an undergraduate is tasked with responsibility for a younger student’s pastoral care – but was terrible at it, asking to borrow Walker’s bike, then immediately getting drunk and losing it.

She was really bad,’ says Walker. ‘But I knew as soon as I met her that I wanted to hang out with her. I wanted her to be my friend. I felt like I was safe with her. And she got me involved with the Footlights. Where I was terrible. I was absolutely rubbish.’

Initially, Perkins had her collecting the empty beer cans and ashtrays, before getting her onstage to play her comic stooge – including spending an entire performance with a paper bag on her head. ‘And you know why she made me do that?’ she says. ‘Because Mel [Giedroyc] was away for the year. Then Mel came back and… nothing.’

Fortunately, this didn’t damage either their friendship – they went on to share numerous flats together around London – or Walker’s prospects as a performer: in fact she picked up so much acting work after university, she was able to turn down a place at RADA. (‘I thought, “I’ve already done three years in an institution – I’ve got to go sit for another three years and practice acting?”’)

Sue Perkins got me involved with the Footlights – but only because Mel was away for the year.

Nicola Walker

On screen, she made a brief but memorable appearance as a sappy folk singer in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and took a leading role in Steven Moffat’s short-lived school sitcom Chalk, while theatre work included a 1994 Royal Court production of The Libertine, where she met her husband, Barnaby Kay.

Her big TV break came as Robson Green’s DI, Susan Taylor, in the late 90s ITV crime thriller Touching Evil. The show was produced by Jane Featherstone, who then went on to launch hit BBC spy caper Spooks. Walker joined the show in 2003 as MI5 intelligence analyst Ruth Evershed, and stayed until 2011, taking a three-year break in the middle to have her son, Harry. (Contrary to popular belief, he isn’t named after her former on-screen lover, Spooks boss Harry Pearce, played by Peter Firth – that was just a joke she made to a journalist. ‘I thought I was being hilarious and brilliant,’ she says. ‘And now it’s on Wikipedia.’)

Another defining role was Gillian, Last Tango in Halifax’s chaotic sheep farmer, forever lurching from one disastrous liaison to the next. ‘I’d get the scripts through, and I’d just be utterly delighted every time I saw “Gillian is with her sheep”, or “Gillian is on the moors with a 17-year-old in the back of his van”’ she beams. ‘They’re such beautifully drawn characters. And underneath it all there’s this huge sadness, this terrible violence, in Gillian’s life. Sally writes in the same way Abi does – they let you play real people, where it’s all a bit more complicated than it first looks.’

She was convinced she hadn’t got the part because her Yorkshire accent was good enough (it is, of course, perfect). Even now, as one of our most in-demand stars, she says she’s hopelessly uptight during auditions. ‘I do them like I’m going into battle,’ she explains. ‘With a monkey fear grimace.’

She’s currently in the middle of filming the third run of Unforgotten, a police procedural mercifully free of the usual cop show clichés. ‘For me, the show leans more towards something like 24 Hours in Police Custody,’ agrees Walker. ‘Chris [writer Chris Lang] has got more of an affinity with those sort of shows, where you see the police really trying to make the case work, rather than it being about their various personal demons.’

Cassie also enjoys a refreshingly uncomplicated relationship with her amiable DS, Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan. He’s played by Sanjeev Bhaskar, whose wife, Meera Syal, has a leading role in The Split. Perhaps they compare notes about working with Nicola Walker in bed at night?

‘I don’t think they do, poor things!’ she hoots. ‘I’m trying to get their son to do something with me, so I’ve got the full set.’

Though a familiar face in our living rooms for two decades now (to say nothing of a stage career that brought her an Olivier Award for her performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), Unforgotten marked Walker’s step up to star billing, heading an ensemble cast that, like The Split, boasts of some of the most respected names in the business.

At 47, then, she’s at the top of her game – and happy to have shucked off some of the insecurities of youth. ‘I think as you get older, you can step back and think, “Okay, if I just hold on, this will pass”,’ she says. ‘There’s no point in trying to force things to work out, always. But if I just hang on – and sometimes, if I just shut up – we’ll push it through…’

So the most valuable lesson Nicola Walker has learned over the years is…

‘Keep your mouth shut,’ she nods, and then laughs again, before being whisked away to her next appointment (and, hopefully, lunch).

Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 26, 2018. (c) Waitrose Weekend

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