‘Some people will always think there is no smoke without fire’
Julie Walters plays the loyal wife of a veteran comedian caught up in a sex abuse scandal in Channel Four's new drama National Treasure. She talks to Susan Griffin about tackling the fraught and sensitive subject matter
Julie Walters is recalling a scene on the set of Channel 4 series Indian Summers, in which her character, the delightfully conniving Cynthia Coffin, was required to carry a tray.
The image instantly brought to mind her portrayal of an elderly waitress struggling to serve soup in the Two Soups sketch written by her dear friend, the late Victoria Wood.
"The cast were all laughing away at me," admits Walters. "I can't get away from it. But I don't want to get away from it, either."
In the three decades since that classic scene was shot, Walters has established herself as one of the country's finest talents, as comfortable playing for laughs as she is depicting the likes of Mo Mowlam in the acclaimed 2010 drama Mo.
To date, she's earned herself 15 Bafta nominations, winning six times, as well as the Bafta Fellowship in 2014, and two Oscar nominations, for 1983's Educating Rita and 2000's Billy Elliot.
But today, the 66-year-old remains her self-deprecating self.
Asked if there are any roles she's turned down only to bitterly regret it down the road, she remarks: "I don't think there are, really. I have turned things down that have become very successful, but thought, 'No, she's much better in it than I would've been'."
Casually elegant in jeans and a black waistcoat over a white top, Walters admits she's reached a stage where she has "qualms about tiredness" when choosing projects.
"I don't like working all the time," she admits, in that familiar West Midlands voice.
This left her in a quandary when a script for Channel 4's new four-part drama National Treasure arrived on her lap.
"I had something else coming up possibly, and I thought, 'Oh, do I want to be working all the time?' But then, it was too good not to do."
Written by the inimitable Jack Thorne, himself a multiple Bafta-nominee for the likes of This Is England '90 and Don't Take My Baby, the story examines the impact, both public and private, of accusations of historic sexual offences against Paul Finchley, a fictional, much-loved public figure played by Robbie Coltrane. The actor is another member of the Harry Potter alumni (Coltrane starred as Hagrid, Walters as Mrs Weasley, but unbelievably, Walters thinks they shared just one scene together in 10 years of the franchise).
"I've met him, obviously, at things over the years, but I didn't really know him before this," she notes.
Walters plays Marie, his wife of 40 years and a woman who's always stood by her man.
"She's a Catholic, so she wouldn't want to be divorcing anyone," she explains.
"Marie depends on her faith and that spreads into the rest of her life and her faith in him is important. So, although she knows he's slept with a lot of people, as long as he's honest with her, there's kind of an agreement between them."
The actress, who married her long-term partner Grant in 1997, and with whom she has a daughter, Mae (28), admits she wouldn't do the same.
"My ego wouldn't allow it, apart from anything else. And what I couldn't bear also, is any kind of lying. I think that's what hurts people, more than anything."
Operation Yewtree, set up in 2012 to investigate sexual abuse allegations, primarily the abuse of minors, has dominated the front pages in recent times. But despite the sensitive and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter, Walters had no misgivings about the drama.
"I didn't, because it's truthful, there's a truth behind it," she says. "So you can't go wrong, really. It's not sensationalising the issue for the wrong reasons. It's being done for the right reasons."
The series, directed by Marc Munden ("He's so forensic, but it was fantastic to be challenged in that way"), also explores the notion of trial by media.
"I feel for people who are accused of something they haven't done, but have been in the media spotlight because of it. It's very difficult to get rid of that sort of thing.
"No matter what happens, some people will always think, 'There's no smoke without fire'," observes Walters.
"On the other hand, as is shown in the series, it really helps the police when things are publicised, because it tends to give other people the courage to come forward, and they can then build a case. I think that, overall, the victim has to come first, no matter what."
Walters, who never met Jimmy Savile and doesn't know any of those who've been accused through the Yewtree investigation, admits she was "fascinated" by the wives who are seen supporting their husbands despite the crimes they're charged with.
"Women like that are fascinating. It's like when you see pictures of Rolf Harris and his wife, it's her that I'm actually fascinated by. How is she standing next to him, holding his arm, in this?"
In National Treasure, it's not only Paul and Marie's marriage that's affected by the allegations, but their relationship with troubled daughter Dee, portrayed by Andrea Riseborough.
"Marie is quite conservative and buttoned-up and there's a lack of intimacy there - that's why she can kind of deal with Paul and his peccadillos," explains Walters.
"Her daughter's wayward though, and she would not deal with a teenage daughter of that sort, so they have a difficult time."
But it's this examination, as she puts it, into "how we respond to one another, emotionally", which Walters finds captivating.
Next year she'll star alongside her Billy Elliot co-star Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, and before that, reunites with Willy Russell - who wrote Educating Rita - for a special BBC Two documentary this autumn.
"I have an ambition to carry on, that's about it really," offers Walters, when asked about future aspirations. "I like to see what comes up.
"There needs to be some kind of integrity to it," she adds. "I've got to believe that someone's writing it because they really, really want to."
National Treasure, Channel 4, Tuesday, 9pm