Julie Hesmondhalgh talks Broadchurch, Brexit and the importance of theatre
It’s the final episode of Broadchuch tonight. If like Northern Soul you’ve been gripped by the last series of this superlative drama, that’s due in no small part to Julie Hesmondhalgh’s gripping portrayal of a rape victim. Hesmondhalgh has form when it comes to astonishing acting, from her groundbreaking role as transgender Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street to parts in, among others, Happy Valley and Cucumber. In the North especially, she’s admired for theatre, from a cancer victim in Wit to the mother of a murdered teenager in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.
Ahead of tonight’s eagerly anticipated Broadchurch finale, Northern Soul‘s Cathy Crabb chatted to Hesmondhalgh about starring in the iconic show, what it was like to play a victim of rape, and her work for Take Back, a theatre collective formed in response to the politics of austerity.
Cathy: Now then, we’re all watching Broadchurch but I’m guessing it’s too difficult for you to watch. What’s on your TV screen?
Julie: Ha! No, I’m watching it too. I always watch stuff back because, once you’ve got over yourself – and, as a woman, that’s not always easy (“oh god, look at my arse, ear, nose, etc”) you have to watch to learn how to be better. And of course, I’m only a small part of it and watching David Tennant and Olivia Coleman is a bloody masterclass. They’re the dons. It was amazing when they showed it (twice) on Gogglebox. I can’t tell you how weird it is to watch people watching you, in the moment. I don’t imagine Goggleboxers ever think that we, the actors they’re watching, might be watching them.
I’m loving Catastrophe and Line of Duty too. I’m watching telly in a retro way at the moment, waiting a week for the next episode rather than bingeing. I love it. I love the conversations you have with people between episodes.
Cathy: I was dead chuffed about Gogglebox. Let’s have a talk about the whodunnit element to Broadchurch. It’s really interesting because, as a rape, it’s seen very differently than a murder. To me, that’s what engages an audience. As a story tool, the whodunnit is essential in a drama like this, don’t you think?
Julie: Yes, I was a bit worried about the whodunnit element to be honest. Weirdly, and in a bonkers way, we are so inured to seeing murder on screen that a murder whodunnit feels okay in a way that a rape whodunnit somehow doesn’t. But they’ve done it very sensitively I think, so it hasn’t felt crass. Trish’s story is at the heart of the story, her agency is central, which feels new in terms of telling stories about sexual violence. She’s also very flawed which I like. The ‘everyone is a suspect’ element is driving everyone mad in a brilliant way now. We didn’t know who did it (including the perpetrator) during filming, and we were talking about our own theories constantly, so we knew it would get people. I do like a drama like Happy Valley and Line of Duty too though, where you know who’s done it and are waiting for them to be discovered. I like being on it.
Cathy: It is done really well, and we should think about why murder whodunnit can be put within comedy and rape can’t, almost as if we feel rape is more serious. It is an issue we are so scared to examine and so, yeah, slips under the radar. I watch what you do, and I feel like you take work on with a sense of responsibility – as well as having a laugh. It was great that you got an award for Wit at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and I loved the dynamic between you and the director. The people make the work, don’t they? He must feel the same about you.
Julie: Oh yeah, I love Raz Shaw, the director of Wit. It was great for me to work with someone I could shout at! We had some major stand-offs during rehearsals for Wit, but it always felt safe and funny. You know when you can rip the piss out of each other, but there’s an underlying deep love and respect. I don’t work well where there’s any status bullshit going on really. It unnerves me. I think I struggle with status, as a woman from a working-class background. Half-chippy-as-hell, half ever-so-grateful-for-the-opportunity. It was ace to work with someone who gets me.
And, in terms of the responsibility of the work, I do take that on, but I’m always mega aware that there are people going through (insert issue here) for real, so I try not to be too much of a wanker about the process and how terribly hard it is to play these parts. I learned this from playing Sylvia Lancaster in Black Roses, about the murdered teenager Sophie Lancaster. It was a tiny play, 45 minutes, and I was speaking Sylvia’s words verbatim, about her love for her daughter and the devastating loss.
People were very kind about the toll it must have taken on me going through the story every night. But, you know, the real Sylvia was in the theatre foyer most nights, selling wristbands and promoting her work with the charity she founded in Sophie’s memory, educating people about alternative cultures (Sophie was a goth) and hate crime (she was kicked to death because of it). So, it would have been off-the-scale wankery on my part to come off stage and start banging on about how hard it was to play a bereaved mother, when Sylvia was living it every single day. Same with Wit. Shaving off my hair was nothing compared to the women I met every day in the bar afterwards who had lost their hair because of actual cancer treatment, you know? Part of representing people who are living through something is putting them at the centre of the frame, not your own ego. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my moments of wankery, of course…
Cathy: No chance. I think about it like this: I’m upset about the greed and injustice and cruelty of the world but I’m also fucked off that I’m now having to pluck hairs out of my chin. Lastly, I want to talk about Take Back (a political theatre collective co-founded by Julie). Have you any idea how many creatives have been involved so far? What is happening now and what’s next? Also I do want to ask you something else. When we went to see Nothing (at Manchester’s Royal Exchange), we met the director with you and he was such an interesting, engaging person. I hope it gets a longer run.
Julie: I think we’ve worked with about 150 creatives now, and that is ever-expanding. We’re very committed to becoming more diverse. It’s the most pressing issue of our time for people making art of any kind, I think. And it’s funny you should mention Nothing, the Young Company show at the Royal Exchange. Apart from being a staggeringly good production of a deep and dark and beautiful play about meaning and nihilism, it was incredible to see 20 young people working together from so many different abilities. It was completely inspiring.
I am full of admiration for the Exchange for the work they do in trying to bring in new people to that theatre. Their outreach is peerless. Oldham Coliseum is great too. I loved the racism strand in Meat Pie, Sausage Roll, Cathy. It felt very daring. So, we’re working hard at that too. The three of us at the helm of Take Back are white and able-bodies, and we are working hard to be representative in the work we produce which, as you know, is ostensibly political.
Our next project is Take Back our Bodies at the Contact in May. Script-in-hand responses to the provocation of our bodies as a battlefield, especially now, with the current US administration. So, we have pieces about reproductive rights, consent, racism, fat shaming, gender, sexuality, ageing, disability…it’s a wide remit. And it won’t be without humour. However dry that all might sound. We’re also putting on our first proper production at Hope Mill in June, a full-length play by our Becx (Harrison) about a rape trial. And we’re planning a durational piece (1000 Minutes of Resistance) and an exhibition, Artivism, for the Tory Party Conference. I can’t believe they’re coming to Manchester again.
It’s quite pressing at the moment, I think, to remind people that the bogeyman doesn’t live in the USA. There are many terrible policies being pushed through here as we allow ourselves to be distracted by the (admittedly important) issues of Trump and Brexit.
Cathy: It’s unbelievable that they’re coming back. But if it wasn’t for your collective outrage we wouldn’t have Take Back and I am glad you’re about. Cheers mucker.
Julie Hesmondhalgh is currently starring in the ITV crime drama, Broadchurch.
For more information about Take Back theatre, click here.
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.