The spirit of the north: actress Holliday Grainger talks to Northern Soul
It’s not all about the glamour when you’re a famous actress, as I find out when I chat to Holliday Grainger. “I was in Mauritius yesterday and now I’m in Blackburn,” she tells me.
Unless you’ve spent the past couple of years hiding under a duvet, you’ll recognise Didsbury-born Grainger. From the big screen version of Cinderella to telly’s Patrick Melrose, by way of The Borgias, My Cousin Rachel and Animals, not forgetting Strike and The Capture (I’m merely summarising here), 31-year-old Grainger is ubiquitous. And she snogged Chris Pine in The Finest Hours, the film of a real-life 1950s rescue mission by the US Coast Guard.
However, the juxtaposition of an Indian Ocean island and a former mill town in the north of England is due to Grainger’s most recent acting job. When we speak, she has just wrapped on the latest season of Strike, the BBC adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novels written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The series focuses on a war veteran turned detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant Robin Ellacott, played by Grainger.
“It’s a lot of people I’ve worked with before and we’re in and around London so it feels quite familiar territory which is nice,” she says. “And this is Robin going through a lot of her own shit in the fourth book. It’s always nice to be working on familiar ground but with new emotions. I’ve been shooting that but I’ve been reading at the same time which has been great. Every spare minute in the make-up chair and in between takes I’ve been reading books. And so many people have said, ‘oh god, you’re reading so fast, what book are you reading now?’ and I love the idea that everybody thinks I’m such a literary boff.”
The reason for Grainger’s devotion is the Portico Prize. Dubbed the Booker of the north and an integral part of Manchester’s stunning Portico Library, this award is back after a brief hiatus. Grainger is one of the judges and has clearly loved the process.
“I was really honoured and a bit nervous [when asked to take part in the judging]. A bit of me was like, am I qualified to do this? I do have a degree in literature but that feels like a long time ago. But I was just really excited to take part and I have enjoyed every minute of it. It’s really eye-opening and really exciting to read books in such proximity to each other and being able to compare to them with each other, and with such a broad range as well, and the fact that there’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction all interwoven.
“At first I thought it would be difficult to be meritocratic when there are such different genres but actually, when you think of the criteria of being some sort of spirit of the north, it’s so interesting to make links between the pieces and to compare them in terms of style and how the spirit of the north is evoked in each one.”
The shortlist includes a number of esteemed authors. The final list is: • Saltwater by Jessica Andrews • Ironopolis by Glen James Brown • The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney • Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place by Benjamin Myers • The Mating Habit of Stags by Ray Robinson • Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe.
Grainger concedes that, had there been a shortlist of four, the judges would have made a decision in ten minutes. “But we all could see the merits of all of them because they were all so brilliant in their own way. And although we came from different backgrounds, we all had quite similar opinions about the books. It was a very understanding discussion.”
While Grainger has forged a career playing a plethora of roles, including numerous received pronunciation (RP) characters as well as donning her fair share of corsets, it’s refreshing to hear the northern lilt in her voice. In particular, her Mancunian accent is evident when she says ‘luv’ which, as any north westerner will tell you, is THE LAW. If I was writing for a vacuous glossy magazine, I would no doubt describe Grainger as effervescent and jolly, but she’s clearly so much more than that. I ask her about the Portico Prize and how important it is to recognise the literature of the north.
She says: “I think it’s really important for literature from all different backgrounds to be recognised, and there can be a real identity to the north and the northern spirit. It’s hard to define and hard to put a finger on. I wouldn’t have ever been able to put it into words but, reading lots of books based in the north or based on aspects of the north all together, I started to piece together what that identity is. It’s so easy to brush things with a regional stereotype or a class stereotype and I think that undermines what the spirit of the north is.”
As someone who was born in south Manchester, studied English Literature at Leeds University and then completed her degree with the Open University, does Grainger, in spite of her national and international travel as an actress, still feel northern?
“I do. I was at a wedding last year and within 15 minutes of being at the reception there was a group of five of us all from the north, chatting. I feel like we all gravitate towards each other. There is something that you recognise in each other. That’s something you can’t let go of, and I don’t want to let go of it because it’s part of my identity. ”
In an earlier interview, Grainger said that “for most of my teenage years I was the northern best friend”.
“I don’t think I agree with myself there,” she says with a laugh. “There’s a aspect within the acting world that you’ve got to prove that you’re a blank slate. Sometimes it can be quite difficult if you’re known as being northern…So if you went up for Downton Abbey, would be you be upstairs or downstairs?”
Aye, there’s the rub. But when it came to Animals, the film adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth‘s novel about a couple of 30-something best friends and revellers (which Northern Soul described as “wickedly hilarious, delightfully decadent” and Caitlin Moran said was “Withnail with girls”), Grainger knew that she had to do it (not withstanding the fact that the location was switched from the north of England to Dublin due to funding issues).
“As soon as I read the book, I thought, I know these girls, I have to do this…If you have someone who is not from the north playing Laura I’ll be offended. You have to be of it to get it. Which is probably bullshit. But you do feel there is a knowledge of the subtleties of what it is to be from the north.”
In addition to Animals, 2019 saw Holliday as the lead role in The Capture on BBC One. A thriller which raised questions about the surveillance state and personal integrity, it had the nation gripped – and wanting more. What was it like to make?
“It was great. They only sent us three scripts when we were auditioning and I really wanted to read more. You can never quite guess if it’s going to capture the public imagination but it’s a good sign if it captures your own.”
She continues: “Ben [Chanan], the writer/director, had done a lot of research. He did a documentary called The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes and he’d done a lot of research on the counter-terrorism department and how different security services around the world work with each other and what that kind of relationship is. He knew that world really well and that made me want to know that world really well. So I did quite a bit of shadowing and I wormed my way in with The Met.
“A young detective introduced me to her friend who had been on the fast track scheme, the same as the character, who then introduced me to someone she knew who was at the same level as Rachel Carey [Grainger’s role] was, and then she introduced me to someone in the homicide department. It meant that I went around and met so many different women and got closer and closer to what Rachel Carey’s background would have been in that world. I only knew about police from watching detective dramas and a lot of it isn’t true.”
Given its success, can we expect more Capture? “It’s something that we’ve talked about but it’s a not a definite.”
In the meantime, Grainger will soon be heading back north for the biopic of Shaun Ryder, lead singer of the Happy Mondays. “Jack O’Connell is playing Shaun Ryder and Maxine Peake is playing his mum. I can’t wait to meet Joanne Ryder [Shaun’s wife] who I’ll be playing.”
So, before too long, Grainger will swap exotic locations for the rainy streets of Manchester. I suspect that will suit her right down to the ground.
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