Oscar-nominated actress Julie Walters tells Samira Ahmed how the films she watched as a child fired her ambition to act – and why she believes such an ambition would be unrealistic nowadays.
Educating Rita, about a working-class woman taking an Open University degree, made Julie Walters an international star.
But her West Midlands home town is now, more than ever, a place lacking industry and lacking prospects. Up to half of local children are on free school meals.
She is back through the FilmClub charity, which encourages literacy and learning through film screenings and talks.
I used to lie with all the curtains shut on a Saturday afternoon, watching old films. Julie Walters
The older pupils are from Holly Lodge, formerly a girls’ grammar school, from which Julie Walters was expelled at 15 for being “subversive”.
She told the pupils: “As a kid I used to lie with all the curtains shut on a Saturday afternoon, watching old films. And that would be in the 50s and 60s, so the films were right from the 30s and 40s. So I loved Bette Davies – I absolutely loved her.”
What opened her eyes and raised her ambition were the social realism films of the early 60s. “Kitchen sink drama, that really did it for me,” she says. “It was about my class. And working-class actors were coming to the fore, Michael Caine being the big one for me. And Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney.
“So suddenly actors weren’t frightfully posh people who might put on a bit of an accent to pretend to be working class. You actually had working-class people playing them.
“And, of course, when I went to drama school in 1970, it was very fashionable to be from a working-class background. Really fashionable – you know, you felt sorry for the kids from middle-class backgrounds, really!”
If I was growing up here now, and I wanted to be an actor, I don’t think it would be possible. Julie Walters
What got the teenage Julie Walters beyond watching old movies on her sofa was a drama and teaching degree at Manchester Polytechnic, and a start in repertory theatre at Liverpool’s Everyman – along with such talents of her generation as Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Jonathan Pryce.
Julie Walters says she is frightened at the lack of opportunities for young, working-class childrens.
“If I was growing up here now, and I wanted to be an actor, I don’t think it would be possible,” she says. “I got a full grant to do what I did.”
Julie Walters’ generation was inspired by working class heroes on film and stage.
She hopes that the FilmClub charity may open more young minds to the wider world through the power of cinema.