From Accrington to Dr Who for Coronation Street star

After so long away from home, I now have the opportunity to interview actress and activist Julie Hesmondhalgh.

One of Lancashire’s finest actresses, Julie has played the widest range of characters, from her comedy turn as the much-loved Hayley on Coronation Street, to her exceptionally mesmerizing performance in Broadchurch.

How did your love of the acting industry begin?

I don’t know about the acting industry, but I suppose I started to love acting at school. As with most of us, a brilliant teacher, Olga Mulderrig at Hyndburn Park, saw something in me and encouraged me to do the English Speaking Board exams which involved performing poems and scenes. I absolutely loved it. Later I did stuff at Moorhead High School and also with Accrington Amateurs, Blackburn Theatre Group and the wonderful Oswaldtwistle Players, where I played my first big role in a play called Bonny Brid, aged 14.

What was your first role?

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Little Red Riding Hood in the school Nativity play at Hyndburn Park. I have no idea what she was doing there in Bethlehem!

What was your first paid acting job?

Catherine Cookson’s The Dwelling Place in 1993, playing Rose, the plain and ungainly miller’s daughter whose husband married her for money but was in love with Cissy who was bringing up her siblings in a cave! I had a ball. Apparently they repeat it on a loop on Gold; people are always mentioning it to me.

How did Lancashire contribute to your career?

I wouldn’t have got into it without the fantastic local amateur groups, and Lancashire County Council gave me a full grant to go to drama school in 1988 (those were the days…) so I am forever indebted to them. And the theatre studies course, run by Martin Cosgrif, at Accrington and Rossendale College, was world-class.

Have you ever used your accent to get you somewhere?

Oh yes, people love the warm Lancashire accent, and it makes me more approachable I think. And of course I would never have been in Corrie without it! But I’ve also encountered class prejudice because of it. People think because you have a thick accent, you’re thick. This is changing a bit now I hope. There’s still a feeling that RP (Received Pronunciation, or Posh as I like to call it) is neutral.

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When I got into Webber Douglas Academy, there were three people from the college I went to in Lancashire in the class of twelve. The school auditions thousands of people from all over the world for the twelve places. Have you had any similar experiences of meeting the talent from the area in far flung places?

There were five of us from our brilliant course at Accy and Rossendale College at LAMDA when I was there! We Lancastrians get everywhere. I recently worked on Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo, and there were loads of us from Lancashire in it.

Who is your hero?

Dorothy McGregor who set up Maundy Relief in Accrington, the charity I’m proud to be patron of, helping people in need in the area. And Malala. And Sylvia Lancaster.

Are you still connected to your home town?

Yes, my Mum is in Clayton now, she moved from our family home in Church after my Dad died. I see her every week. I’m still very involved at Maundy. We had a big fund-raiser at Accrington Cricket Club in September, where we showed Mamma Mia on a giant outdoor screen and danced in the rain. It was brilliant. I’m taking part in a special reading of Accrington Pals on Remembrance Sunday at Accrington Town Hall. I will always be an Accy lass.

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What does the future look like for you? What have you not achieved yet that you’d like to?

I have a book coming out in the New Year, my working diary from 2017, which is very exciting. I took a one-woman play to Edinburgh this year and worked with Mike Leigh, and am in an episode of Dr Who, so am ticking of some big life wishes all the time! I’m having a lovely time but am excited for new adventures too.

We have a 19th Century theatre in Burnley that is being considered for demolition. It will cost the same amount to knock it down as it will to regenerate it. The only other theatre by that architect is on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I think that art and culture and our cultural history are being eroded by the powers that be. I honestly think that there is a feeling that it’s “not for the likes of us” and the planned demolition feels to me as part of the same thinking that is cutting back arts education and funding to the arts nationwide. Burnley has a rich history of theatre, not least because of its brilliant youth theatre. I completely support the campaign to restore the theatre to its former glory and to be there for the people of the town, and beyond, to enjoy.