Julie Hesmondhalgh:
small screen, big heart

Back on our screens, Julie Hesmondhalgh reflects on life as Coronation Street’s Hayley, why it was important to get away from her – and life in lockdown

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If there’s one thing that many of us crave at the moment, it’s some decent television to keep us entertained during the lockdown, so it’s good news to many that series three of The A Word has returned to our screens. The brilliant BBC drama series, scripted by Peter Bowker and set mainly in the Lake District, focuses on the Hughes family, and in particular their son, Joe, who has autism.

“I find it really frustrating. It’s like in my head, I’m Patti Smith and in my life I’m Su Pollard.”

Series three kicks off two years after the events of the previous one, as Joe, now 10, has to cope with the fact that his parents have divorced and live 100 miles apart. Accrington-born actor Julie Hesmondhalgh comes into the series as Heather, the head of Joe’s school, there to provide both an anchor for the troubled kid and to have a stern word with his family.

Filming at a special needs school, with both actors and SEN children, was, says Hesmondhalgh, one of the highlights of her career.

“It was such a beautiful, fantastic month of my life filming that. I loved it. The kids were so free. There was no continuity – we just had to go with the flow. It was wonderful.”

Working at the SEN school was such a good experience, Hesmondhalgh even thought about a change in career.

“It was the closest I’ve ever come to thinking I should do this,” she says. But then, always quick to make a joke at her own expense, she laughs as she considers how the reality of teaching is kicking in now that she is trying to educate the youngest of her two daughters at home.

“Talk about a typical actor. Swanning in, meeting kids with the least challenging behaviour and thinking: ‘Yeah, I could do this! I would love to teach kids with special educational needs.’ Cut to this week with my own kid and I’m slamming my head against the table and shouting: ‘You DO know what alliteration is!’ No patience at all. Absolutely none.”

Her role in The A Word is just one of a string of TV and stage appearances that Hesmondhalgh has had since leaving the Coronation Street in 2014. Her role as Hayley Cropper, factory worker, wife of Roy, and, most famously, transsexual, made her a household name. She won a clutch of awards for her part, including Best Serial Drama Performance in the National Television Awards for her emotionally raw charting of Hayley’s slow demise from pancreatic cancer coupled to a controversial right to die storyline.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s been tough escaping the shadow of Hayley and there is a tension within Hesmondhalgh about being both loved by the public and acknowledged for her other work. Having turned 50 in February, she recognises that “people have a very fixed idea of who you are and what you are. And I find that really frustrating. It’s like in my head, I’m Patti Smith and in my life I’m Su Pollard. I love Su Pollard. And it’s changed over the last few years, but people still see me as Hayley and finding the peace between being an actor and being Hayley – who I loved and I loved that job and Corrie and the fans – but sometimes always being associated with that when you are trying to do different things is difficult.”

She laughs as she recalls an incident in which she was approached by someone shouting “Hayley!” and asking her when she was coming back to the show. “I’m like: ‘I can’t come back. I died.’”

Recalling the return-from-the-dead storyline from the 1980s soap opera Dallas, she adds: “And they say: ‘Well, you could do a Bobby Ewing.’”

Her decision to leave Coronation Street came after she was asked to play Sylvia Lancaster in Black Roses, the play (and then TV drama) about the teenager Sophie Lancaster, who was attacked and killed in Bacup in 2007 just because of the way she and her boyfriend were dressed.

“I only did the play because Sylvia Lancaster had asked me to play her in it and Simon Armitage had written it. I thought: ‘Well, I can’t say no to this.’”

Taking up the role was a personal challenge. “For at least 14 of the 16 years in Corrie I didn’t even think of myself as an actor. I thought of myself as Hayley. I could go and see plays and I would say: ‘I have no idea how you did that!’ I had found my place doing what I love.”

But Black Roses changed all that and the shock realisation that it was time to move on made Hesmondhalgh feel “sick with the fear of it”, although she credits everyone around her with giving her the courage and support to make the leap.

It was a decision that she’s never regretted, no matter how much she loved being part of the Coronation Street world – and even if she’s dropped off the radar of some avid viewers.

“Someone rolled down their car window the other day and said: ‘Are you still doing your acting?’” Hesmondhalgh laughs as she recalls how she wanted to get out her CV and show him what she’d been up to. “There’s a temptation to be on the telly more in order to avoid those interactions but it’s important not to let those feelings influence your choices.”

The work, in fact, has kept on coming. Earlier this year she finished a London run of The Greatest Play in the History of the World, the one-woman show written by her husband, writer and actor Ian Kershaw, and then she starred alongside Dawn French in The Trouble With Maggie Cole.

In 2015, with writer Becx Harrison and visual artist Grant Archer, she set up Take Back, a political theatre collective established as an artistic response to austerity, which has since explored social issues including Brexit, homelessness and the NHS. And last year she published A Working Diary.

“I’ve managed to make it so that I have got lots of different creative outlets now,” she says, saying how much she loves producing and creating material for Take Back.

Her work on that theatre project is clearly driven by her politics – she wears her socialist values on her sleeve and has spoken at a number of rallies and put her weight behind all manner of causes and charities. But she’s still conscious of how she presents her own political views to the public.

“I’m careful whenever I say anything political on Twitter because I know people don’t like feeling they are being told what to do by people off the telly. So I always say ‘this is what I’m doing’ and never ‘you should all do this’. But I do get stick from it though.”

These negative reactions “get to her”, she admits. “When people say ‘who is she anyway?’ when I’m not trying to be anyone. And then there’s ‘she’s just a luvvie’ when actually I’m a citizen with a vote like anyone else.”

Which brings us to the current situation she finds herself in, dumbfounded and in shock like so many others at these “extraordinary circumstances” we are suddenly living in.

“People are saying to me: ‘I’m sure you are doing loads of amazing things!’ And I’m like: ‘Actually I’m coming face to face with my own un-amazingness.’

“For me, it’s been about facing up to the fact that I wanted to be the most amazing person in the world, I wanted to be the Joan of Arc of Covid-19, I wanted to take food to the vulnerable people in my area and home school my kids to the top degree – all that stuff – and it took just a few days for that all to unravel.”

Since then she’s found herself trying her best to cope like everyone else.

She’s avoiding “productivity porn”, she says. “Social media is full of people achieving stuff and it’s like, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing the Joe Wicks Workout with my kids every morning. That must mean I’m a really bad mum. Then you ask, how about it’s enough that you are here, hunkering down with your family, being a parent? Maybe the heroic thing to do is to stay at home and lean in to it?

“But that’s not as poetic, not as self-aggrandising or biographical. Staying at home and cooking tea night after night for ungrateful kids as you kick yourself in the bollocks for being so ungrateful because there are people out there on the streets with nothing. There’s no art in this!” And she laughs.

“Anytime you remotely start to feel anything like self-pity you think, it’s hard even if you’re in a position of privilege, let alone if you’re in a tower block with two kids and no garden, or homeless.”

She considers how tough things must be for Big Issue North vendors at the moment. “What a confusing, upsetting and frightening time, especially if you live in such an uncertain way anyway. I’m sure people will want to support vendors as much as they possibly can and I wish them all the love and luck in the world!”

The A Word is on BBC One

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