Julie Hesmondhalgh on her new role in The Trouble with Maggie Cole

Julie Hesmondhalgh takes a break from filming Photo: Joss Barratt/Genial Productions

Julie Hesmondhalgh takes a break from filming Photo: Joss Barratt/Genial Productions - Credit: ITV

Life away from Corrie has been busy for Accrington’s Julie Hesmondhalgh, who is back on our screens this month in a rather different role

Julie and co-star Dawn French on location in the South West Photo: Joss Barratt/Genial Productions

Julie and co-star Dawn French on location in the South West Photo: Joss Barratt/Genial Productions - Credit: ITV / Genial Productions

If ever there was someone in need of a little light relief, it's Julie Hesmondhalgh. The actress left Coronation Street in 2014, in a powerful storyline that saw her much-loved character Hayley Cropper take her own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Since then, she's starred as the wife of a murderous policeman in Happy Valley, been the victim of sexual assault in Broadchurch, and tackled serious subject matters on stage. No wonder her new comedy drama, The Trouble with Maggie Cole, provides a welcome respite from the perpetual trauma.

'It's been a joy for me. Usually with roles. I'm just dragged in to have terrible things happen to me. So it is quite nice for me to just have a bit of lipstick on and play a bit of comedy. I'm like, 'When's the bad stuff gonna happen?' says Accrington-born Julie, who celebrated her 50th birthday at the end of February.

Set in the fictional coastal village of Thurlbury and filmed in south Devon and Cornwall, the six-part series follows Maggie Cole (Dawn French), the local busybody. Maggie runs a gift shop but sees herself as a serious historian, so can't resist the chance to appear on a local radio show. After one too many gins, she shares more than the local history, and the fallout from her gossiping is catastrophic for the villagers, including Maggie's best mate Jill, played by Julie.

'I really like Jill because she's a little bit hard to pin down. On one hand she's very light and doesn't take herself too seriously, but there's an edge to her as well. She's not all she seems. She's one of those people who is so smart that she doesn't have to wave it around. She's not too dissimilar to me, although she's better dressed,' says Julie.

Despite Maggie's best efforts to set her up with people, when we meet Jill, she's single and 'thinks that's her lot forever more'.

'There is a little bit of poetic licence with this, as there's a lot of talk of there being no eligible bachelors, but literally every man who comes onscreen is a hottie,' says Julie who has two children with her husband, the playwright Ian Kershaw.

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A huge fan of French and Saunders when she was growing up, Julie admits she was a little tentative about meeting Dawn in the flesh.

'When you meet people who you've known for years off the telly, who were big icons and idols in your life, it's always a bit, 'Oh God, I hope this is going to be ok'. You just don't know, especially when it's people who are properly famous as themselves. Not like me, being famous as somebody else in a soap. You wonder how guarded they'll be about opening up to new cast members, but she's a dream. I'm honestly not just saying that. I'd give you some other waffle if it wasn't the case. She's just a really brilliant, open, funny, warm person. She proper makes me hoot and she's so smart as well.'

Julie studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in the late 80s, before making her first television in appearance in the 1994 adaptation of Catherine Cookson's The Dwelling Place. Four years later, she made her Coronation Street debut as the first transgender character in soap history, which she played until January 2014, scooping the National Television Award for Most Popular Serial Drama Performance the same month.

The decision to leave had been understandably tough.

'When I started to think about leaving Corrie, I wrote a list of pros and cons,' she says. 'Very high on the list of cons was how that show keeps you young and alive and engaged with the world.

'You're with everybody from 80-year-olds who have been in the business and singing in clubs long before you were even a twinkle in your mum and dad's eye, to babies, to teenagers. Everybody shares that Green Room together. It's very good for you, for your mind and your spirit. That's why all these actors that are in it, last forever. It's like they've drunk some elixir. I thought, 'I'm gonna pack it in and then my memory is going to go, and I'll turn into an old crone within three weeks,' admits Julie, but she needn't have worried. She hasn't stopped working since she left the cobbles, and the roll call of colleagues remains ever varied.

'One of the very best things about this job and this career is working with all different kinds of people, from all different backgrounds and all different ages and being all thrown together,' she says. 'It's dead exciting.'

The Trouble with Maggie Cole begins on ITV this month.