Maxine Peake - My lovely Lancashire home

Maxine Peake is a national treasure in the making but a Salford terrace still suits her fine. Natalie Anglesey reports

What you see is what you get with straight-talking Maxine Peake. Her honesty shines through her performances making her one of the most sought after actors of her generation. She’s looking forward to 2012 more than most simply because she’ll be spending the beginning of the year at home.

Although she was raised in Westhoughton, home for Maxine is now a modest terrace in Salford which she has been renovating and where she enjoys spending her limited free time.

‘I love coming home to the north west, catching up with all the family and re-charging my batteries,’ she says. ‘As an actor you have to be a bit of a gypsy and travel where the work is but it’s true that when you close the front door there’s no place quite like home.’

Maxine‘s been able to relax over the holiday period because she’s almost completed filming of the second series of her popular courtroom drama Silk in which she plays Martha Costello. It’s scheduled to be broadcast in April and that same month she returns to the stage of her beloved Royal Exchange Theatre to appear in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a role she’s wanted to play for some time.

‘I’m approaching my late 30s and realised that most of my stage work so far has been in contemporary drama. Now for the first time I’ve realised that if I  want to do the big classical roles I’d better get a move on – hence Miss Julie.

‘There’s a real shortage of really good roles for women where they are not portrayed as simply the love interest or the wife – just an appendage to a man. I also love the intimacy of the Exchange’s theatre-in-the-round where the audience is so close there’s no room for tricks. They’ll soon spot if you’re faking it and I really rise to that challenge.’

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At the same theatre Maxine won the Manchester Evening News Theatre Award for Best Actress for her role in The Childrens’ Hour. Even she’s astonished at the passage of time. ‘I can’t believe that was about four years ago and fortunately I’ve been quite busy particularly this past year when I’ve worked all over the country. I make no bones about it I do prefer to work in the theatre but telly pays the bills!’

Maxine can’t remember one particular moment when she knew she wanted to work in the theatre. ‘Please don’t ask me where this acting bug came from although it was probably drama classes at school in Westhoughton.

‘I also joined the drama group at the Unitarian Unity Church on Dean Road in Bolton where I grew up. I did a bit of Drama in Education around the local schools - which wasn’t very amusing for either them or me and I thought maybe I’d have a go at drama school.

‘My best friend Diane Morgan and I were thinking about applying for Manchester Metropolitan University because that’s where Julie Walters and Victoria Wood met. But I just thought that if I’m going to all that trouble I’ll audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London as well. I was gob-smacked when I won a scholarship. I just couldn’t believe it and that helped to make life a lot easier for me.

“I’ve been so lucky because while I was still at RADA I was offered the role of Twinkle in Dinnerladies and got to meet both Julie and Victoria which was quite something as I’m a huge fan of their work! Folk in the street still shout “What’s the soup?”’

While appearing in the hit comedy series, Maxine decided to go on a diet and lost five stone. ‘I wanted to lose some weight as the cameras make you look even bigger. I’d always seen myself as a character actress and didn’t see why I had to look like a model. But the weight loss was so noticeable that in the end they had to write some extra lines to explain the change.’

Since then Maxine has scarcely been out of work and as we chat about her career her enthusiasm for her craft is obvious. After a tiny role in Coronation Street, she played Janice in Craig Cash’s Early Doors followed by mouthy Veronica in the controversial television series Shameless.

‘Those early days on Shameless were great. People like Dean Lennox Kelly, who played my partner and James McAvoy and Ann-Marie Duff have done really well. We could all have stayed on but it’s important as an actor to try new challenges.

‘Confessions of a Diary Secretary was fun to do because it was a comedy. It was based on a real character, Tracey Temple, John Prescott’s secretary with whom he had an affair. John Henshaw, who played Prescott, is an old mate of mine. He’s a lovely man but during the bedroom scenes he kept apologising for sweating under the camera lights and in the end I was forced to be a bit bossy and shout at him: “Shut up John and just kiss me!”

‘I really wanted to play Elizabeth Lilburn in The Devil’s Whore which was set during the Civil War because she was a woman of such principal that she’d risk everything for the sake of social justice. She represents women who fought for rights but were never recognised.

‘There’s a wonderful story about her riding miles to London, when she was heavily pregnant, to save her husband John. I’m a good horsewoman and was looking forward to that but sadly they didn’t have time to include that in the drama. Elizabeth’s right up my street because she was a real freedom fighter.’

It’s a subject Maxine feels strongly about. ‘I was brought up in a household interested in politics and I was used to debate issues from an early age. My mum and dad split when I was nine and my grand-parents were a great influence. They were both Communists, as many people were when they were young, with workers striking to improve wages and conditions because money was short.

‘When I was much younger I used to be a member of the Communist Party although nowadays I don’t really have a political affiliation to any party. However, one of my favourite buildings is the Working Class Movement Library in Salford which used to be run by a lovely old couple who had this wonderful collection of archive material. Nowadays I still have socialist leanings but we’re talking about socialism in the old sense which bears no resemblance at all to New Labour.’

When asked about her greatest acting challenge, Maxine doesn’t hesitate to name her role as Myra Hindley in the controversial television play See No Evil: The Moors Murders. Had she any misgivings about playing such a notorious character?

‘Not at all. I wanted to find out what made her tick. I actually pushed for that role. I was like a dog with a bone because I knew it would be challenging. Although I must admit that it’s the first time I found it difficult to leave the character behind at work and for a while, even when I was in the supermarket shopping, she stayed with me.”

Again Maxine played a real life character in Hancock and Joan, as Tony Hancock’s mistress Joan Le Mesurier. ‘Her husband ukJohn, the actor who appeared in Dad’s Army, knew about the affair which must have been very difficult for him. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really good actors including Ken Stott who is not only a great actor but a really kind man.’

Maxine’s also popped up on our television screens in an episode of Marple, although she seemed more excited a film about the 1980s club scene. “Clubbed was set in Coventry and was about the gang warfare around at the time. I play Angela, the wife of a club doorman and it was about the difficulties of raising two children in that kind of violent background.”

In November last year Maxine was one of the judges in the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting at the Royal Exchange. Bearing in mind her remark about the lack of good roles for women, I wondered if she’d thought of writing a play herself?

‘Funnily enough, I’m trying to write a play for radio at the moment,’ she laughs. ‘That’s why I admire everyone who took part in that competition. We can all put pen to paper but finishing it is much harder. So I’ll just concentrate on playing Miss Julie for the time being.’