Maxine Peake talks of her frustration with the rules of the game

Maxine Peake as Anne Williams, in ITVs Anne, with Liverpool Football Club fans

Maxine plays Anne Williams, who lost her 14-year-old son, Kevin, at Hillsborough - Credit: Justin Slee

We caught up with feminist, socialist and actor extraordinaire, Maxine Peake, to talk drama, playing Hillsborough campaigner Anne Williams and the rules of the game for women in the workplace.

Name any big drama, successful television programme or stellar stage show and there’s a good chance Maxine Peake’s name will be attached to it. She’s a woman with the Midas touch when it comes to producing, being in or writing good television and theatre. Her CV is a list of some of TV and film’s best drama and comedy of the last decade and a half, from her unforgettable role as Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies through to Veronica in Shameless and Rebekah Brooks in Comic Strip’s Red Top. 

THE REAL ANNE: UNFINISHED BUSINESS Maxine Peake in Anfield, in front of an external wall mural of Anne Williams

Maxine stands in front of a mural to Anne Williams on the Anfield Road in Liverpool, for The Real Anne, Unfinished Business, a documentary by Multistory Media for ITV. - Credit: Amy Brammall

It is the punchy, hard-hitting, often based in real life, darker roles Maxine has mostly become known for. Taking the lead in gritty dramas - think Three Girls, the harrowing story of three victims of the 2012 Rochdale grooming and sex trafficking case; as Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders; Peterloo, the story of the fatal suppression of a peaceful workers’ protest in Manchester in 1819; and Funny Cow, a dark comedy about a woman making a name for herself in the stand-up comedy scene of working men's clubs in northern England – there is no denying Bolton-born Maxine is a powerhouse of British acting.  

Her most recent solar plexus-punching drama is Anne, the story of Anne Williams, who watched her 14-year-old son, Kevin, excitedly head off to the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest game at Hillsborough, in 1989. He, along with 96 others, never made it home, and Anne is the story of a mother driven to overturn the initial Coroner’s verdict of accidental death, and hold those responsible to account. It’s a brutal watch, from the very first moments a sense of foreboding hangs over the viewer, as we already know just where the storyline is heading. 

Maxine Peake as Anne Williams, speaking outside court during her battle for the truth of Hillsborough

Maxine found the role of Anne challenging, but a privilege to play - Credit: Justin Slee

‘It was extremely upsetting,’ Maxine says, talking of her role, ‘but at the end of the day I’m an actor, I do it and I go home, but you realise this is people’s lives and this is what people live with every day. I feel very fortunate that I was able to tell part of Anne’s story, which was extraordinary. There is something sort of, energising, if that’s the right word, about being able to play a part like that – it’s a privilege. You go home feeling shocked and frustrated, but being able to be part of something like that, as an actor it’s those kinds of roles that you dream of, that you wish for – these really complex, fascinating women.’ 

Taking a real-life story to the small screen is not an easy task, especially when those who have lived through it are still around to watch, and feel, and judge. 

‘First and foremost, you’re a story teller,’ Maxine says of her role. ‘It’s about telling a story clearly, concisely and you have to put your ego in your back pocket, because it’s not about going “look at me, I can do an all-singing all-dancing performance”. I was always very conscious not to make it too sentimental, not to let my emotion run Anne’s story and to keep a handle on Anne’s emotional journey through it.  But also, all the people that are connected, that are still alive, this has threads running through generations. I met Anne’s daughter Sarah and Anne’s grandchildren so there’s a lot of people who have so much love and respect for Anne, you think “crikey this is a big ask to try to represent this woman”, but all you can do is tell the truth through the script and I think everyone was so supportive, and so encouraging, allowing us to delve into their lives, their trauma, it was fabulous, really.’ 

Programme Name: Rules of the Game

Maxine, as Sam, in Rules of the Game, goes from firmly in control of her business to being under police scrutiny - Credit: BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire

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During January Maxine starred in both ITV and BBC dramas, with Rules of the Game, a four-part series, playing on BBC while Anne played on four consecutive nights, on ITV, during the first week of the year. 

Rules of the Game was inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which sparked the #MeToo movement, and introduces us to Maxine as Sam, a tough, no-nonsense head of a family-run business in the North West. When Sam arrives at work one day to find a dead body in the office reception she is forced to reckon with not only murky behaviour in the present, but murderous secrets from the past as well. 

Dressed in police issued tracksuit, Sam (Maxine Peake) is questioned regarding the corpse found in her business's reception

Maxine, as Sam, facing police questions in BBC's Rules of the Game - Credit: The Forge

‘The script came through and I read it and straight away said yes,’ Maxine says. ‘I loved the character. She’s really interesting, a little bit complicated. The writer had the nub of the idea about toxic masculinity in the workplace and structures within the workforce that support it, and then developed the thriller around it.’ 

The character and life experience of Sam is far removed from Maxine’s life, but it’s her job, of course, to bring the role to life in a way everybody can relate to. 

Anita (ALISON STEADMAN), Sam (MAXINE PEAKE) - conflict across the boardroom table in Rules of the Game, 2022

Maxine was thrilled to be working with Alison Steadman on BBC's Rules of the Game - Credit: BBC/The Forge/Matt Squire

‘There’s always a little bit of you in every character. I start with “what would I do? What would I say?” but acting is play – the further away a character is from you the more fun it is. That whole world, working in an office, is so alien to me; being a head, the COO, this complex businesswoman. We filmed for nine weeks in a glass-fronted office in summer and I felt “I have to get out of here, how do people do this, day in day out?”’ 

Maxine has never been shy of stating her opinions on what she sees as wrong in society, so this role seems something of a gift. 

‘It’s a complex situation.’ she says. ‘Women are in a very complex position. Sam has had to be a certain type – you have to behave like a man, you have to play the rules of the game to get where you want to get.  And I just think that’s probably how it is for women, who get in a position of power and try to juggle everything. Why is it always our responsibility? The men make the mess; we’re then supposed to try and combat it and change it as well. We’re the victims of the system and then expected to fix it as well. It shows you the effects, mental health effects, of a toxic workplace, of coercion. It’s asking questions: how do we stop this? What is the future of a woman’s position in the workplace where men are still the gatekeepers? 

‘Sam is quite ambiguous. She’s not the out-and-out heroine. Is she part of the problem or is she a victim of the problem? It makes you ask questions.’ 

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Maxine is also more than happy to state her political allegiances (she’s a fan of Jeremy Corbyn and campaigned for the Labour Party in the last General Election) In fact, she has merrily called for the destruction of capitalism, saying in a recent interview, in The Independent: “We’ve got to save humanity. We’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators. It’s entrenched, isn’t it? We’ve got to the point where protecting capital is much more important than anybody’s life.” It’s therefore not surprising that when asked to support Manchester homelessness charity, Lifeshare, Maxine agreed with pleasure. 

‘A friend of mine put me in touch,’ she says. ‘First and foremost, they’re a smaller charity and it’s harder for them to get coverage. I was asked to go along and meet them for a cup of tea and a talk about what they do. We sat down and then visited the offices and it was a no-brainer, really, as soon as I saw the work they did, how they were with the young people.’ 

Maxine Peake in a Mikesian Studios designed hoodie from Lifeshare, Manchester-based homeless charity that she supports

Maxine models a fundraising hoodie, designed by Mikesian Studios, from the Lifeshare Christmas 2021 campaign - Credit: Maxine Peake

Lifeshare is Manchester’s oldest charity for homeless people in the city.  They work first to offer practical assistance, support and information to those living on the streets and from there offer assistance that enables people to secure suitable accommodation, support them in maintaining their tenancies, and help them to access initiatives that carry their lives forward. The contribution that Maxine can make, by raising awareness, is considerable. 

‘It’s interesting; I sometimes find it a bit cringey, this sort of ‘celebrity’ link, and it’s really unfortunate that sometimes it needs a familiar face to give a charity exposure, but I’m just happy to help out and really what I do is so little in the grand scheme of things. I help where I can but it’s so little and if people feel that it’s helping then that’s fantastic.’ 

2022 is just beginning; can we expect more dark drama from Maxine, or should we hope to see her in something lighter, next? 

‘Everything’s still a little bit unpredictable still and there are a few things hovering about that may come to fruition,’ she laughs, ‘but actually I am co-writing and workshopping a musical, Betty Boothroyd’s life story, for The Royal Exchange, in Manchester, which is scheduled for the end of the year and which should be fun. 

‘It’s called Betty – A Sort of Musical, and is set in Dewsbury, Betty’s home town, where the local drama society decides to put on the story of her life, in musical form.’ 

Maxine has never appeared in a musical before, but, she says: ‘I like a challenge’, and who can argue with that?  

ANNE is available on the ITV Hub and Britbox. Rules of the Game is available on BBC iPlayer.