Her incredible range – from Myra Hindley to Hamlet – coupled with her heart-felt socialism and elfin looks have made Maxine Peake one of Britain’s most interesting actors
The first two things anyone mentions are that I’ve cut my hair and moved to Salford,” says Maxine Peake with a chuckle, soon after we sit down. Well, it happened again. But while she still has the Jean Seberg trim and still lives in Salford, they weren’t the first things on my mind. We are meeting in a north London hotel just before Christmas and the lobby is bustling with out-of-towners in black tie waiting to be bussed to West End parties. I find myself wondering how many of them would recognise her.
Because, at 41, Peake occupies a slightly awkward position in the British thespian landscape: supremely well established, yet not quite a superstar. But she radiates a kind of irresistible energy that makes you want to like her. “I hope she’s nice,” a friend tells me beforehand, and you know what he means.
Partly it’s the roles; the virtuosity and range of her talent, from her popular debut in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies to her repeated scene-stealing as Veronica Fisher in Shameless. She appeared in three steely seasons of Silk as Martha Costello QC, “a cross between Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and a small Rottweiler,” according to the trailer. And she received consecutive Bafta nominations as Grace Middleton in The Village. Peake has shown she can take on almost anything and triumph – even Myra Hindley in See No Evil: a hospital pass of a role if ever there was one.
Nor has her success only been on TV. To many she is principally a stage actor. At the Manchester Royal Exchange, where her partnership with director Sarah Frankcom has produced a decade of hits – a fiery Hamlet, Caryl Churchill’s mischievous sprite in The Skriker, Strindberg’s Miss Julie – they are surely on the verge of either banishing her or erecting a statue. Hollywood must beckon, too: last year Peake popped up alongside Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, as Stephen Hawking’s second wife, Elaine.
‘Obviously she has some extraordinary charm that people really seem to fall for’: as Rebekah Brooks in The Comic Strip Presents… Red Top.
But it’s not just the work. There are other reasons why Peake invites such admiration and affection. Maybe her elfin beauty plays a part, and she can flip those features from pitiful to savage with a twitch of the jaw. Her public image certainly helps. In an epoch of privately schooled smoothies Peake has always been refreshing: a straight- talking comprehensive girl from Bolton with a soft spot for socialism and a ready laugh.
She is in London to film a short film for her friend, the theatre director Katie Mitchell, but the interview is to promote Red Top!, a Comic Strip production for UKTV Gold, inspired by the phone-hacking scandal but set in the 1970s. Peake plays Rebekah, an “innocent and beguiling northern girl” who accidentally becomes chief executive of News International before being caught up in a “Watergate-style scandal”. Russell Tovey plays Andy Coulson while Stephen Mangan reprises a role as Tony Blair. Guessing the inspiration for Peake’s character will not win you any prizes.
“When I heard it was Comic Strip I just asked if I could be in it, and when I heard that it was Rebekah Brooks I thought ‘Brilliant’,” she says. The Bolton accent is broader than she usually plays it and her speech is generously salted with ‘yuh kneuus’ and ‘ah means’.
“The Brooks part is obviously a caricature, but I tried to pick up on elements of her character. People who’ve met her say: ‘I didn’t want to like her but I did.’ Obviously she has some extraordinary charm that people really seem to fall for.”
Surely there’s a bit more to Brooks than that, though. After all, this is a woman who got to the very top of an overwhelmingly male- dominated industry and who, despite coming within a whisker of jail, continues to have the ear of some of the most powerful people in the UK.
Peake performance: playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan
“It [Brooks’s career] has been all about getting from men what she wants to get. That’s not a feminist role model. It’s like when people say Thatcher was a feminist. These women get to positions of power, but at what cost? They don’t take other females with them. It’s not: ‘Come on sisters, let’s get up the slippery pole together.’ It’s ‘I’ll get up and kick you with my stiletto back down.’”
The description doesn’t feel especially nuanced for such a subtle actor, but perhaps this is because the programme has its tongue firmly in its cheek, nearer to panto than documentary. “We don’t go into the deep, dark side of phone hacking, but it pokes fun at [the scandal], because it deserves to be poked fun at. It wasn’t a pleasant time for a lot of people.”
Was she ever caught up in it herself? She practically yells: “God no! I’m small fry!”
On the other hand her Dinnerladies co-star Shobna Gulati, who spent 13 years on Coronation Street, was very much involved. In 2014 Trinity Mirror apologised for hacking her phone and agreed to pay compensation. “Shobna said the most upsetting part was that you blamed friends and family for spilling details, because how else could the papers know these personal things?”
Despite Red Top!’s obvious satire, Peake says the producers are still “a bit worried” about the legal implications. “It just goes to show who still wields the power in this country,” she says.
Politics is never far from the surface with Peake. The daughter of a lorry driver and care worker, she used to be a card-carrying Communist and still has distinct socialist leanings. She supported Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership, and was photographed at a rally in Manchester.
Silver service: in Dinnerladies, where she made her debut (with Anne Reid, Andrew Dunn, Victoria Wood, Duncan Preston, Shobna Gulati and Thelma Barlow). Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
“I just love him,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it when it was happening, the momentum of it all. I felt that hope had returned. I never had any doubt. The media are just out for him, but he’s weathering the storm. I hate all this nonsense about how he’s dragging us back to the 70s and 80s, three-day weeks and donkey jackets. They say it’ll be miserable, but it’s miserable now. We’re in a worse state than we were then. We’re going backwards. The way women are over-sexualised, it’s like the 70s feminism movement never happened.
“At least Thatcher knew she was an evil witch,” she adds. “The government now is much smoother. You’ve got to keep positive. There are a hell of a lot of people who are impressed by Corbyn who have not engaged before.”
Plenty of actors talk this kind of talk, but Peake walks more of the walk than most. It is tempting but wrong to read her mouthing off at Maggie as indifference to the public view. “I do in a strange way care deeply what people think,” she says. “You worry as an actor, because you want to keep some privacy. But for me the politics and the work are too meshed in not to be doing it.”
After nearly 13 years in London she moved to Salford six years ago with her partner, art director Pawlo (“Pav”) Wintoniuk. (“‘Boyfriend’ seems weird at 41, but ‘partner’ makes everyone think you’re gay.”) Partly because of the city’s rich socialist history – “Marx and Engels in the pub, the Working Class Movement Library” – but also because the lower prices allow her to be more discerning about work.
“You used to be able to survive mainly on theatre and the odd guest episode on TV,” she says, “but not now. Pay in the acting world hasn’t kept up with inflation.” Salford lets her choose her parts more carefully.
“It’s not as if I’m batting away Hollywood offers all the time,” she laughs. “I’d happily take that superhero movie and buy a little pad in Bloomsbury with my cape in a frame on the wall. But I do have a sense of what roles are saying about me. A lot of it is to do with how parts for women are written. I’m unusual in that I’ve worked more as I’ve got older. But I have noticed a common theme [in the parts I’m offered] seems to be a sort of desperation in pre-menopausal women – ‘I need a partner and a family’ kind of thing, and I think: ‘Maybe no, she doesn’t.’ I’m not saying that isn’t a human story, but there are ways of telling it.”
This could be uncomfortably close to home, given the couple’s own well-documented struggles for a baby. Given her robust feminism and determination not to be pigeonholed, you can see why Peake feels the subject has been done. But she allows that the whole process was exhausting.
Northern lights: as Grace Middleton in The Village, with John Simm, for which she received a Bafta nomination. Photograph: BBC
“I don’t think people realise what a long road it was for us. You’re working and all that’s going on in the background. It probably motivated me in my career in a way, but at some point you have to sit down and come to terms with it all. It has taken a toll, but it’s also been a test of how strong we are as a couple. If I’m honest we get more broody about dogs,” she says, back on to more settled ground. “We lost our dog in September, and she was an heirloom. My mum had her for five years then she died, then my granddad took her on for five years and he died. We thought: ‘Shit, does that mean after five years we’re going to cark it in some terrible road accident, like in a Stephen King film?’”
After Red Top! she will appear as Titania in Russell T Davies’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Some of the purists might blow a gasket, but I think it’ll be fabulous,” she says. Then there is a major theatrical part she can’t yet talk about, but which will suit her down to the ground. Beyond that, who knows? You’d be brave to second guess an actor who can switch from Myra Hindley to Hamlet. The only thing she’ll concede is that after more than a decade it might be time for a break from Frankcom. “We’ll give it a rest,” she says, or people will start to think: ‘Not ’er again.’”
On the day we meet, the 22-year-old Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley is on the front of all the newspapers. Her career, I suggest, seems like an inverse of Peake’s slow-building stardom. Almost overnight, with no other work to her name, Ridley became a celebrity for the rest of her life. Could Peake imagine that kind of switch? “It must be fabulous in one respect, but really daunting. We’ve become much more youth- centric. When I was at drama school you thought you’d leave, do regional theatre, a bit of telly. You had 10 years to hone your craft. Now it’s about getting your big break straightaway.”
And what has Peake learned, with those extra years of practice? “Hard graft. I turn up, read books, do my research, I don’t go out on schoolnights. And I used to be cripplingly self-conscious. Now I just get on with it. Or I say: ‘I feel like a bit of a prat,’ and then I get on with it. I was absolutely shocking when I was younger. I’m not saying I’m great now. But I’ve got better by doing it.”
Just as I get up to leave she reaches an arm out to my shoulder. “Be kind,” she says, her eyes dilating like some rare nocturnal marsupial. She’s very good at pretending, but she really does care.
The Comic Strip Presents… The Red Top! is on 20 January at 9pm on UKTV Gold
Silk actress Maxine Peake, who stars as former News of the World and Sun editor Rebekah Brooks in this week’s Comic Strip Presents satire Red Top, has revealed how she jumped at the chance to be in the production.
“When I heard it was Comic Strip I just asked if I could be in it,” she told the Observer newspaper, “and when I heard that it was Rebekah Brooks I thought ‘Brilliant’.
“The Brooks part is obviously a caricature,” continued Maxine,” who made her name in Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies, “but I tried to pick up on elements of her character. People who’ve met her say: ‘I didn’t want to like her but I did.’ Obviously she has some extraordinary charm that people really seem to fall for.”
Inspired by the phone-hacking debacle, the 1970s-set story follows Northern girl Rebekah who unwittingly becomes chief executive of News International and gets caught up in a “Watergate-style scandal”.
“Like our previous The Hunt For Tony Blair which was set in the 1960s, Red Top lampoons the world of politics and press proprietors, and is set in a Boogie Nights-style parallel universe with a disco soundtrack,” said Peter Richardson who masterminded the project.
The comedy also stars Harry Enfield as Brooks’ former husband, Ross Kemp, while Russell Tovey is Andy Coulson and Stephen Mangan reprises his role as Tony Blair.
Red Top can be seen on Gold at 10pm on Wednesday
Harry Enfield, Maxine Peake, Russell Tovey… The cast are just as well-known as the characters they play.
Q: What does Maxine Peake add to the role of Rebekah?
A: She brings the fact that she’s a great actress. She’s playing a comic role straight, and that works even better as she surrounded by all these over the top characters. Her Rebekah is very funny, but she has a slightly space cadet feel. It’s as if she’s landed from the north and now lives in a bubble.
Click to read the rest of the interview.
Q: How did you find it working with Maxine Peake?
A: I loved it. Maxine is fantastic, and I really enjoyed our scenes together. Rebekah and Andy have this tremendous energy. They are two power-hungry people with huge egos. Within that world they are two gods. They can be so offensive and abusive to anyone under them, and they have to take it.
Read the rest of his interview here.
Q: What appealed to you about this film?
A: The fact that it was Comic Strip Presents. I can’t remember the last time I got this excited, before even reading the script. I just got an email saying, “Will you read this with a view to meeting the director?” I went, “Oh my God, this is Comic Strip Presents. Oh please let me like it”. I knew I would!
I’ve seen the majority of The Comic Strip Presents films, and the last one I saw was The Hunt For Tony Blair which I thought was absolutely brilliant. Without sounding too corny, it was a little bit of a dream come true when it came in the email. It’s a bit like when I did Dinner Ladies – these are my heroes.
Q: Were you also pleased to be coming back to comedy?
A: Yes. I’ve been stuck in the world of gritty drama for a while, so it was a lovely relief as well to think, “Someone does trust that I can do some comedy”. That’s to be seen – I might completely ruin it!
Q: Are you enjoying the return to comedy?
A: Yes. But it’s been about 10 years, and that does take its toll. I’ve been thinking, “I’m sure there’s a gag in here somewhere!” But it’s been great. For a long time I’ve been desperate to do some comedy, but it’s about the right script. You don’t want to do comedy for the sake of doing some comedy. But you don’t get better than Comic Strip Presents. It’s so iconic.
Q: How would you describe the tone of Red Top?
A: It’s very tongue in cheek, I’m not playing Rebekah Brooks – I’m on roller skates, for one! It’s a very high-octane version. As Brits, we are famous for being able to laugh at ourselves, and I think if people don’t have that outlet, it all gets very serious. It’s really exciting and brave because these people deserve to have the mickey taken out of them.
Q: How would you describe this Rebekah?
A: I don’t like to use the word caricature. But she’s canny, and she likes to use her feminine wiles. With the gentlemen, she plays on her vulnerability sometimes and wields her power quite strongly at other times.
Q: Is this Murdoch under her spell?
A: Yes, completely. That relationship is fascinating. When he was asked “What’s your number one priority”, he said, “This one”. I’ve spoken to people who’ve met her who said they didn’t want to like her, but then they came away and thought, “Wow, she does have that charisma.”
Q: Why is she so successful at creating these relationships with powerful men?
A: I listened to one of these profile programmes on Radio 4 and it was interviewing an old school friend of hers. She said Rebekah’s emotional intelligence was way ahead of other people’s. She had this way of being able to play people and understand them and get under their skin. Those kind of women are always a real mystery to me. There are quite a few of them about. Game players – I’m always fascinated by those sort of women.
Q: Could you tell us about this Rebekah’s relationship with Murdoch in this drama?
A: It’s a very close father and daughter relationship, and she’s very demure and little girl around Murdoch. Then obviously she has this stand-off relationship with Wendi.
Q: So there is a father-daughter thing going on?
A: Yes. It’s fascinating. Obviously he has daughters of his own, but maybe he sees something of himself in Rebekah. There’s something he responds to in her. It’s not a sexual thing. It just feels like two like minds. She’s obviously very devoted to him. She probably gives him a lot of attention that maybe he doesn’t get so much from his own family.
Q: How have you found the roller skating?
A: It’s been fun, although I did fall yesterday. Peter said, “Just get to the end and spin!” I thought I’d give it a go and I went down like a sack of spuds!
Q: Finally, what do you hope people will take away from watching this?
A: There is a serious issue here. But first and foremost, you hope that people will enjoy it and that they’ll have a laugh. I think people will laugh along with it, people who work for the Sun or the Guardian. Everyone gets it in the neck, every publication, every political leaning. Peter has done an amazing job. It’s very, very funny.
EDIT: You can watch the trailer on our site as well in case the YT link doesn’t work.
Can Maxine Peake, Russell Tovey and Stephen Mangan hack it?
The Comic Strip’s upcoming satire Red Top has released a new image of its all-star cast.
The special, which will focus on Rebekah Brooks (Maxine Peake) and the phone hacking scandal, will air on Gold on January 20.
L to R – Bob Harris (Peter Richardson), Wendi (Eleanor Matsuura), Coulson (Russell Tovey), Rebekah (Maxine Peake), Blair (Stephen Mangan), Johnny (Johnny Vegas), Ross (Harry Enfield)
Alongside Peake, the show will star Nigel Planer as Rupert Murdoch, Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson and Harry Enfield as Ross Kemp.
Red Top will also star Stephen Mangan, Johnny Vegas and Peter Richardson.
It is described as the story of Rebekah, “an innocent and beguiling Northern girl” who becomes Chief Executive of News International through a series of accidental circumstances and gets tied-up in a “’70s Watergate-style scandal”.
The Comic Strip previously parodied Tony Blair in The Hunt For Tony Blair.
Film makers have revealed their reasons behind choosing Plymouth city centre for the filming of a new Comic Strip TV show with top celebrity names.
For the last few weeks film crews have been in Plymouth filming around the city centre for the new film, The Comic Strip Presents…The Red Top!.
Film makers Great Western Features today revealed how they had been looking for a building that could double up as 1970s newspaper offices in Wapping, as well as being a hotel and police station.
The filmmakers managed to find a window when the Civic Centre – the former headquarters of Plymouth City Council – was being vacated prior to the planned sale to Urban Splash.
The film features an A-List of British comedians including Maxine Peake, Johnny Vegas, Stephen Mangan, Nigel Planer, Harry Enfield, Russell Tovey, Alexei Sayle and Comic Strip creator Peter Richardson also makes an appearance in the film, which parodies the phone hacking scandal.
It has been commissioned by UKTV and will be shown on Gold in the new year – the second Comic Strip film to be made exclusively for Gold since Five Go To Rehab was made to mark the Comic Strip’s 30th anniversary in 2012.
Leader of Plymouth City Council, Councillor Tudor Evans said: “We are really thrilled that the Comic Strip team have chosen Plymouth to make their new film.
“It’s a fantastic city with some amazing locations, and we are always delighted to welcome film-makers here. It has been a bit surreal the last couple of weeks because the Council House has doubled up as News International headquarters but it’s a great coup for Plymouth and I look forward to seeing the finished product.”
Nick Smith from Great Western Features approached Plymouth City Council to ask about using the buildings as a film set, said: “The Civic Centre and Council House were perfect as our film is set in the 1970s and neither building has changed much since then! This small window between the Council moving out and before Urban Splash move in was the ideal opportunity for us to make the film so we were delighted when Plymouth City Council said yes.”
Creator Peter Richardson said: “Like our previous Comic Strip satire – ‘The Hunt For Tony Blair’ which was set in the sixties, ‘The Red Top (WT)’ lampoons the phone hacking scandal and the world of politics and press proprietors, and is set in a colourful seventies ‘Boogie Nights’ style parallel universe with a disco soundtrack. I’m thrilled to have such a fantastic cast. It should be huge fun.”
The outlandish 75-minute comic fantasy tells the story of Rebekah (Maxine Peake) an innocent and beguiling Northern girl who accidentally becomes Chief Executive of News International and gets caught up in a seventies Watergate-style scandal.
With her flowing red locks, leather boots and gloves, and no-nonsense grey raincoat, newspaper boss Rebekah Brooks appeared to have moved to Plymouth at the weekend.
Maxine Peake on set as newspaper boss Rebekah Brooks for new TV satire The Comic Strip Presents . . . The Red Top! which is being filmed in Devon
Hiding behind huge sunglasses, the woman was, in fact, actress Maxine Peake, 41, who plays Brooks, 47, in TV satire The Comic Strip Presents . . . The Red Top!, which is filming in the city.
Brooks was cleared of all charges in the phone-hacking trial and the comedy will tell the story of ‘an innocent and beguiling Northern girl . . . caught up in a Watergate-style scandal’.
Her boss, Rupert Murdoch, 84, may be flattered to learn he’s being played by Nigel Planer, The Young Ones actor 22 years his junior.