Russell T Davies: ‘You never stop coming out of the closet’

Russell T Davies talks about Maxine’s appearance in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘, coming soon to the BBC!

Russell T Davies is showing me a snippet of film on his phone in a Manchester restaurant. There, on the screen, is Maxine Peake as you’ve never seen her before. She’s standing in a forest as a proud Amazonian queen, with shield and on-trend Miley Cyrus faux hawk hairstyle.

Truly, Peake has never played a role further removed from her performance as charming simpleton Twinkle in Dinnerladies. I put on my glasses. Is that muscle tone? Now she’s shouting angrily in iambic pentameter. “She’s posh and rough at the same time,” says Davies. “Only Maxine could do that.”

Then something even more unexpected happens. From across the clearing comes a lightning bolt that smacks into Peake’s chest. It looks like a Doctor Who/Game of Thrones mash-up, but what we’re watching is a scene from Davies’s new 90-minute adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, part of the BBC’s spring season of plays commemorating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. Matt Lucas will be Bottom (naturally) and other cast members include Bernard Cribbins, Richard Wilson and – my personal favourite – Elaine Paige as Mistress Quince.

“Dreams, chases, people changing identities and species,” he says. “If that’s not an episode of Doctor Who, I don’t now what is.” Clearly, you can take the man out of Doctor Who, but not Doctor Who out of the man. “I’ve wanted to make this for 30 years,” he says, setting about his eggs benedict. But his obsession with the play goes back even further. “It was the first drama I was in.” He pauses. “I was 11 when I gave Swansea my Bottom.”

Davies has been sent the footage of Peake getting zapped so he can sign off on the special effects. The lightning bolt was fired by Theseus at Peake’s Hippolyta: in Davies’s reboot of the Bard, the former is a fascist ruler holding the latter as a prisoner of war. He insists, however, that he’s been faithful to the play. “I have only changed five words” In fact, he argues he’s been more faithful than Shakespeare. “Its title is its greatest enemy. It’s not summer. The seasons have been turned upside down. It’s a tough, wintry place.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be broadcast in spring on BBC One.

Read the rest of his interview here.

Maxine Peake: ‘I care deeply what people think’

Maxine Peake: ‘I care deeply what people think’

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

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Red Top’s Maxine Peake: ‘Rebekah Brooks has some extraordinary charm’

Red Top’s Maxine Peake: ‘Rebekah Brooks has some extraordinary charm’

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

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Peake performance: Maxine’s fashion shoot

Maxine Peake is one of Britain’s most interesting actors. Her incredible range – from Myra Hindley to Hamlet – coupled with her heart-felt socialism and elfin looks have made her a national favourite. Here she wears looks from the spring/summer 2016 minimalist trend.

To read an interview with the actor see this Sunday’s Observer

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An Interview With Red Top Star Maxine Peake

An Interview With Red Top Star Maxine Peake

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.

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Rose Theatre Kingston to Stage London Premiere of BERYL

Today Rose Theatre Kingston in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse announces the London première of BERYL, Maxine Peake’s critically-acclaimed play celebrating the life of sporting legend Beryl Burton – the greatest woman on two wheels. BERYL was nominated for best new play at the Manchester Theatre Awards today.

Rebecca Gatward directs the cast in a play about the loves, trials and tribulations of the down-to-earth Yorkshire cycling heroine with Samantha Power in the title role and Rebecca Ryan as her daughter Denise. The cast also features Dominic Gately and Lee Toomes.

Originally written for Radio 4 in 2012, BERYL opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in summer 2014, just as the Tour de France was racing through Yorkshire. The critical and popular acclaim was such that the idea was born to revive and tour the production in 2015 before its London premiere here at the Rose in March 2016.

Peake’s stage writing debut looks back at the extraordinary sporting achievements of the Leeds-born cyclist. When Beryl Charnock, met keen cyclist Charlie Burton she was smitten, not only with Charlie but by the thrill and freedom found on her bike. She would outwork the men in the rhubarb fields, she could outclass the cyclists on the road, and still find time to over-knit young Denise an enviable cycling jumper.

No other British sportswoman has dominated their field in the way that Beryl Burton dominated the world of cycling. With her husband, daughter and cycling club at her side she became five times world pursuit champion, 13 times national champion, twice road-racing world champion and made it home in time for dinner. She was one of the most astonishing sports people ever to have lived whose down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to life and to success is an inspiration to us all.

Beryl Burton MBE, OBE, wife and mother cycled her way into the record books becoming world record holder and former British record holder, and with a determination to be the best she always cycled home a hero.

Beryl’s daughter Denise Burton-Cole welcomes the revival of the play, “We are thrilled as it’s an outstanding play and it’s great that more people will see it”.

Maxine Peake has a career that spans stage, TV and film, garnering critical acclaim in roles as diverse as Dinnerladies’ Twinkle and Silk’s Martha Costello QC. She won the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards for her performances in Criminal Justice and The Street. Her other television credits include See No Evil: The Moors Murders, Red Riding, The Devil’s Whore, Criminal Justice, Little Dorrit, Henry IV, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, BAFTA nominated dramas Silk, The Village, Room at the Top, Hancock & Joan, The Street and Shameless. She starred in features Private Peaceful, Run and Jump, Keeping Rosy, Svengali, The Theory of Everything and The Falling. Hamlet, filmed during the run at the Royal Exchange, was released in cinemas March 2015. She has performed at some of the most prestigious theatres in the country including The Cherry Orchard, The Relapse and Luther (The National Theatre), The Deep Blue Sea and Hamlet (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Mother Theresa is Dead (Royal Court), The Children’s Hour (Royal Exchange) and Miss Julie (Theatre Royal Haymarket/Royal Exchange). This is Peake’s stage writing debut.

Rebecca Gatward directs. Her theatre credits include The Merry Wives of Windsor (Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester, summer 2015); Beryl (West Yorkshire Playhouse) The Trial Of Dennis The Menace (Southbank Centre); The Comedy Of Errors, The Merchant Of Venice (Shakespeare’s Globe); Pandas (Traverse Theatre); The Indian Boy (RSC Complete Works Festival); The Canterbury Tales directed in partnership with Greg Doran and Jonathan Munby and Thyestes for The Other Place (RSC); Touched (Salisbury Playhouse); Cancer Tales (New Wolsey); The Accrington Pals (WYP). She also restaged This Is Our Youth with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck at the Garrick Theatre.
Her work for television includes Eastenders (winner Broadcast award and soap award nominations for best episode and scene), Casualty, Doctors and Sadie J.

Samantha Power plays Beryl. Her theatre work includes Accrington Pals, Coming Around Again, Me, As a Penguin, It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Zack (Royal Exchange), Little Britain Live (UK and Australian Tour), Flint Street Nativity (Liverpool Playhouse); School Daze (Riverside Studios); It’s a Fine Bright Day Today (Oldham Coliseum); Raw,Kid (Theatre Absolute). Her television credits include Coronation Street, Ordinary Lies, 4 O’Clock club, All at Sea, Shameless, Little Britain, Waterloo Road, The Cup, In With the Flynns, Twisted Tales, The Mimic, Prisoners Wives. Her film credits include The Low Down and Mischief Night.

Rebecca Ryan plays Denise. Her theatre credits include Solace of the Road (Derby Theatre); A Taste of Honey (Hull Truck); Lost Monsters (Liverpool Everyman); Scarborough (Royal Court Theatre); Tommy (Manchester Palace). Her television credits include DCI Banks, Monroe, Waterloo Road, Emmerdale (ITV), Shameless and State of Play (BBC).

Dominic Gately plays Nim. Dominic trained at Guildford School of Acting. He appeared in the original cast of Beryl at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014 and in the 2015 revival. His other extensive theatre credits include: Absent Friends and The Sunshine Boys (Oldham Coliseum) Perfect Light, Time Moghul Gardens, Basil, Meggie and the Most Beautiful Man in the World, and Castaway Cafè (Slung Low Theatre), The Pillars of Society (Dale Theatre), An Absolute Turkey (Electric Theatre), Hamlet (Attic Theatre), Othello (Nottingham Playhouse), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare 4 Kids), The Crucible, Refugee Boy, Scuffer, Monkey! and Company Along the Mile (West Yorkshire Playhouse), The Good Person of Sichuan (Colchester Mercury), A View From the Bridge, The Deep Blue Sea, Loot and The Birthday Party (Keswick Theatre-by-the-Lake), The Weir (Stoke New Victoria), Kes (Liverpool Playhouse/Touring Consortium) and The Diary of Anna Frank (York Theatre Royal/Touring Consortium), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre). Dominic has also taken part in many rehearsed readings and workshopped new writing for many theatres around the country. In Film and Television he has appeared in Coronation Street (Granada) Virus 2050 (LSB Productions), Waterloo Road (Shed Productions), Emmerdale and The Royal (ITV Yorkshire), Paradox (Clerkenwell Films for BBC) Walk Like a Panther (Finite Films)

Lee Toomes plays Charlie. Lee trained at The Arden School of Theatre. Theatre credits include: One-Man Show Before The Leaves Fall (Space2); A Christmas Carol, When I’m cleaning Windows (Northeast Productions Tour); The House Behind The Lines (Buglight Theatre); Santa’s Grotty (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith); The Fanny Hill Project (Theatre State); All through A Glass Of Port, No Exit (Hands On Theatre Company); Engagement With Murder, Up ‘N’ Under (Lamproom Theatre); Blood Brothers (WLT); Comedy Of Errors (On Your Toes); Not Hard To Die, Charade, Behind Closed Doors, Ruby Quicksilver (Jaba); Illyria, Romeo And Juliet, A Chorus Of Disapproval, The Good Person Of Szechwan whilst training. Television and film credits include: The Driver (Red Productions); In The Flesh (BBC3); The Syndicate (Rollem Productions); Shameless (Channel 4), The Body Farm (BBC); Jobseekers (YPS Media); The Downward Spiral Of Kevin Lames, Finding Vivian (National Media Museum); Snowball (TM Productions).

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Maxine Peake’s new play to get London premiere

Maxine Peake’s play Beryl about the cyclist Beryl Burton will run at the Rose Theatre Kingston from March.

Burton was a Yorkshire cycling heroine, who dominated the world of cycling from the late 50s and 60s. She won the women’s world road race championship in 1960 and 1967 and was world champion five times.

Peake originally wrote the play for radio in 2012 and it opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014 as the Tour de France raced through Yorkshire. The play was Peake’s stage writing debut and the production will be directed by Rebecca Gatward with Samantha Power in the title role and Rebecca Ryan as her daughter Denise.

The daughter of Burton, Denise Burton-Cole said: “We are thrilled as it’s an outstanding play and it’s great that more people will see it”.

The play just received a nomination for best new play at the Manchester Theatre Awards.

Beryl will open on 9 March and run until the 19 March.

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Maxine Peake up for Manchester Theatre Awards

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Maxine Peake has been nominated for both her acting and writing in this year’s Manchester Theatre Awards.

The star is up for best actress for her role as a demonic fairy in The Skriker at the Royal Exchange theatre.

It is the second year in a row she has been up for best actress, after being nominated for playing Hamlet last year.

This year, she is also nominated for best new play for writing Beryl, about cycling champion Beryl Burton, which was staged at The Lowry in Salford.

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Peake, known for TV dramas like Shameless, Silk and The Village, wrote Beryl but did not appear in it.

The play, which started life as a BBC Radio 4 drama, told the story of the woman who won seven world titles and held the UK women’s all-round title for 25 consecutive years.

The Manchester Evening News’ City Life supplement, meanwhile, has named The Skriker the best play of 2015 in its own annual awards.

In her review, the paper’s Dianne Bourne described Peake as overseeing “her debauched band of zombie fiends like a cross between Vivienne Westwood and the Virgin Queen”.

The production of Caryl Churchill’s play was part of last summer’s Manchester International Festival.

The Manchester Theatre Awards winners will be announced on 4 March.

Bolton’s Octagon theatre leads the main acting and production categories, followed closely by the Royal Exchange and Oldham Coliseum. The Lowry dominates the shortlists for visiting productions.

Manchester Theatre Awards – key categories:

Best actress

Scarlett Brookes in Educating Rita at Oldham Coliseum
Barbara Drennan in A View From The Bridge and The Family Way at Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Kathryn Hunter in Kafka’s Monkey at Home
Maxine Peake in The Skriker at the Royal Exchange

Best actor

Colin Connor in A View From The Bridge at Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Rob Edwards in An Enemy Of The People at Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Jonjo O’Neill in The Crucible at the Royal Exchange
Sam Swann in Pomona at the Royal Exchange

Best production

Educating Rita at Oldham Coliseum
An Enemy of the People at Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Rites at Contact
A View From The Bridge at Octagon Theatre, Bolton

See the full list of nominees on the Manchester Theatre Awards website.

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Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun newsroom…

Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun newsroom…

Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun’s newsroom as editorial staff, having been told to avoid making eye contact, duck below their desks.

And conjure up this image: a wheelchair-bound Rupert Murdoch locked in a room by Wendi Deng as she spends time with guitar-strumming Tony Blair.

Closer to the home of this blog, envision the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger leading a news conference sing-song of the newspaper’s anthem with a refrain about swinging to the left.

These are just three of the memorable scenes from a wonderful TV satire, Red Top, to be screened later this month.

It’s a glorious, irreverent post-hacking lampoon, a fantasy set in the 1970s with flairs, moustaches and disco music, that tells the story of Rebekah, an ingenue from the north of England who, having accidentally become chief executive of News International, gets embroiled (innocently of course) in a scandal.

At two previews, I witnessed audiences laughing aloud, and often, at the unfolding of the surreal plot and the hysterical portrayals of the main characters.

Conceived and written by Peter Richardson – with co-writers Pete Richens and Brigit Grant – it is his latest Comic Strip presentation.

Maxine Peake stars as the beguiling Brooks, the eponymous red-top, and there are a clutch of brilliant cameo performances. They include Harry Enfield as Ross Kemp, Brooks’s ex-husband; Stephen Mangan as Blair; Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson; Nigel Planer as Murdoch; and Eleanor Matsuura as Wendi.

Look out also for Johnny Vegas, Alexei Sayle, Dominic Tighe (as a subservient David Cameron) and a double role by John Sessions.

Richardson describes Red Top as a “Boogie Nights-style parallel universe with a disco soundtrack.” And I agree with Gold’s commissioning editor, Simon Lupton, who said: “The script is wonderfully hilarious and playful.”

Red Top is due to be shown on UKTV’s channel, Gold, at 10pm on 20 January. It is not to be missed.

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The Comic Strip’s ‘Redtop’ gives a satirical kicking to Brooks, Blair and Murdoch

The Comic Strip’s ‘Redtop’ gives a satirical kicking to Brooks, Blair and Murdoch

Nigel Planer is showing me a video selfie he made in his Plymouth hotel bedroom – facial close-ups of Planer practising playing Rupert Murdoch for a new Comic Strip spoof, Redtop, about the phone-hacking scandal. It’s hard to tell from these exercises how effective will be the former Young Ones star’s imitation of the media tycoon – but if it’s as half as clever as his Peter Mandelson in the 2011 pastiche The Hunt for Tony Blair, then we are in for a treat.
“Because I’m not an impressionist, I try to latch on to an internal feeling”, says Planer of the way in which he nailed Mandelson’s slippery inscrutability, admitting that he was assisted by a grudging sympathy for his subjects. “Everyone thinks they know Murdoch, but if you watch as many hours of him in interviews as I have, you come to quite like him. He’s not a Spitting Image puppet – that kind of satire is very shallow, cheap and easy.”

Where The Hunt for Tony Blair imagined the New Labour Prime Minister as a fugitive in a 1950s film noir (guilty of the murders of, among others, John Smith and Robin Cook…), Redtop transposes recent events to the disco-era 1970s. Stephen Mangan reprises the role of a perma-grinning Blair, with Maxine Peake as Rebekah Brooks and Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson. The starting point for the Seventies backdrop, says writer and Comic Strip major-domo Peter Richardson, was Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein comparing the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.

“We even have our own ‘deep throat’-style whistleblower – a Sun reporter played by Johnny Vegas”, says Richardson, who based the character on Sean Hoare, the late News of the World showbiz reporter who originally broke the scandal when he spoke to The New York Times. “Also in the Seventies Tony Blair was in his rock band Ugly Rumours. In our film he’s started a new band with a funkier message, called Positive Thinking…”

“There’s something incredibly enjoyable about Stephen Mangan as Tony Blair in a massive moustache and sideboards in a ludicrous Afghan jacket and green shirt and platform boots”, says Planer. “And to have Rebekah Brooks on roller skates throughout the film… a good analogy for her water-off-a-duck’s back life, that she just skates through everything.”

“I’ve got this fabulous long red wig,” adds Peake when I catch up with her later. “It starts off with her leaving school in the north and hitchhiking her way to London and entering into Rupert Murdoch’s offices. I spoke to people who met her and everybody said, ‘Very charming… she always got what she wanted from people.’ ”

Peake, who was born in Bolton, says the only part of her research into the Warrington-raised Brooks that truly surprised her was a shared taste in music. “She was really into the band the Cramps, which I liked, and I didn’t think me and Rebekah would have anything in common,” she says. “She’s lost her accent in this, like she has in real life. It’s Cheshire anyway, and they’re a bit posh there.

“It’s very tongue in cheek; everyone gets it in the neck in a lighthearted way,” adds Peake of this, the 42nd entry in a Comic Strip Presents… canon that began on the very first night of Channel 4 in 1982 with the Enid Blyton satire Five Go Mad in Dorset. But can you be lighthearted about a scandal that included the phone-hacking of the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler? “That’s where we tread very carefully,” says Peake.“Nobody who was a victim of that is referenced in this piece.”

Instead, there is much fun made of Brooks’ various relationships – with Andy Coulson and her former husband Ross Kemp (played by Harry Enfield). A different problem for such a topical satire might be that none of it is, well, all that topical. Planer himself is sorry that Murdoch’s alleged romance with Jerry Hall hadn’t made the gossip columns when the film was being written.

“We need a sequel,” he says, before going on to explain the time lag. “We’re very quick turning them round; it’s the broadcasters who aren’t. They can sit on it for years sometimes. The initial ideas for this one are over three years old. It’s immensely frustrating.”

Richardson doesn’t agree – believing that the time lag allows space for a fuller picture to emerge, as well giving the lawyers a chance to pore over the script. “I think everyone’s still scared of News International [now known as News UK] or the people involved, which I think is quite chilling”, he says, adding that without the distance between idea and execution they wouldn’t have known about Blair’s alleged affair with Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng (played here by Eleanor Matsuura).

“We made good use of a Vanity Fair article which was about 30 pages of comings and goings, including with Murdoch ending up in casualty with her beating him up.”

Meanwhile the real Rebekah Brooks was acquitted in 2014 of involvement in phone hacking at News International, the Old Bailey jury accepting that as the newspaper’s head she was more or less incompetent. It’s the line that Richardson takes with his fictionalised Rebekah. “She’s a poor, innocent northern girl who comes down and accidentally becomes chief executive of News International,” he says, “with people around her doing horrible things she doesn’t know about.”

Richardson originally co-created the Comic Strip to showcase his double act with Planer, which began in the late 1970s. “Peter’s a pretty single-minded individual,” says Planer when I ask him to dissect their partnership. “He doesn’t – unlike the rest of us – take jobs somewhere else. And I’m the opposite: I can duck and dive… I’ve worked in all sorts of styles.”

Indeed, Planer’s career has been extraordinarily diverse, taking in West End musicals, a Spinal Tap-style spoof rock band (Bad News, the subject of a Comic Strip spin-off) as well as films and TV dramas and comedies (most recently as Matt Le Blanc’s lawyer in Episodes). He has also written books, plays and a slim volume of poetry. But he remains famous for two roles – Neil the lugubrious hippy in the seminal 1980s sitcom The Young Ones, and a precious actor, Nicholas Craig, in a series of spoof masterclasses. “Neil and Nicholas Craig come from my own self,” he says. “They’re not like acting jobs. For years I used to be like Neil; then after Neil I wasn’t.”

Planer and Richardson both cite The Strike, the 1988 spoof on the miners’ strike, imaging Al Pacino in the role of Arthur Scargill, as one of their favourite Comic Strip films; while Planer says he’d like to make a sequel to a couple of more recent offerings, Four Men in a Car (1998) and Four Men in a Plane (2000), road movie comedies which starred Richardson, Planer and Planer’s former Young Ones co-stars Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. It would, he says, be a tribute to Mayall, who died suddenly in 2014.

“It would be an Ortonesque piece where the coffin goes missing,” says Planer. “We could call it Three Men and a Funeral, which I think would be funny – and I think Rik would have liked it. But you can always say that when someone’s died…”

‘Redtop’ is on Gold on 20 January

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