Actress and writer Maxine Peake on her new play about a British female cycling champion – and playing Hamlet in Manchester
Maxine Peake was going to cycle to our interview, but it’s tipping down in Salford so she drove instead. She is not the kind who demands a chauffeur-driven car. This is the woman who turned up to Bolton Socialist Club in January to accept an Outstanding Contribution to Socialism Award and, with absolute sincerity, declared it better than a Bafta.
She lives in a terraced house not far away with her partner, Pawlo, and their rescue dog. She moved here a few years ago in protest at London’s property prices. “Ridiculous! How does anyone afford it?” she asks. And that’s coming from an actress who gets so much work she hasn’t taken a holiday in five years.
Peake is one of Britain’s most sought-after acting talents, having worked her way up from her first regular television role as Twinkle in the Victoria Wood comedy Dinnerladies to headlining her first BBC One primetime series as barrister Martha Costello in Silk. Her name in the titles has become a reliable stamp of quality.
Her latest project is a labour of love: writer and star of a stage play about cyclist Beryl Burton, probably the most successful British athlete you’ve never heard of.
Burton was five times world pursuit champion, 13 times national champion, with a dozen more racing titles to her name. She won her first medal in 1957 and was still winning them in the 1980s; she beat the men’s record for a 12-hour time trial. All this from a housewife who built up her fitness by working on a rhubarb farm, and who ended one race in London by hopping back on her bike and cycling all the way home to Leeds.
Yet few today have heard of Burton’s achievements. Why has she been forgotten?
“I suppose mainly because she was a woman. That’s got a lot to do with it,” says Peake. “She was an amateur who never raced professionally. And it was a very different climate then. I think she’d be turning in her grave when you see Victoria Pendleton doing naked shoots on a bike. I’m like, ‘Oh, God, what would Beryl think?’”
This is said without a hint of malice. Peake is warm, friendly, supportive of other women. She just balks at their objectification.
She found it “slightly galling” to see London 2012 athletes in the pages of fashion magazines. “They were all being made to pose and I thought, it’s bad enough looking at models and going, ’How do you get like that?’, never mind athletes who train however many hours a day.”
Female athletes are on a more equal footing with men these days, but they are also judged on their appearance. Pendleton and Jessica Ennis became London 2012’s poster girls with contracts to advertise shampoos and beauty brands in a way that Nicola Adams, the boxing gold medallist, did not.
“It is depressing,” Peake sighs. She loved Adams because “I can imagine she’s a bit like Beryl; I don’t know her but if someone said to her, ’Do you want to be the face of whatever’, she’d probably go, ’Oh, bugger off’. Well, you hope she would.”
Peake, 39, has been open about the fact she lost five stone with Weight Watchers after Dinnerladies, a decision she made on health grounds and after Victoria Wood urged her not to get typecast.
“But I do hear stories about people saying they’ve been on jobs where producers said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have that apple pie for lunch…’”
Woe betide anyone who suggests that to Peake. “I think I’d say, ‘No, you can have it in your face’, you know what I mean?’”
Peake is that rare thing: an actress completely unafraid to speak her mind. The daughter of a lorry driver and a care worker from Bolton, she spent her teenage years living with her beloved grandfather, Jim Taylor, a socialist who helped to shape her political beliefs. She laughs at the memory of being “a right serious little bugger” at school: “I used to put my hand up and they’d be, ‘Oh, here she goes…’”
Aged 18, she joined the local branch of the Communist Party, which had fewer than a dozen members. She was the youngest by far.
“They’d say, ‘We’re going to Bury market on Saturday to pamphlet,’ and I was like, ’I don’t want to be pamphleting, I want to be kicking some arse!’ But you looked around the table at these people in their sixties and seventies, and it just used to break my heart – like my granddad, they’d fought all their lives, been in the war, seen horrific things.”
Her grandfather died last year, and she dedicated her award from the Bolton Socialist Club to him. She smiles. “I just thought, ‘If my granddad had been around he’d have been over the moon about that.’”
Her party membership has lapsed, but Peake remains a committed socialist. Her research for Beryl, which she wrote originally as a Radio 4 play, uncovered the fact that cycling was once sniffily regarded as a working-class pastime.
“There was a ban on racing round about the 1860s and 1870s, basically because the landed gentry didn’t want working-class people riding across their land. The police would turn up. That’s why time-trialling started – people set off at different times because they thought if they set off racing like that, people wouldn’t notice.”
Peake is fiercely proud of her working-class roots. Public-school actors have been having a moment – Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – and Cumberbatch has complained that the Old Harrovian tag is more of a curse than a blessing. This makes Peake snort with laughter. “Oh, and he’s had a terrible career, hasn’t he? He’s not loaded and in Hollywood. I think he’s a brilliant actor and I knew him a little bit to say hello to and I think he’s a lovely bloke, but I can’t…” She shakes her head.
“You can get away with doing posh all the time but if you do Northern a lot they say, ‘Oh, are you doing Northern again?’ like you’re playing the same character continually. But nobody says to Judi Dench, ‘Oh, Judi, love, you’re not going to do that RP again?’ I mean, she’s a fantastic actress. But I do think if you’ve got a regional accent you’re not taken as seriously.”
The “faux intellectualism” of some actors drives her potty. “Sometimes you read interviews with people and think, God, if you’re that clever do something else, go and do something brilliant in medical science! There’s a lot of waving of intelligence around, which can be really intimidating.”
Peake won a scholarship to Rada – fellow students called her ‘Red Max’, which she finds hilarious – and was inspired to get into acting by Vanessa Redgrave. “She was very vocal about politics and I thought that’s what actors were. And then you sort of get here and go…” She looks disappointed. “It’s a very different business now.”
It’s a business that keeps her busy, though. She is currently filming a second series of heavyweight BBC drama The Village, and has two independent films coming out: Run and Jump, in which she gives a quietly heartbreaking performance as a woman whose husband suffers a stroke, and Keeping Rosy, a psychological thriller about an advertising executive whose life takes a shocking turn.
The days of being typecast as a “gobby, man-mad Northerner” are long gone. Now it’s what she calls the “women in turmoil” roles that come her way, ever since her standout performance as Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
“I think they go to me now for more complex characters. I get scripts and go, ‘Oh, crikey, I wonder why they’ve sent me that?’”. She’d like to go back to comedy for a bit, though, because “you can wring yourself a bit dry”.
Her one stipulation is that the characters she plays are strong women with more on their minds than marriage and babies. She and her partner are unmarried and child-free, and it infuriates her that interviewers make a thing of it.
“That’s one thing I really battled against in Silk,” she confides. “I said, ‘Please let’s not make this all about Martha trying to find a boyfriend. Why do women get force-fed with that? You get to a certain age where if you’ve not got a husband or had a baby then you’re a failure. And Martha was anything but a failure. And it’s all right.” She says this slowly, for emphasis. “When can we just start saying to women it’s all right?”
Next up she is playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, in a production that will also feature a female Polonius and Rosencrantz.
“Honestly, I’ve had so many male actors come up to me and say [adopts comically serious tone], ‘Oh, God, you’re playing Hamlet, how do you feel, you must be feeling sick,’ and I think, oh, get over yourselves.”
The idea of taking on one of the great stage roles – and a male one to boot – doesn’t intimidate her at all. In Peake’s world, you try something out and if it doesn’t work, at least you gave it a go. It’s all about fighting for the opportunity in the first place.
“You get casting directors saying, ‘Oh, she can’t play a lady’, or whatever. Just get them in the room and give them a chance. And I’m sure if Benedict Cumberbatch wants to play a miner or someone who breeds racing pigeons, somebody will give him a chance.” And she dissolves in a fit of giggles.
Beryl opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on June 30 and is part of the Yorkshire Festival. Tickets: 0113 213 7700; wyp.org.uk. Hamlet opens at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, on Sept 11. Run & Jump is currently showing in cinemas and Keeping Rosy is released on June 27