“My dad’s dream was to see me managing a building society in Accrington. ” Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh on work, family and her beloved “Accy”
interview by Sarah Rigg, photography by Sally Lord
Born in Rough Lee and brought up in a two up two down terrace on Elmﬁeld Street in Church – actress Julie Hesmondhalgh will tell you she and her family are as ordinary as they come.
Her parents were blue collar office workers – dad at Crown Paints in Darwen, and mum with Emerson & Renwick – the engineering ﬁrm at the end of their road.
“We were ordinary, ” Julie says. “Me and my brother Dave would come home, watch Neighbours, eat Yorkie bars and my mum would make tea.
“Thursdays mum and dad would supplement their wages by collecting the pools and then they’d come home and we’d all watch a Thursday night disaster movie. ”
Down to earth maybe. Ordinary – not really. Unless every other house on the street was ﬁlled with ﬁrst edition poetry anthologies, literary classics by novelist Graham Greene and an extensive classical music collection.
In fact it wasn’t until Julie’s dad John passed away two years ago that she discovered his own incredible talent for writing poetry.
“Dad was a very spiritual man and he wrote these wonderful diaries and poetry, a man very much in touch with nature. Every day when he was working in Darwen he would walk up to Darwen Tower and at the weekends he would always be in the Lakes or the Ribble Valley pounding the hills. Both me and my brother have inherited that from him, it’s good mental health to get out in the countryside. I’ve read so much about it recently and I think my dad had an innate sense that he could heal himself through nature and art. ”
Through various tragic circumstances in John Hesmondhalgh’s life he had a thwarted education and left school very early.
Adds Julie: “He passed his 11 plus but wasn’t allowed to go to grammar school – which back then was the only way to get a decent education.
“Dad left school very early but always loved books and music, so it was quite an unusual little terraced house in some ways. ”
Also under the roof of the unusual little house was Julie’s brother Dave – seven years older than Julie -and now an Oxford graduate and a professor.
“It was just a wonderful moment in my dad’s life when Dave went to Oxford. It was the life he could have had if he’d had a diﬀerent upbringing. “I was only 11 at the time, but I remember vividly how amazing it was. And what it meant to us as a family and the peace it gave my dad. Being able to go and visit him and hold his own discussing the things they discussed there. ”
The other side to Julie’s father was playful. “We’d play a lot of games, like a million ways to catch a ball. We had this game called Nonchalant Ease, which I’ve passed on to my children – and you have to try and catch the ball in the most nonchalant way possible. ”
Julie has two girls aged 15 and 12, and in an era of smart phones and iPads we both agreed it is a miracle to be able to unglue today’s teens from their screens. But like parents everywhere, Julie and actor husband Ian Kershaw do their best.
“You’ve just got to try and put some boundaries in. Mine aren’t allowed the phones in their room and not at the table – and on weekends not before 12. Although, that doesn’t always happen if you don’t want to have a huge row!”
“You don’t have children to live your life for you. Let them fly”
Perhaps one of the most notable parenting lessons passed down by dad John and mum Maureen is to let children follow their dreams.
“My mum was and still is someone who absolutely supports me and Dave in whatever we do, and growing up she never got in the way of our dreams. My dad would have loved me to be a bank manager in Accrington – that would have been his dream. Mum was the one who let us ﬂy more. Mum’s saying is: ‘You don’t have children to live your life for you. Let them ﬂy.’ “And they ended up with a professor and an actor for children. They used to laugh and say ‘we don’t know how we got you and our Dave”.
If either of Julie’s girls wants to become actors she won’t stand in their way: “A lot of actors discourage their children from going into the job because it’s a hard life. But really, what isn’t a hard life these days? In acting what you end up doing is meeting the most amazing people, and if you can ﬁnd a way of coping with the unemployment and the disappointment and develop the resources and the resilience to deal with those – you can have a really amazing life – even if you are not mega successful.”
Julie returns to prime time TV in the new series of Broadchurch which is expected to air early 2017. It is her frst major screen role since leaving behind the award-winning Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper.
She flmed her last scenes on the cobbles on November 3rd 2014; the same year that dad John passed away at the age of 82; the local church packed to the rafters with more than 100 mourners.
“It had been such a busy and crazy year, I needed some time out,” says Julie. “I decided to go to the Lake District for a couple of days and hired a cottage, just me and my dog. I really just needed to get my head around everything that had happened and look at the next stage of my life, before my Corrie leaving do on the Friday.” Julie took her dad’s diaries along – which spanned back to 1946 and documented his courtship with her mum. She adds: “Coincidentally there was also quite a lot of stuff which had been written while dad was in the Lakes too – a place which he loved. It was nice to think I was there reading his words in the same place. “So what I thought was going to be a couple of days getting my head around dad and Corrie, turned into a couple of days about really getting to know my dad, after he’d let us – and getting to know him as a young man. It was beautiful. ”The ﬁrst piece Julie read was a poem her father had written called, ‘The Character I Should Love to Have’. “Dad had written it when he was 17 and it was about the kind of man he wanted to be. Which was somebody who loves nature, who appreciates the worth of genius, the music of Chopin, the poetry of Robert Frost, it was all this. Really, they were incredible words from a 17 year old.”
Julie wrote John’s diaries and poetry into a play. “I did two showings above a pub in Manchester and my mum and brother came –both performances were packed out.” After spending last summer in Dorset ﬁlming Broadchurch, Julie was glad to get home to spend time with her husband, kids and mum Maureen.
“My mum is in her 80s now and is a great Accrington woman. She is very political, not party political, but has a real sense of justice in her. She is this constantly loving, fierce, brilliant woman, but not as romantic as my dad. She’s the person who is still here, making me cakes and at the other end of the phone when I need her.” Julie laughs: “And the books she reads – hardcore, grim thrillers that have pictures of a knife dripping blood on the cover. Her musical tastes include Meatloaf and Queen. She is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Quite a cynical soul and amazing spirit. You would never think she was in her 80s at all.”
Julie and Maureen meet up every week for a stroll round Oswaldtwistle Mills or for lunch at a garden centre in Clayton. “We also get to the seaside. My brother takes her out every week as well – so she does alright!”
“Dad died the same year I let Corrie – it was crazy”
As beautiful as Dorset is – where series three of Broadchurch was filmed – Julie is always happy to return to Lancashire. “I love Accrington and all of Lancashire. Morecambe is lovely – that entire coast has always been really special to us. My kids have grown up going to St Anne’s and Blackpool. We love the beach café at St Annes – me and my mum went there the other week.
“The Ribble Valley is somewhere our family has always loved. My brother lives in Yorkshire now, we often meet half way in the Ribble Valley and go for drives around there. It’s absolutely gorgeous, people don’t realise just how beautiful it is – although it’s such a short drive from Accy.
“It’s where my mum used to go on her holidays with her mum. My grandma had a hut on the top of Whalley Nap, and they would walk up there every weekend. No running water, they would get their water from a running well. Right up until my mum and dad got together they had that hut.
“Another special place is Hambledon. My dad’s ashes are spread on the there.”
The happy and proud day Julie Hesmondhalgh became Freeman of the Borough of Hyndburn
If you ever spot Julie Hesmondhalgh herding pigs up Abbey Street there’s no need for alarm. This is just one of the many beneﬁts bestowed on the Accrington actress after being made a Freeman of the Borough of Hyndburn.
During the glittering ceremony – which Julie wasn’t expecting – her life and career were celebrated by friends, family, teachers and colleagues from present and past. “I was dead chuﬀed and really honoured because Accy is really special to me,” says Julie. “I didn’t realise it was going to be such a big deal. I thought the mayor would give me a certiﬁcate or something in the council oﬃces.”
The evening was arranged by Michael Cunliffe at the council. Adds Julie: “The poor bloke. I kept messing him around with the dates because of work and stuﬀ. I drove him mad. Little did I know that behind the scenes this huge evening was being planned, where the most incredible things were happening for me.”
“They had drummers from my old secondary school, Moorhead, and dancers from St Christopher’s came and did a whole scene from the Lion King.”
“But possibly one of my favourite bits of the night was when some theatre students came from Accy College and did some bits from Simon Stephens’ plays.” In a moving tribute to Julie’s late dad; a letter he had once sent to her primary school, Hyndburn Park, was found and projected on to the screen. Adds Julie: “Hyndburn Park had found the letter in their old ﬁles that he’d written to Mrs. Bennet the then head teacher of the infant school. It was emotional to see dad’s writing on this special paper he always used, just saying, ‘Thank you for all the help and guidance you have given to Dave and Julie for setting them up in life.’ Then they got four children from Hyndburn Park; these four absolutely gorgeous kids, to recite the letter in unison and really cute voices.”
One of Julie’s most inspirational teachers from Accrington College was there to watch his former student being honoured in Hyndburn. “Martin Cosgrif was an amazing tutor,” she says. “He taught us everything he knew to make it seem possible for us to be able to go to drama school and lead a diﬀerent kind of life and become actors. He had so much faith in us all. While I was at the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts, there were five of us from Accrington at the same time. That is just a testament to his talent.”
Julie adds: “Those years between 16 and 18 were formative for me and where I found myself. Sitting in Elmﬁeld Street with my new theatre studies friends, listening to Mozart, eating biscuits, putting the world to rights…it was at Accrington College that I met some of my greatest friends, friends for life.”
In her speech to guests Julie mentioned some special people in her life including Sylvia Lancaster and all at the Sophie Lancaster Trust for their inspiring work.
“Dorothy McGregor of Maundy Relief was a great friend of mine”
Another special mention went to Maundy Relief and the late, inspirational, Dorothy McGregor. Julie says: “I had to thank Dorothy McGregor who was Freeman of the Borough; who as you know, set up Maundy Relief and was a great friend of mine. She taught us all about real love and giving and charity. Their incredible work continues today, led by the wonderful Lucy Hardwick who carries on the legacy to this day.”
At the end of the evening Julie told all the youngsters who had performed for her: “Every time you’re creative, every time you sing, or write a song, or dance, or choreograph, or bang a drum, or sketch a portrait, scribble a poem or act a part, you are making the world a better place. Art is not an indulgence or a luxury. It’s an essential part of living.”