Julie Walters: 'I have no plans to retire'

Julie Walters in her new role in Indian Summers.
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Julie Walters in her new role in Indian Summers.

When she was asked to play the 'queen bee' of society amidst the British Raj in 1930s India, Julie Walters snapped up the offer.

"I never get to go on exotic locations," she laughs. "Usually I'm filming in rain-lashed Manchester or Liverpool."

New British drama series Indian Summers is set in the foothills of the Himalayas in the summer of 1932 as India dreams of independence, but the British are clinging to power. 

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Here at Simla, the most powerful and influential of the imperial rulers converge during the hottest months to escape the stifling heat in Delhi. Walters plays Cynthia Coffin, proprietor of Simla's British Club. Cross her at your peril. "She is very formidable and a real manipulator," says Walters.

"I thought that everybody was very posh in the British Raj but Cynthia has a far more humble background in the East End of London who came out to India with her soldier husband and now runs the social club. It was actually shot on Penang Island, Malaysia, because they found the perfect, unspoilt location there and it was lovely to be able to go visit and experience the place."

The 10-part drama has shades of the classic 1984 adaptation of the Paul Scott novel, The Jewel In The Crown, with a spicy mix of passion, secrets, rivalry and resentment. At the heart of it are three very different pairs of siblings. 

Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd Hughes) is the ambitious Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India who has a rather unhealthy obsession with his younger sister, Alice (Jemima West), who returns to India with her young son following the death of her husband.

Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel) is a young Parsi who works for the Indian Civil Service and is promoted by Ralph after he is indebted to him. But Aafrin's firebrand younger sister, Sooni (Aysha Kala), is disgusted by her brother's subservient behaviour to the British and campaigns for independence. 

Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant) is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist who has arrived in India to look after her sick brother, Eugene (Edward Hogg), who is living with Ralph. When Cynthia hears of Madeline's background she persuades Ralph that Daddy's fortune would make her an ideal wife for him.

"Cynthia's background story is that she worked for Ralph's parents and looked after him and Alice when they were younger," says Walters.

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"She's a Machiavellian personality and I found both that and her relationship with Ralph very interesting. Her morals are based on her practical needs rather than what is right and wrong. Ralph's like the child she never has and he probably had more contact with her than with his mother. If he's successful, it reflects on Cynthia. But she does love him like a mother and want the best for him."

She says that roles like Cynthia are few and far between. "It's hard. Particularly at my age. Stuff comes my way and I think I would probably like to watch it but I don't want to do it," she says. After her personal career highlight, in the 2010 TV drama Mo, in which she played British politician Mo Mowlan, who died in 2005 after a brain tumour, she thought about retiring.

"It was because I had reached 60 and, unlike any other age, it's the one that is really defined," Walters explains. Also, I had to shave my head to play Mo and my hair grew back white and that made me more conscious of my age and I thought that it was a time when a lot of people retire. So I didn't do any acting for about a year or so and I was just thinking that I probably wouldn't work again when a play came my way that I desperately wanted to do. After that I got offered some of the best roles of my life. So I have no plans of retiring now."

Away from acting she has an idyllic life on an organic farm in Sussex with cattle, sheep and chickens, which is run by her husband Grant Roffey, with whom she has a daughter, Maisie, 27.

With Downton Abbey now filming its final series, did a job offer in this ever come her way? "Do you know, they have never rung once," she says with mock umbrage. "And all my Baftas. What a waste." 

Walters pauses and smiles. "And I'd be 'upstairs' before you ask."

Indian Summers, TV One, Sunday

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