Expect gritty plotlines and a stellar cast in the new season of Shetland, says Julie Graham, who tells Janet Christie about her part and the importance of being a positive role model to her two daughters
There are many ways for an actress to choose a role. It could be the writer, the director, the crew, the cast, the location. For Julie Graham, playing Procurator Fiscal Rhona Kelly in BBC1’s Shetland, the choice of on-set snacks always has to be considered. Shetland wins the battle of the biscuits, apparently.
“Of course. They have shortbread!” she says.
It’s not actually Graham who is the cookie connoisseur, but her kids Edie May, 12 and Cyd Betty, nine, who like to visit their mother when she’s working.
“My nine-year-old always says, ‘will there be biscuits?’ she says, laughing. “So it’s very important.”
So is having a laugh, especially when you’re filming something as dark as Shetland can be, serving up yet another grisly murder that rocks the isolated island community.
“When you’re doing something bleak it has to be fun, otherwise you would be going home at the end of the day in tatters.”
Graham is a familiar face in Shetland, the murder mystery series adapted from the award-winning crime novels of Ann Cleeves. She plays the no-nonsense procurator fiscal who keeps an eye on DI Jimmy Perez, played by Douglas Henshall, alongside regulars Alison O’Donnell as Tosh and Steven Robertson as Sandy, and Mark Bonnar and Erin Armstrong. This season sees them joined by Game Of Thrones’ Ciaran Hinds, The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi and The Hour’s Anna Chancellor.
“Shetland attracts some brilliant actors, because of the quality of the actors already in it, and because of the production,” says Graham, who has known Henshall ever since they did The Big Man in 1990, with Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly.
“Through the years we’ve kept in touch,” she says. “He’s such a great leading man, with gravitas and is wonderful to watch. He’s in pretty much every frame. He attracts a lot of people to the show and sets the bar very high.
“They were very strict about not turning it into Midsomer Murders in the Highlands so it has a chunky storyline that develops over six episodes. It’s not just about the impact of a murder, but also about gangsters and corruption at the heart of the powers that be. A lot of it is set in Glasgow too, which opens it up a bit, and a lot of the characters get personal story lines that we didn’t have time to develop in the last series,” she says.
As well as enjoying the crew and the landscapes of Shetland, Graham loves getting her teeth into the character of Rhona, whose lifestyle is very different to that of the single parent with two children. Born in Irvine, Ayrshire, in 1965, Graham now lives at the other end of the country in Brighton, with her two kids and Border terrier, Striker, who is asleep on the sofa as we speak.
“It’s nice to play someone totally different. She’s got a high powered job, she’s a smart, intelligent woman who is in control of her life and she stands up for herself. I like her authority and it’s fun to play someone who has that. As soon as I get that suit on I get very bossy,” she says.
This time round we get to see more of Graham’s character, and her relationship with Phyllis, played by Anna Chancellor.
“It’s nice to delve into her personal life, rather than just storming into a room and bossing Perez about. Rhona’s having a relationship with her boss, who is higher up the food chain. It turns out to be more complicated than meets the eye and puts pressure on her and her relationship with Perez.
“Working with Anna was lovely because she’s a real maverick, ballsy and fun. She has a great sense of humour and is brilliant at her job. I like Rhona even more, now I know she’s got the fabulous taste to go out with Anna Chancellor.”
Graham also welcomes the chance to play a woman who is going about her business and at the same time just happens to be gay, whose personal life is merely incidental rather than the focal point of the story.
“She’s just a gay woman in a relationship and they’re not making an issue about it. You don’t see enough of that on TV because a lot of writers are either lazy and don’t think about having a character who is in a same sex relationship, or they’re scared of it, which is ludicrous in this day and age. It’s more true for women than men but hopefully it’s changing and the more you see it in mainstream dramas like Shetland, the more acceptable it will become.”
As for her own personal life, understandably Graham has nothing to say about the death of her husband, fellow actor Joseph Bennett, whom she married in 2002 and who was found hanged last summer. About her daughters however, she is effusive as she describes a home life full of pre-teen angst and family routine. She tells me how she’s just seen her younger daughter in a school play.
“She was wonderful, of course,” Graham laughs at herself. Whether or not she will follow her mother in treading the boards, Graham thinks it’s too early to say. One thing’s certain: she’s proud to be a worker.
“I have got brilliant childcare, a childminder who is part of the family and my kids are used to me being away because I’ve been doing it since they were babies. It’s hard sometimes but they’re really down with it.”
However, as a single mother she’s very conscious of passing on her work ethic to her children and manages to make things function very well.
“As a woman raising two daughters, it’s important for them to see me being independent financially. It’s a good example and they’re used to it. I love my job and they can see that. They know I love them more, obviously. I hate the word juggle, because most people work, so it’s not a strange thing, although it’s a little bit harder when you’re on your own. But I have amazing friends and great family. Wherever I am I will bring my kids to wherever I am filming. They love coming on film sets with me and still enjoy it. They’re not bored yet. If only for the biscuits.”
Not only is Graham a single mother, her mother Betty was too. She died aged 50, of lung cancer, when Graham was 18 and she moved to London to become an actor.
“It’s the worst thing that can ever happen so it makes you stronger if something happens to you when you are younger. My mother was a very strong woman and set a great example, so that’s what I want to do for my girls. So they grow up to be independent in every way, especially financially. It gives you freedom.”
Growing up independently-minded seems to be progressing nicely and Graham laughs as she reveals her tactics for surviving the teenager door-slamming years.
“What you have to do is storm up the stairs and go to your room first. It confuses them. Huh, I think they’ll find I’m the actress in the house.” She laughs. “I find it funny, I think I’m a bit over it really. You can’t get upset.”
So with things working like a well-oiled machine in Brighton, Graham has no plans to return to Scotland, although 2014’s referendum saw her tempted.
“I love living in Brighton and I don’t know if I would live in Scotland again but it would be different if they had got independence. I miss the people and the humour and I love coming home. It’s very comforting. I was up during the campaign and it was incredibly exciting. Real grass roots politics, which I love. A huge part of me was disappointed because people really want it, but a tiny part of me was relieved because I thought if Scotland is independent we are never going to get rid of these buggers.”
I point out that even if Scotland had voted Labour, the Tories would still have won the election, based on the English results.
“Yes, politics in Scotland is kinder. It’s more about socialism and people and you get a better quality of life. Here people voted Tory because there was no effective opposition and it was better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. The Labour Party is in tatters and they only have themselves to blame. So yes, the politics might make me think about moving away,” she says.
For Graham, politics is tied in with her upbringing, and Betty, the woman who instilled her sense of values in her daughter. A trade unionist, socialist and actor, she took the young Julie on protest marches and their house was always full of people talking politics.
“My mother always said, don’t vote for yourself, vote for the greater community. The opposite of Thatcher with that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ bull***t.
“My mother taught me to always say what you think. Upbringing does give you a strong moral compass and people’s backgrounds are interesting in terms of how they arrive at big life-making decisions. She was a single parent and brought me up in that way.”
The conversation is rocking along now, and I’m wishing I was beside the Border terrier on Julie Graham’s sofa with a mug of tea in hand, putting the world to rights.
“I can’t understand people who are not interested in politics. It’s the way I was brought up,” she says. My mother was on the committee for Equity, so for me acting and politics went hand in hand. Politics seeps into your bones.
“I was so shocked when I went to London and talking about politics was seen as impolite. I found it odd that people weren’t interested and I want to pass that on to my kids. They often say, ‘why are you shouting ‘for God’s sake!’ at the radio or TV?’ and I say, ‘because I want to know what’s going on?’”
Graham started drama classes at 13, and was taken by a teacher to see plays at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow. It was the days of 7:84 and The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. She went on to join Borderline, the Ayrshire touring company where her mother also worked and roles in Taggart, Bonekickers, Survivors, The Bill and comedy drama series Being Eileen alongside Sue Johnston followed.
One of her biggest TV hits was William and Mary, in which she starred alongside Martin Clunes, playing Mary, a midwife and a role she sees closest to her own character.
“Although I could never have done her job. Martin Clunes and I had such an amazing relationship, as we do off screen, and that really came across. I think that’s why people loved it,” she says.
If Mary was like Graham, then surely the character she plays in the new series of ITV’s award-winning Benidorm, matriarch Sheron Dawson, is nothing like her. Her children think differently.
“Sheron is an aspirational character from Yorkshire, who, when she loses her temper, loses all dignity and grace. She’s a great character and good fun to do: a lot of shouting. It was exhausting,” she says, joking.
“When my kids came out they said you’re just playing yourself mum. Ha! I thought I was being really different.”
The Benidorm set, filmed at an all-inclusive resort, was another the Graham children were happy to visit.
“It was great fun. Benidorm is well-written, established, and works really well. It’s four months in the sun, you’re treated well, what’s not to like?”
Also in the can are a couple of films, The Dark Channel, a low budget sci-fi affair she made with friend and director Mark Davies in which she plays a sex trader, and The Other Amy, a short, also filmed in Brighton, on the theme of hypnosis. This prompts Graham to tell me a story about a party for the singer Paul Young where she was a guest and there was a hypnotist who invited her up on stage.
“Just before I went up Ray Winstone grabbed my hand and said, ‘don’t let them fool you. Don’t do it because they want you to’ and the hypnotist couldn’t hypnotise me. So I think a lot of it is to do with suggestion.”
I want to suggest it might be the Winstone effect but Graham doesn’t strike me as a woman who scares easily. In fact her next role, which starts filming early this year, is another grisly affair. One of Us for BBC Scotland, is a dark thriller in four parts, written by Jack and Harry Williams and directed by William McGregor who did Poldark. Also starring John Lynch, Kate Dickie, Juliet Stevenson, Gary Lewis, Adrian Edmondson and Joanna Vanderham, it follows the effects of a double murder on a small, rural community.
“I know, more murder. I don’t want to leave the house,” she says, laughing. “It’s a thriller but also at heart a character piece and I can’t wait to see how this cast brings it to life.
“It’s one of those scripts that you get and you think, ‘if any other bugger gets this, I’ll be really pissed off.’”
• Shetland starts on Friday 15 January on BBC1, 9pm