Interview: Nicola Walker
Divorce drama The Split, cold case crime series Unforgotten, Spooks, Last Tango in Halifax and The River, how Nicola Walker became everyone’s favourite actor
Nicola Walker is unemployed. Not something you hear very often from a woman with an industrial work ethic who is currently one of the most employed actors on our screens and airwaves, having just wrapped the third series of ITV’s hit crime drama Unforgotten just as her hit BBC divorce drama The Split is recommissioned.
Yet “as of Friday afternoon last week, I’m unemployed,” confirms the Olivier award winning, Bafta nominated actor when we talk. “So I’ll be doing the school run and putting the correct sports gear in my son’s rucksack for a bit.”
When she says ‘unemployed’, it’s more of a between jobs kind of thing, what the less industrious among us might regard as a well-deserved break. And Walker is pleased about the immediate work life balance for the next few weeks with her 11-year-old son Harry to look after while her actor husband Barnaby Kay appears in Home, I’m Darling, with Catherine Parkinson at The National Theatre in London.
“It’s worked out very nicely. I finished and Barnaby’s got this play. If I had been still working we would have to juggle the basics, who’s going to pick our child up and things… So I’m happy doing that, but also looking forward to the next thing.”
Walker talks quickly, then halts, then talks quickly again and in between you can almost hear the quick flash of her blinding smile down the phone as she modestly ascribes her success to “being lucky.” In fact she has worked consistently for the past two decades and her CV is prodigious. Versatile, she’s worked in theatre, radio, film and TV, breaking out as an annoying folk singer in Four Weddings and a Funeral, then making her mark in spy drama Spooks from 2003-11. She carried off her Olivier for Best Supporting Actress in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in 2013, and has taken on a whole squad of police officer roles in Prisoners’ Wives, Babylon, and River. She’s been Bafta nominated twice as best support in Last Tango In Halifax and last year played Broadway in A View from The Bridge. As well as the more recent Unforgotten and The Split, where she’s the lead as Hannah, scion of the Defoe divorce lawyer dynasty, this year she’s played a lesbian vicar in Collateral, the BBC/Netflix crime drama with Carey Mulligan, John Simm and Billie Piper. Throw in her Norwegian detective Annika Stranded in the eponymous Radio 4 comedy drama, and the 48-year-old Walker has the aura of an actor who has really hit her stride.
“I’m very grateful for the last couple of years and I really like the work that I’m involved with, really proud of Unforgotten and The Split. But nothing has really changed for me,” she says. “I have been doing this since I was 21. I was always about working. I like working. I don’t like being unemployed. I love acting.
“There’s not been a plan,” she says. “It’s just being an actor, and I’m really grateful that in the last few years the parts have got really interesting. I love that it’s since I hit my forties. I’m getting involving parts because there are people out there that want to tell more complex stories about women and men. I’ve benefited from the fact that women I worked with years ago are now in positions of power where they can put forward work that involves women my age.”
With the next six part series of The Split filming in the spring Walker could be forgiven for taking the time to put her feet up tomorrow night and watch Unforgotten as she and Sanjeev Bhaskar bring back detective duo DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan to solve another decades old murder. Digging up long buried bodies and secrets, the pair work to unravel historical crimes and find justice for the victims and their families.
This time round fresh suspects fall under their forensic eye in the shape of Alex Jennings (Victoria and The Crown), Neil Morrissey (The Good Karma Hospital), Kevin R McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean) and James Fleet (The Vicar Of Dibley). The quartet of old friends are under suspicion after the body of a teenage girl, who went missing nearly 20 years ago, is found at a building site.
Unforgotten fans will know Cassie and Sunny have secrets of their own after series two saw them shelve a case when the suspects turned out to be victims of child sex abuse who murdered their abusers. Walker is confident however, that viewers new to the series won’t be at a disadvantage if they’re not up to speed with the legacy of the cliffhanger end to the last series.
“I think you could watch this series never having seen any of it and understand and enjoy it as a piece of drama. But what you get by having seen them all is the cumulative effect in the development of the characters, and that’s a real narrative pull that’s interesting.”
Where Unforgotten scores is with its reflection of the development of forensics in criminal investigation. As science catches up with crime, evidence can be studied anew and complex cold cases opened up once more.
“We’ve had to wait for forensics to get to this point of advancement,” says Walker. “In this series we’re looking at one of those unsolved murders that has had a national impact. The investigation is different this time round and there are specific complexities in that my character has to meet with the media for the first time. There’s also a storyline with someone online commenting about the police and how the case is being investigated, and whether that has an effect. It’s very up to date and very relevant.”
As well as the appeal of forensics, there’s a revisiting of the genre of police procedural with the nuts and bolts and day to day routine to the fore.
“As a viewer myself I love big dramatic thrillers, but I was ready for a procedural that looked more real, and Sunny and Cassie look like they’re actually doing that job.”
Part of the appeal of Unforgotten is that the case is central and the cops are not the story, something that appealed to both Walker and Bhaskar.
“They’re not alcoholic, they can’t mind read, Cassie is not the archetypical police woman that has no home life: it’s just not relevant. We don’t find out about her husband until series two and then it’s like breadcrumbs, comments thrown in because it’s relevant to the case. They are human and ordinary as well as very committed to their jobs, and I haven’t seen that for a long time on TV.”
Another high point is the relationship between Sunny and Cassie, a partnership that we’ve watched over the series as they go about their jobs, putting in calls, chasing up suspects, discussing the case, all without feeling the need to take the case to the pub and back to someone’s flat. There’s no history or suppressed feelings and any exchange of body fluids is strictly that of handing over a sealed bag to be dropped off at the lab on the way home.
“It’s just two people who work together,” says Walker. “There’s no sexual tension, no ‘will they, won’t they?’ going on. That’s what the writer Chris Lang wanted and it was one of the main draws for me. There’s a different quality to the way these two people are shown working together: a man and a woman who support each other and work things out together and it’s not a physical or sexual relationship, but a friendship. I don’t know that I have ever seen that on TV, a man and a woman being supportive of each other and not being in a relationship. It’s a brilliant narrative twist.”
Born in Stepney in London’s East End, then raised in Essex, Walker wanted to act from a young age and despite her family having no knowledge of the business – her dad is a scrap metal merchant turned publican and her mother “did up houses before there were interior designers” – they encouraged their daughter.
“I was saying to them in the 1970s and 1980s ‘I really love acting’. They threw up their hands, didn’t know what to do, but there was a youth theatre near us so they sent me to that.”
Walker was also academic and loved English, so when she passed her exams applied to Cambridge University.
“I presumed it was going to be supremely posh. No one in my family had ever gone to university and I went in on a wave of triumph. I was the one in the first week running around with the scarf, whereas other people thought that wasn’t cool. I met Sue Perkins, on my first day, and Sarah Phelps who was going to be a writer, and they became my family.”
Perkins was already writing and involved in the Cambridge Footlights theatrical club, to which she introduced Walker, and Phelps went on to become a TV, screen and playwright, working on EastEnders, various BBC Agatha Christie and Dickens adaptations and on JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
“I found myself at Cambridge, loved my course, and met these amazing people who got me heavily involved. I presumed I would have to go to drama school but I did a play with my uni friends, who were doing lots of pub theatre in London and through that met my agent. She said ‘don’t go to drama school, I’ll get you a job’ and two weeks later she did. I’ve been with her ever since which is good since I wasn’t the sort of person who would have been good at putting my foot in the door.”
As well as film, Walker loves a live audience and especially enjoys radio comedy. “I love the history and romance of that, Radio 4, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I’d like to do more, but I don’t say I must do comedy now, or I must do drama now. I do it on a job by job basis.
“I can’t tell you the excitement to be in a new TV series or a play you’ve got to read for, that’s the best.”
The unknown may be exciting, but Walker also enjoys developing a character and is looking forward to February next year when work on six more episodes of Abi Morgan’s popular legal drama The Split starts again.
With Walker as the lead, Stephen Mangan as her husband and Annabel Scholey as her mother, it will be back on our screens on BBC1 later next year.
A family of high-flying female divorce lawyers, it sees Walker and family fighting on the home front as well as in court as they pick their way through the minefield of modern marriage and divorce in a seemingly endless wardrobe of designer rainwear. Has playing a very expensive London lawyer who specialises in divorce made Walker reflect on her own relationship with Kay, who she married in 2003, 20 years after they met on the set of The Libertine?
She laughs. “It’s made me feel better about where I am in my relationship. I breathed a sigh of relief.”
Walker points out that it’s no accident that the drama is set in a top London law firm, as English divorce laws mean there is greater potential for brutal confrontation than in Scotland, and more work for Hannah and her colleagues, with celebrity and well-heeled clients slugging it out for the spoils.
“Yes, they all go to London for their divorces,” she laughs. “The Scottish press screening was very interesting because it was the one where the questions were all about the rights and wrongs of the fault and no fault system.”
But The Split isn’t only about divorce, it’s also about love, relationships and marriage, and the effects of splits within families, particularly on the main characters.
“It’s brilliant to know you’re going back to do another bit of their story,” says Walker. “It’s lovely having time off, but if you’re used to going to work, you have to make sure you’re doing other things. I’m doing a radio play and workshops before The Split, because you have to make sure you’re ticking over.”
There might be time for a holiday, however, before it all starts up again, and one place Walker would like to revisit is Torridon, Wester Ross, where she visited as a teenager.
“I went there because that’s where my dad spent his summers when he was young. He was put on a train in London when he was very little, and would travel up and spend time with a family friend. So I went when I was 18 and asked in the post office and they remembered him. It’s one of the most beautiful places, and I want to go back with him now. But he’d have to stop working for a few days so we could do that, and that’s not like him!”
It must run in the family.
“Yes, I go a little bit crazy when I’m not working, which is an issue for me. My background is you go to work, that’s what you do.”
It doesn’t sound like Nicola Walker will be unemployed for long.
Unforgotten, Series 3, 9pm, STV and on STV Player, www.player.stv.tv