Words: Vicki Power Picture: REX
Julia McKenzie confesses she’s almost having too much fun to work. Best known these days as ITV’s Miss Marple, Julia admits that, at the age of 73, only the offer of very good parts can lure her away from her home on the south Devon coast she shares with husband, retired American actor Jerry Harte.
“It would need a special part to take me away from all this. I love cooking and spending time with my old man. We don’t have family anymore, so we’ve only got each other and it’s nice.
“We’ve been married 42 years and I’ve enjoyed practically every moment. He’s just a nice guy and I’m very lucky to have found him. He’s been completely supportive of my career and teaches me all my lines;
he sits with me and drills me!”
Julia and Jerry moved to the seaside four years ago from Oxfordshire, where they cared for Julia’s mother until her death. “When my mum died we thought, ‘Let’s go and look at the sea’ and that’s why we moved there. I was unsure at first, but now I love it. And the weather’s so changeable; we face the southwest and it comes in fast – pow!”
Julia had intended to take last autumn off, but then along came one of those roles she simply couldn’t say no to. We’re meeting late on a Sunday night in a caravan on the set of the BBC1 drama, The Casual Vacancy, a three-part adaptation of JK Rowling’s first adult novel after the success of the Harry Potter books.
It’s set in a beautiful English village, behind the idyllic façade of which rages a war between rich and poor and between families. Julia leapt at the chance to play Shirley, wife of village bigwig Harold (Michael Gambon), because she loved working with him in Cranford, and because Shirley is not like the characters we’re used to Julia playing.
Although Julia has a varied and award-winning career on stage and in musicals, on TV she has tended to be cast as sweet-natured women such as Hester in the sitcoms Fresh Fields and French Fields, tender-hearted Mrs Forrester in Cranford, and more recently as Miss Marple. Julia is seen as a sweet Englishwoman in tweeds and sensible shoes.
But not her latest character, Shirley Mollison... “Shirley’s a real b*tch!’ chortles Julia. “I always play parts with a duster in my hand, or the very sweet next-door-neighbour type, or I’m investigating things, but this woman is the mother-in-law from hell! It’s nice to play someone so unlike Miss Marple.”
Shirley and deli owner Harold are NIMBYs (‘Not in my backyard-ers’) who are quietly delighted when the sudden death of a local councillor (Rory Kinnear) means they can campaign to get their son, Miles (Rufus Jones) into the seat. Then they can push him to redraw local boundaries to cut the town’s poor estate off from the prosperous village and quash plans for a drug rehab clinic in their area.
Shirley, explains Julia, is the power behind the throne and almost a Lady Macbeth type. Meeting Julia this evening, slim and energetic even after a long day’s work, with nicely coiffed hair and wide-set blue eyes, she is far gentler than the nasty Shirley!
It’s great to have Julia back on our screens, since the ITV series Miss Marple, of which she starred in 11 films over five years, appears to have come to an end. She was cast in 2008 when the late, great Geraldine McEwan decided at the last minute not to continue in the role. “I was in New Zealand and my agent rang me and said, ‘You’re the new Miss Marple’. I was on camera about 12 days later, which isn’t long,” recalls Julia. “I wish I’d had a bit more time, because I don’t think I started with quite the right tone.”
But Julia quickly established herself in the role of the spinster sleuth and became a favourite with audiences. Alas, we may have seen the last of her. “I am contracted to do another series but nobody has said anything, so I don’t think so,” says Julia. “I would like to do more, but I was beginning to find the dénouement at the end – when you have to do a ten-minute speech about the crime – quite a nightmare. It has to be correct and there’s no emotional line to carry you through.
“But it’s been lovely, and it’s fine if it doesn’t come back. I thought it might be difficult to cast me after Marple, but I did The Town (2012) for ITV and the fun Gangsta Granny (2013).”
Other than her career, we chat about the challenges of modern technology. Julia’s been having a bit of trouble getting used to her new tablet. “I can’t say it comes naturally,” she says with a chuckle. “I got it because I like to be able to receive emails away from my computer and it means you don’t have to be near Wi-Fi, but I didn’t know what Wi-Fi was until about three weeks ago! I’m always sending texts to people’s landlines, too...”
But she is dead set against the modern fad of Tweeting. “No thanks!” she says firmly. “People I know who are sensible, like Stephen Fry, love it. I asked why he does it and he said he meets wonderful people. But I thought, ‘You may have amazing conversations, but you also get an amazing amount of abuse!’ Why put yourself through that?”
Julia is clearly sensitive – she also shields herself from ‘abuse’ by refusing to read reviews of her work for fear of any bad ones, though there haven’t been many of those over her lifetime.
She’s certain to win plaudits for her out-of-character portrayal of steely Shirley in The Casual Vacancy. And we hope she’s not having too much fun at home to return to our screens.
Catch up with The Casual Vacancy on BBC iPlayer
For more star chat, pick up the next issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday