Room At The Top: Maxine Peake Interviewed

Adey Lobb talks to Maxine Peake about steering clear of the mainstream and her album with the Eccentronic Research Council about the Pendle Witch Trial

When BBC4’s two-part adaptation of John Braine’s Room At The Top was pulled from the schedules on the eve of its planned transmission 18 months ago, it appeared as though the hard work of writer, director, cast and crew might be for nothing. What a fuck up.

An issue over copyright threatened to keep the story of man-with-a-social-climbing-plan Joe Lampton (played by Matthew McNulty), Maxine Peake as his cultured (and married) lover Alice Aisgill, plus new Doctor Who companion Jenna Louise Coleman as wealthy heiress Susan Brown off our screens for good.

“All the reviews were out and the trailers had been on, but then I got a message from the producer saying she had some really bad news,” Peake tells us, when she calls from the set of The Village, a new BBC1 drama co-starring John Simm of which more later.

“It sounds terrible, but I thought somebody from the cast must have had a terrible accident.”

Happily, here we are, finally discussing a project that Peake completed more than two years ago. Between then and now, she’s filmed the second series of Silk – the legal drama that possibly takes her closer to the mainstream than she is truly comfortable – plus, by way of contrast, her stunning star turn as Doll Tearsheet in BBC2’s Henry IV Pts I and II.

Oh, and she’s also recorded and released one of the albums of the year with the Eccentronic Research Council, whose spellbinding ambient-electro treatise on the Pendle Witch Trials, 1612 Underture, is reviewed here.

Despite the passage of time, Peake’s memories of filming, in the depths of winter 2010, come flooding back.

“I remember being cold!” she laughs. “We were in half exposed barns, and we were half exposed. I remember a lot about some of those love scenes, when the snow was making its way through the roof.

“The weather was horrific – we were filming all around Halifax and North Yorkshire, and it can get pretty rough out there when the weather turns.”

So before we got to her astonishing and unexpected sideline in Witch-Kraftwerk – she played at the recent Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion this weekend – we asked what on earth happened to Room At The Top

Can you explain, in your words, why Room At The Top wasn’t shown and what’s changed?

Maxine Peake: I don’t know the ins and outs, I just know there was an issue over the rights. Initially I thought, because it is the BBC, they will sort it out. But as time went on I started to feel really sad about it. More sad for Matthew McNulty, because his is a real show-stopper of a performance and it could really catapult him forward. It is BBC4, so the budgets are tiny – but a lot of passion goes into these projects. With all the commitment people have put into it, I’m over the moon that it has been resolved.

You and Matthew McNulty starred together in See No Evil: The Moors Murders – were you eager to work with him again?

MP: I always enjoy working with him – he popped up in the last series of Silk. It was quite funny to think that the last time we’d worked together I was rolling around in rather large pink underwear, and now I was playing his barrister. That is the thing with acting, which is very bizarre.

See No Evil was one of Matthew’s first jobs. And I worked with him on his very first job, before that, when he was in an episode of Shameless. Christine Bottomley’s character kicked him between the legs, I’m not sure why, but I remember then that this young lad did a scene. So all through his career I’ve been there.

What appealed about making this drama – especially when the film version is such a classic?

MP: I thought it was a beautiful adaptation of the novel, and very different from the film. I had seen the film years ago – I’m a big fan of those films from the 50s and 60s, especially the northern based new wave of films that were coming through. So when I saw it was being made, I thought I’ve got to be in this.

What do you make of Alice Aisgill?

MP: She got out of this small town of Warley went to London and became an actress, so she has mixed with more bohemian types and inherited that open mindedness. But then she came back and doesn’t quite fit in. She is in a loveless marriage – part of you wonders why she married George, but in those days it was security. He was a businessman, he was successful. And it still happens nowadays – women who want to live a different lifestyle, away from the norm, are slightly frowned upon. So trying to conform doesn’t quite work for her and she meets Joe. In the novel, it explains she has had flings before, Joe is not the first. I don’t think she expected to fall in love with him.

There’s a great scene where Alice and Joe bond over beer, chips and acting in the pub…

MP: We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I think it might have been a pickled egg, you know, I think that is what tipped them over the edge.

Were the racy scenes awkward, given your friendship with Matthew?

MP: It was a bit awkward, but I have known Matthew since he was 21. So it was a bit awkward, but it is a job of work and we can be really professional about it, and you just have to do it. It is silly, if you think about acting too hard you’d pack it in, it can be a mad job. I did feel slightly uncomfortable, you don’t want to get down to your underwear with your friends. But he was fantastic about it all, and it was pretty painless.

Do you shed roles quickly or do they linger? And what has stayed with you from Room at The Top?

MP: As I have got older – I don’t know if it is age – but they do linger a little bit. I remember Alice hung around for a bit. Your brain is a muscle and if you are pushing it in one emotional direction all the time, it is quite difficult to switch off and go back to normal. It was a pretty tragic lot for Alice. It stayed with me a bit.

The roles now are a bit more intense than before, when I could shake them off easier. I do tend to do people in quite a lot of emotional turmoil, so you have to put yourself through it a little bit. But that is the fun of acting – it is about knowing that, when you are feeling blue afterwards, that it is because of the part, it is a bit of a hangover.

Do you build a character’s backstory through music?

MP: I played lots of music of the time, it really helps. It evokes the atmosphere when you are trying to get the period, and it helps you imagine what this person would be like. Certain characters I’ve played wouldn’t even like music, they couldn’t sit and listen to it because it would irritate them.

Because Room At The Top is a novel, it is a gift – if it is real life or based on a novel you get a hell of a lot of backstory explained. You put your own ingredients there, mix it up, and hopefully it comes out right. So I imagined Alice listening to early jazz, very early if she was in London and Soho in the bohemian circles. Her music tastes would have been slightly more progressive than anyone else in Warley.

Which brings us seamlessly on to the Eccentronic Research Council – quite a change of direction. What happened?

MP: Ha! Why did I do it? It is a long story, but it is to do with the evil of Facebook, which I don’t do any more. I left a comment on a friend’s, after I had been to see this fantastic band called Chrome Hoof. I had been up to Kersal Moor in Salford, it was a day to celebrate the Chartist movement and then I’d been to see Chrome Hoof – it was a Bank Holiday weekend and I was just saying, “I love living in Salford, it’s great!”

Somebody got in touch with me and said if you like Chrome Hoof, you’ll like my band. It was Adrian Flanagan, he sent me some of his tracks and said: “Actually, would you be in one of my music videos?” I loved the track he sent me, we did that.

Then we got chatting on all sorts of themes – we were both on the same page about politics blah, blah, blah, and we got chatting about the Pendle Witches. I said how I’ve always wanted to do a drama or something based on the Pendle Witches, such a brilliant story, and he said he had thought about doing a musical project based on them. We both went off to work on stuff, then he came back and said he had done it all!

And how quickly did it grow into the LP?

MP: Well, it was brilliant, he asked if I’d record it with him – we went to see his friend Dean Honer, who has been in bands like All Seeing Eye and I Monster and recorded it, that was that. Then we got a call saying Andy Votel, who owns Finders Keepers, which is a label I love – lots of rare prog and folk and unusual underground avant garde stuff – wants to release it, then we got these gigs. So it has gone from recording something in a spare bedroom for a laugh to this, which has been great. It has been completely unexpected.

The Quietus were ever so lovely about the record, and it got played on Tom Robinson’s show the other week. There was a weird thing. I wasn’t very well, I was sat on my settee with a Lemsip and Six Music was on, and I thought somebody had put the CD player on. But it was us on the radio.

So it’s not a career change, then?

MP: People have said, “Oh, is this a career change?” But it’s not part of a career, it is just doing stuff I enjoy, you know what I mean – trying to still be creative. It is about keeping the creative juices going, really.

I want to do stuff that is challenging, fun, interesting and a bit quirky, you now? I like shaking it up a bit. I have always wanted to do stuff a little more on the margins. So this has been great. Telly is great, but it can get quite mainstream.

Do you prefer being an outsider?

MP: Yeah, I think so. I just don’t want to get settled into thinking that these are the kind of parts I play, this is the kind of actress I am. It took me a long time to get here, and I could make it easier for myself, but I never think I’m working unless it is a challenge.

It is that strange work ethic, it has to seem difficult. If I read a script and think, “I couldn’t play that”, I usually do it. If I’ve done it before, I’ll probably leave it. Let’s do something different.

It’s not bad now, but initially you get offered a lot like the last job. I have felt oddly flattered by the kind of roles that come my way. Sometimes I do laugh. Slightly complicated character, a bit odd, send it to Peake, you know what I mean!

Would you consider doing one of the more off-kilter US series – a Six Feet Under, or a Breaking Bad?

MP: I’ve just started watching Breaking Bad, it’s brilliant. I would like to, yeah, but every time I do interviews now we talk about America, and I think we have become slightly obsessed with it. Everyone is jumping ship, going off over there. I know there is lots of work, and they do some good telly, but not everything there is great and I think we give ourselves a hard time.

I know budgets are getting tighter and schedules are shorter, but we have great writers. So, yeah, I would love to, because it is something completely different. I would love to play some crazy character in an American drama. It would be a challenge. Years ago I thought I wouldn’t want to go to America, but now I think if it is a great script and a proper challenge, why not?

Are you more confident about turning down roles these days, having had such a run of interesting characters?

MP: Yeah, but you never know. People do go in and out of fashion. I’m in it for the long game, you want to pick carefully – I don’t want to get bored and I don’t want the audience to get bored of me.

I have always, from when I can remember, loved Julie Walters, people who mix it up with good telly, film and theatre. Tilda Swinton I am like, wow, but you know what I mean? I could never aspire to that kind of career, the fact she does so many completely different roles, she is uber cool, like a complete goddess. So you take a bit of inspiration and mix it up in your own career and see what you come out with…

What are you filming next?

MP: I’ve just started a new series by Peter Moffat called The Village for the BBC. It is myself and John Simm, with some fantastic young actors who are the main characters, and it is following this village through them witnessing all the major events – World War I, The General Strike, World War II, all the big social and economic changes. It is showing the other side. We have had lots of dramas in that period, with the big house and upper classes. This is through the eyes of the ordinary working people and how it affected them, so it is really up my street.

So it’s not just the upper classes and the decision makers, for a change?

MP: We have a lot of that, we are obsessed in this country now with bringing back the feudal system, I don’t know what is going on. Since this government’s got in, we are all obsessed with it. I’m not knocking these other series at all, but we need to shine a light on the other side, the real people.

They might have been the decision makers, but we are playing the people who did the work and made the country what it is. And paid deeply for those ill-judged decisions. So it should be hopefully a fascinating and educational and moving – Peter’s writing is so beautiful and detailed.

Are they giving you time off for festivals and gigs?

MP: They have been very good – when they offered me the job, I said they had to let me take those days off around Festival Number 6 in Portmeirion, because I had promised the lads, and it would break their hearts if I had to call it off. They were very accommodating, letting me had the weekend off. We’ll have a rehearsal on Friday and head of Saturday morning in the van. All of us in the van! Rock & roll.

Is there a different kind of nerves, performing with the band, as opposed to on stage or in front of the cameras?

MP: It is very different. We did a gig in Manchester, and after the soundcheck they all were going off to get a meal. When you do theatre, you just sit in your dressing room getting nervous, you can’t go off and get a bite to eat. I’d be sick!

And it is a different performance technique. I was nervous in a different way. The audience are stood there staring at me – Oh, god, I’ve got a microphone, I don’t move about very much, should I move about more? I don’t know what to do. It was great fun, though, I did really enjoy it…

Room At The Top starts tonight at 9pm on BBC4

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