Michael Caine has remarked that once upon a time an English actor with a working-class accent like his would have been confined to roles in which he tugged his forelock, or his cloth cap, and said, "It's a fair pinch, guv; I'll go quiet."
Caine led a whole new generation of British actors--Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay are among them--who proved that heroes don't require the rounded vowels of the aristocracy, and that accents spell more than comic relief. The democratization of the British stage and screen was at hand, and not a moment too soon.
The coeducational aspect came a bit more slowly, but Rita Tushingham for one proved that class was classless, in a manner of speaking. And now Julie Walters, who was the brassy and vivid blond Rita of "Educating Rita," opposite Caine, has shown that an actress blessed with the full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consonants accents of Midlands England can beguile audiences and command a major career.
Walters, unlike Rita, is a brunette with extraordinarily dark brown eyes. She goes innocent of makeup and allows the odd strand of early gray in her hair to survive (she is 37). She has the unfettered and outspoken enthusiasm you associate with Rita.
She has a small part in just-opened "Prick Up Your Ears," the film based on the life of playwright Joe Orton, and she is the star of the forthcoming "Personal Services," opening in Los Angeles May 15, which dramatizes the true story of Christine Painter, a madam in contemporary London.
Madam Painter gained fame when a Christmas Eve party she was giving for her girls and all their elderly clients was busted by the police. She was sentenced to 18 months but released after serving only four, thanks to a noisy press campaign in her behalf.
She gave another party after "Personal Services" was completed (it is a box-office smash in London) and the police busted up that party, too, and arrested her again.
"She'd seen the film and she said all my lines!" Walters says. "Oh, she's cheeky. That's why the press love her. Every line's a quote." Like Walters in the film, Painter refused to enter the police van and insisted on riding in the car with the chief arresting officer, whom she said she found quite attractive.
This time Painter was acquitted on all nine charges against her. The police, Walters says, took a beating for having spent a good deal of time and money compiling what could be called an undercover case against the Painter operation.
"Everybody knew all the coppers would've had to do was knock at the door and she'd have said, 'Come in and have a cuppa.' "
Walters was briefly in Los Angeles en route to Australia to promote the film there. She has just finished a starring run in a comedy by Sharman MacDonald at the Whitehall Theatre, "When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout," and there is talk of bringing it to New York.
She was born and raised in Birmingham, and was bounced out of grammar school for allegedly being "subversive." "I didn't know what subversive was. I was just never there." Truancy was what it was. She was the class entertainer, already drawn to performing but not doing the school plays.
She studied drama for three years at Manchester Polytechnic, worked at the Stables Theatre in Manchester and then joined the lively Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where she first met Willy Russell, who later wrote "Educating Rita" as a commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"They sat on it for years," Walters says. "I think they just didn't like it. Willy had done a musical, 'John, Paul, Ringo and Bert,' and I think they were hoping for another big musical. Instead, they got this two-character job." It was finally done, first at the RSC's Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden, and she played it for 10 months. Inevitably she did the film, her first (it's hard to think of another actress in the part), and was nominated for an Academy Award.
She had come to London with an Everyman production, "Funny Peculiar," and she has been busy ever since. Comedy is her strength, but she has also done Lady MacBeth, to fine reviews, in Leicester, and co-starred with Tom Courtenay in a revival of Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers," in which they played the roles first done by Diana Rigg and Michael Hordern.
On television, Walters has done a comedy series with her longtime friend Victoria Wood, called "Victoria Wood as Seen on TV." She's also appeared in Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," with Pinter himself in the cast, and has done a monologue, not yet aired, by Alan Bennett called "Her Big Chance." She plays a film extra pretending to be a star, but whose sad and vulnerable truths emerge between the lines.
"People keep saying I'm a workaholic, but what I think is that you grab the offers when you can, as long as they're coming in. I've been lucky; they've come one after the other.
"I always envisage taking a year off and seeing the world. But then something comes along and I think, 'I better do this one first.' "