3 Oct 2009: How Shameless’ naughty neighbour has swapped daft comedies like Dinnerladies for role as a husband-killer

Maxine Peake, 35, thinks she may be having a mid-life crisis. With a rare week off after an intense few years cementing her reputation as one of the most versatile actors of her generation – able to glide seamlessly from the black comedy of Shameless to the hyperrealism of Red Riding – she flew to Ibiza with an old school friend. The last time they visited the party island they were 18 and mad for it; this time they stayed near the Old Town and, when they ventured near clubby resorts, were confused by the sight of so many sexed-up Eurotrash girls trotting around with countless different men. It doesn’t sound much like a mid-life crisis, more a slightly misjudged dose of nostalgia.

There’s probably not that much about her 18-year-old self that Peake would care to revisit. Brought up in a semi in Bolton, she copied Victoria Wood and Julie Walters sketches at primary school and competed at showjumping. Always keen to sign up for something new, she had a short spell as a lifeguard and, for three years, played rugby league for Wigan Ladies. She was happy but frustrated: by 18, she thought she had exhausted every possible route to acting. “I auditioned for all the amateur dramatic groups in Bolton and got two small parts and a job as a prompt. I wrote to, and was rejected by, every theatre education company in north-west England.”

It’s likely that her image at the time didn’t help. “I was a tomboy. I had a pudding-bowl haircut, I wore big Doc Martens and dungarees. I was lot bigger, too. I wasn’t all-singing, all-dancing, either. I suppose I was more …” she giggles, “… naturalistic. No one knew what to do with me. I wasn’t an obvious actress in any sense of the word.” Rejected by local drama schools, Peake took a performing arts course at Salford College of Technology and made everyone laugh. “Because I was chunky and northern I thought I’d do comedy. I was always in funny wigs and daft hats. I don’t think I played anyone under the age of 60.”

“It was unchartered territory for me. How can you research a character who kills her husband?”

Finally, at 21, just as her otherwise supportive mother was beginning to take her to one side and ask if acting was such a good idea after all, she won a scholarship to Rada. She says there were two obvious stars in her year – the “extraordinary” Sally Hawkins, with whom she did her final-year showcase, and Joanna Page. “Joanna was headhunted by every top agent when we were in the third year. Everyone was fighting over her but she couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Not that it happened for her overnight; it wasn’t until Gavin & Stacey that she really made her name. Neither Sally nor Joanna were starry but everyone knew they were going to be stars.”

Peake wasn’t – and isn’t – starry either. But in the decade since leaving Rada, she too has become a star. She initially seemed to be playing to her (northern) comedy abilities, by starring as the young, flakey Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies and brassy neighbour Veronica in Shameless. It wasn’t until 2006 when she transformed herself into Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders that Peake was feted as a “serious TV actor”.

She says she was naive about See No Evil, asking her agent to push for an audition without thinking about the inevitable controversy that would spring up around such a disturbing story. “Two friends were up for the part of Myra Hindley as well and they were in a real dilemma about whether to do it or not. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t want to do it. What an amazing part! Then the reality of it hit me about the families involved and the horrific nature of the crime. But I maintain those stories should be told. I do think we’re all capable of absolutely anything, which is both fascinating and terrifying.”

Earlier this year, Peake auditioned for the lead in Criminal Justice. Given that she has self-deprecation down to a fine art – she talks, for example, about having felt like “a freak and a failure” in a particularly strong year for women at Rada – Peake thought that she’d never pass as a barrister’s wife who fatally stabs her husband. Then she got the part and the panic set in: last year Ben Whishaw won rave reviews for his portrayal of a young lad who wakes up with a murdered body in his bed; the five-part thriller, written by Peter Moffat, picked up a Bafta award for Best Drama Serial.

She has nothing to worry about. As a deeply disturbed woman trapped in her spotless white house she holds her own alongside Matthew Macfadyen, Sophie Okonedo and Steven Mackintosh. There’s another terrific script from Moffat and some quirky, visually led directing from upcoming talent Yann Demange, whose previous credits include E4 zombie-fest Dead Set. Peake allows her character to subtly move from contained to deranged in the first episode alone, which she admits was a challenge.

“It was unchartered territory for me,” she says. “How can you research a character who kills her husband? Sometimes as an actor you think, I have to feel this! But Yann kept telling me to stop the truthful, snotty stuff. I’d be wailing, ‘I’m feeling real!’ He just kept pulling me back …”

One of the most appealing things about Peake is her determination to be herself. She says it like it is – Shameless, she recalls, was “stressful, with lots of tears and fallings out. It often didn’t bring the best out in people. It was shambolic, chaotic and mad” – and doesn’t mind telling people she was second or third choice for a role. She may no longer wear Docs and dungarees but twee, cutesy actress she’s not, preferring more masculine, postwar clothes that include hessian trousers and braces (she says her friends have labelled her style “pilgrim father chic”). Today, in the early autumn sun, Peake carries an old-fashioned leather briefcase and wears heavy tweedy trousers with a feminine 50s short-sleeved jumper.

Most actors lack the confidence to leave London, but after 12 years in the capital, Peake moved to Salford earlier this year. Even her doctor recently asked her why. “He seemed baffled. But I love it. I’m 20 minutes from Bolton, where I’ve still got family. It’s 10 minutes into Manchester. And the Pennines are almost on my doorstep. It’s not about being proud to be northern, it’s just where I’m from, where I feel comfortable. Living in Salford doesn’t stop me from getting work. And, anyway, I’m in London most weeks.”

If everything goes to plan, she’ll be spending December on the Yorkshire moors filming a BBC drama about Anne Lister, an early 19th-century lesbian who wrote travel journals and openly enjoyed a colourful love life. “I’m quite cautious in most areas of my life, but I’m always happy to gamble when it comes to acting. I’m not frightened of falling on my face.”

She hugs her leather briefcase to her chest and smiles: “I’d rather go down with an almighty bang than play it safe.”


DINNERLADIES Between 1998 and 2000, Peake played the cheeky, perma-pissed Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s gentle sitcom.

SHAMELESS Peake’s breakthrough as the Gallaghers’ neighbour Veronica got her noticed, even though she was mortified to watch herself in one episode ironing topless to earn cash on a soft porn internet site.

SEE NO EVIL: THE MOORS MURDERS Competing with Samantha Morton’s performance as Myra Hindley in Longford, Peake very nearly matched her for depth, grit and assurance.

HANCOCK AND JOAN Peake’s portrayal of Joan Le Mesurier – who left Dad’s Army star, John, for Tony Hancock – was emotional yet carefully measured.

RED RIDING: 1980 Peake was directed by Man On Wire’s James Marsh in the second part of C4’s brutal trilogy. Brought over from Manchester to investigate allegations of corruption in the Yorkshire police force, Peake’s high-ranking copper is no-nonsense tough but has no chance of winning her battle.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE Peake’s most engaging performance yet sees her have an affair, murder her husband and suffer the consequences.