Lesley Sharp turns up quietly determined not to do the bog-standard interview. It’s suggested from the moment she strides up to meet me on Peckham Rye clad in a full-length leopard-print mac and fashionably frayed jeans, flanked by two little Border Terriers, Mrs Miggins and Pearl. It’s reinforced when the Formby-bred actress, now 61, asks if we can do the chat walking around, in order to stretch the dogs’ legs and hers.
And it’s confirmed when we discuss her latest project, Channel 4’s new twisty cop thriller Before We Die. In the show, Sharp – a staple of British screens, both big and small, thanks to Playing The Field, Clocking Off, The Full Monty and Scott & Bailey – plays the inscrutable Hannah, a divorced middle-aged detective with an active sex life and who – clutches pearls – doesn’t always seem to be very nice. I’m going to have to ask you about that old chestnut, the joys of playing “flawed female characters”, I tell her, but it seems such an over-trodden topic to my mind.
“And mine!” cries Sharp, a soft, confiding presence who essentially escorts me all around the gigantic park; she’s been a local for more than 30 years. Sharp lives nearby with her husband, fellow actor Nicholas Gleaves, with whom she has two twentysomething sons. Occasionally, she’ll stop and look at me with those large piercing eyes – ones which viewers first saw 35 years ago now, in the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. “That conversation about ‘roles for women’, generally – ‘roles for older women’” – she cringes at the thought of hearing this interviewer’s staple again. “It’s like, let’s please not dig into that one any more, you know?”
I should have expected something exacting from Sharp. She always brings an unnerving intensity and commitment. Before We Die is a case in point: having seen the first episode, it’s no spoiler to say that Hannah is allowed roughly two minutes of happiness, before her life goes horribly awry. It was precarious already, we realise, since she is living with the consequences of having had her errant son, Christian, jailed for drug-dealing; and soon we are launched into a truly stressful sequence of kidnappings, beatings and double-bluffs.
“It’s a cop show, but it’s not a procedural cop show,” she muses. “It’s actually a psychological thriller.” Indeed even if a lot of the action involves terrifying sequences with Serbian drug lords in Bristol, it has a much scarier ambition at its heart, “which is, what do you do if you really f--- up badly with your kid?”
To clarify, even if Sharp rolls her eyes, she doesn’t actually think the issue about women’s roles is sorted: “No! No, no, no, not at all!” And she does think that female audiences are now acknowledged more in the arts. But she also emphasises that you can’t just whizz up all this representation in a second, if only because “you get the best stuff when people are writing what they’re really passionate about” – as opposed to, say, trying to commission with an agenda in mind.
And she, if anyone, should know. The list of writers she has worked with is impressive: from Andrea Dunbar, Jim Cartwright and Caryl Churchill in the glory days of the Royal Court in the 1980s, through to Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright and Paul Abbott. Even today she gets most rapturous about the new stuff being made by younger women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, and particularly Lena Dunham’s Girls, which she “devoured at the age of 52, or whatever I was”.
“I was kind of slack-jawed with amazement at what she [Dunham] did,” she says. “I thought, I wish to God there had been a show like that about 20-year-olds when I was in my twenties, because I wouldn’t have felt so bad about being so sort of useless and f---ed up and not knowing what I was doing. Because I think your twenties are really difficult, aren’t they?”
Sharp says all this in an accent which has lost much of its Northern roots, although she is an astonishingly good mimic, and will suddenly chuck in all kinds of jokey voices, from reet Yorkshire to frightfully posh – a legacy, perhaps, of being a fan of Dick Emery as a kid. It also reflects the fact that she came from a fair few places, and never felt at home in any of them. Born in Manchester, she was adopted aged six weeks by Scottish parents living in the coastal town of Formby, above Liverpool; having felt “invisible”, tribeless, at school, she got a train down to London aged 18, determined to get into drama school
But at the same time she says she is still proudly Northern – indeed, “it drives me a bit nuts,” she says, how Northerners are still patronised in the media as “a bit stupid, and tasteless”. Sharp has actually done a Who Do You Think You Are? which goes over how she was adopted, and how she got in touch with her birth-mother later. And she speaks very lovingly of her (adoptive) father, a dutiful Scotsman who was scared stiff of his younger daughter becoming an actress – even if, she emphasises, “he was enormously proud and supportive in a quiet, hands-off sort of way.” I note, though, that she hasn’t mentioned her adoptive mother at all. What did she think?
“My mum died when I was 15, unfortunately,” she says. “And my sister is 10 years older than me – so my dad and I were sort of in the house together while my mum was very ill and dying.” Her mother knew the young Lesley wanted to act, and looked for acting groups for her to join. But it was difficult, says Sharp, because before dying of cancer, “she was maybe bipolar – she had episodes of very, very, very debilitating depression, and really struggled, and she was in and out of hospitals all through my childhood.” I ask how she feels about her now. “I wish I’d known her, really!” she exclaims. “You know when you get asked those questions: who would you have had at your fantasy dinner party? Definitely, my mum.”
Unfortunately we also have a more recent bereavement to discuss – the death of the actress Helen McCrory. The two filmed an ITV show, Carla, back in 2003, a crime heist set in Greece, and Sharp says that filming it there was “an absolute hoot… I just thought she was an amazing actress – she was brilliant and very, very funny – a whip-smart woman.” They bonded immediately, she says, and on one of their days off, they went and bought beautiful, local bracelets, “very specific and quite heavy silver”.
“Anyway, she texted me on my birthday this year and said ‘happy, happy birthday, lovely girl, I’m wearing this bracelet today and thinking of you’ and all the rest of it. So I texted back and said, you know, amazing, wonderful to hear from you. I’ll be wearing my bracelet…” She stops, her voice catches. (When I get home, I check Sharp’s birthday and realise that it’s April 3. McCrory would die only two weeks later.)
In the park, I apologise to Sharp and she says, “no, no”. In fact, the thing that really stuck with her is that McCrory encouraged Sharp to go back to doing theatre, at a time when she’d sort of let that go. “I remember her very clearly saying to me, ‘You’ve got to.’ She said, ‘I do a play a year, because that’s where it all happens.’ And you know… she was right.”
In lockdown, Sharp continued to work on her novel. “It’s a coming of age story,” she says drily, “about a girl who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in, in the community she grows up in, and she needs to go to London!” She gives a small dry chuckle. The thing is, though, Sharp keeps getting acting gigs which distract her. And this is no surprise - having found her tribe, you can’t imagine her ever leaving it.
As she takes leave of me, though, Sharp jokes about acting right until the end, “as some crone in the corner, rocking and twiddling her moustache…” It’s only as she’s wandered down the road with her dogs that I think of a good reply: and they still panic about roles for older women…
Before We Die begins on Channel 4 on Wednesday May 26 at 9pm