Birmingham-born Dame Julie Walters tonight stars in the classic British film Educating Rita, which airs at 11.15pm on BBC Two. Starring opposite Sir Michael Caine, the film follows 26-year-old Rita, a married hairdresser, who enrols in a literature course with the Open University. Over the course of her time at the establishment she befriends her alcoholic tutor, who encourages her to pursue her ambitions with English.
The film was Dame Julie’s breakthrough role, and first in film, earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress as well as a Golden Globe win.
Dame Julie remains one of the UK’s most cherished stars, with her gritty portrayal in Billy Elliot and fun-loving friend in Mamma Mia! among some of her Hollywood highlights.
But in December 2021, Dame Julie turned back the clock and spoke candidly as she promoted the first role she undertook since recovering from cancer.
She was diagnosed with stage III bowel cancer in 2018, and had surgery and chemotherapy before entering remission.
As a result, scenes from her performance in The Secret Garden were cut, and she missed the premiere of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Dame Julie went public with her diagnosis, admitting she would have to consider taking a step back from large and demanding film roles due to her health.
But in 2021, she began the circuit of promoting her new animated film The Abominable Snow Baby, in what was her one of her first roles since recovering.
She said: “I just loved it. I loved the character. I loved the story. It was about love and community… and it’s anti-ageist too.
She added: “So the first thing I do with a role is find the voice – if I can’t find that I panic.
“The voice is an expression of sorts. Old people’s voices often become thinner because their vocal cords have weathered.
“But Granny has a lot of energy, so I searched for something that would show both her frailty and her muscular spirit.”
While Dame Julie’s comeback continues, fans of the Mamma Mia! franchise were worried her character may not appear in any sequels were they to be made.
However, she noted that for roles she “really engaged with”, such as Mamma Mia! she’d return to perform in.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Dame Julies chatted with the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire about her diagnosis and what might tempt her to come back to acting.
The actress replied: “It would have to be something I’m really engaged with.”
She continued: “I’m not saying I’ll never act again. But I certainly don’t think I can go back to [a film that requires working] six days a week, five in the morning till seven o’clock at night.”
In a piece for The Times, Dame Julie went further to say that any film role she would have to “totally be in it” and that it can be “very stressful” when committing to a role.
She added: “You’re being judged. It’s a stressful job and I don’t sleep when I’m working. It’s not good for me.
“After I had the operation and I was thinking about the future, I thought, ‘I don’t want to work again.’”
Educating Rita airs tonight from 11.15pm on BBC Two.