One of the highlights of the RTS North West calendar took place at The Lowry, Salford in late November, where guests were treated to an evening of wit and warmth from multi-garlanded actor Julie Hesmondhalgh.
The actor, who has won two RTS North West awards for her performances in ITV soap Coronation Street and BBC Two factual drama Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, was giving this year’s Anthony H Wilson Memorial Lecture.
During the course of a conversation with actor and director Noreen Kershaw, Hesmondhalgh proved to be the embodiment of the words of the late Granada Reports anchor and music impresario, Wilson, who memorably summed up his city: “This is Manchester: we do things differently here.”
The antithesis of the “luvvie” actor, Hesmondhalgh spoke passionately about her background, education – “a product of the state” – her career and social campaigning.
Hesmondhalgh who was mentored by Brian Astbury, the co-founder of South Africa’s legendary Space Theatre, emphasised the importance of being told, as a young, Northern, working-class woman, that “this [artist’s] life can be for you”.
She impressed on the audience her gratitude at initially being “supported by grants and benefits”, which are now no longer available to new artists, and discussed her work with organisations such as youth charity Arts Emergency.
“The opportunity, not to change people’s minds, but to open them” said Hesmondhalgh, meant that when she was chosen to play trans character Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, which she did for 16 years, she thoroughly researched the experiences of trans people.
In particular, she used those provided “by a shy young lady from Aberdeen” and, in the spirit of “never pulling up the ladder behind me”, encouraged her ambitions. That young lady went on to become Hollyoaks star Annie Wallace.
Hesmondhalgh said “how proud” she is of Coronation Street for bringing this and other issues such as the right to end one’s own life “into people’s front rooms. We have a responsibility to do [these issues] justice for those going through [them].”
She praised Russell T Davies, who gave the inaugural Anthony H Wilson Lecture in 2007, for using her character in Manchester-set Channel 4 drama Cucumber to discuss the effects of pornography on young people.
Hesmondhalgh praised ITV’s Broadchurch, in which she played “an ordinary middle-aged woman” who is raped, for not portraying the “cliche of rape victim as naked young woman running through woods”.
Kershaw, who has directed episodes of Coronation Street and Jimmy McGovern’s BBC One drama Broken, concluded the evening with a surprise for Hesmondhalgh: filmed tributes from Corrie co-stars and from the new Doctor and fellow Broadchurch actor, Jodie Whittaker.