Julie Hesmondhalgh’s diary of a tumultuous year of politics, creativity, theatre, film and activism is funny, moving and inspiring, finds Penny Hicks

Julie Hesmondhalgh, A Working Diary (Methuen Drama: Theatre Makers 2019), 224pp.

Julie Hesmondhalgh is the actress who gives a toss.[1] She is also President of Manchester People’s Assembly, involved with many young theatre groups, and the company she founded with Becx Harrison and Grant Archer, Take Back Theatre. Take Back Theatre is currently working on many great projects including Ten Takes on Austerity, which are five-minute films which will be available to show at events and shared on social media. Julie Hesmondhalgh played Hayley in Coronation Street, Trish Winterman in Broadchurch, and has just finished the lead in Mother Courage at the Royal Exchange, plus loads of other great stuff.

In this book Julie walks us through her working day. It’s a challenge to keep up!

So, is it all about the life of someone on the telly? Is it full of tips for budding actors? Is it a text book? After all it’s published by Theatre Makers. This is Julie Hesmondhalgh we are talking about. The actress who left the soap, Coronation Street (Corrie) after sixteen years, who leapt into the unknown with both Doc-Martin-clad feet. Inspired by the people she met through the People’s Assembly, she set up Take Back Theatre with Becx Harrison and Grant Archer. The theatre collective takes its names from the People’s Assembly’s ‘Take Back Manchester’ rallying call, when the Conservative Party held their conference in Manchester. Passionate about access to the theatre, supporting others’ new work, new writing and new ideas, the book is a year of just about everything. Including bringing up her kids with her partner Kersh.

Julie writes as she talks, so it’s like sitting having a brew with her. The daily descriptions range from hilarious to painfully sad. She is gobsmackingly vulnerable and honest about herself and how she feels about theatre, life, people and politics. Politics are not a back drop to the book, they are interwoven with her actions, work, thoughts and moods. We are by her side on the film set of Peterloo, running in and out of meetings, sharing her hopes for performances and her disappointments.

I love going to the theatre but I’m not so passionate as to be thinking of taking up acting, so it was hearing a reading that made me buy the book and then I was blown away. This is our history, and Julie is doing what she does best to try and shape it and inspire others. Whether it’s making your own theatre, ‘filling your well’, going on demos, looking after yourself or just giving a toss! So here are some extracts which will make you want to read it too:

9 November

‘I get up early and check my phone to learn Donald Trump has become President. Shocking and deeply alarming news. I go into town to meet Becx and Grant and I’m late because I keep bumping into people who want to talk about the US … We immediately decide to park our next script in hand and use the slot we have booked in the Comedy Store … to create an artistic response to what’s happened. We think we’ll

call it Take Back America, which is pretty grandiose … I don’t care. I want to take back America … Despair isn’t an option. I’m not suggesting for a moment that an evening of theatre in a city in the north of England will bring down the Government … But we have to start with ACTION and community.’

8 May

‘Thirty days until the general election and time to put my head above the parapet and throw energy into trying to get the Tories out. I hate it. I hate the way it makes me feel: exposed and grandiose. But apparently it helps get the message out.’

This story is hilarious and moving so I’ve only shared a slice!

9 May

‘This is proper shit going down here. I ask the organisers how many speakers there are, and they casually say, ‘oh just Ian Lavery, you then Jeremy’. I am not here as a bit of light relief after twenty Labour activists. I’m Jeremy Corbyn’s warm up.’

16 June

‘I’ve been offered the advert for the voiceover. I’m relieved because I’m eating away at my saved Broadchurch tax money. I haven’t really earned that much since I finished filming in September. But I’m a bit uneasy to be honest. I still feel uncomfortable about advertising. I console myself by thinking of it as supplementing all the unpaid Take Back work, and promise to give a chunk to a food bank.’

As background to the next entry, Julie was to read Lemn Sissay’s psychiatric report to him live at the Royal Court Theatre. He hasn’t seen it and has decided to share it in this way. The day before the event she reads the huge report for the first time.

29 April

‘It’s a very harrowing read: a relentless inventory of neglect, emotional and physical abuse, of lies told, of a life being treated as a threat and an outsider … Lemn arrives, he’s on good form … As we speak it hits him like a ton of bricks; it’s as if this is the first moment, he’s fully understood what this is going to be, and he becomes very upset and overwhelmed. It’s good we all agree. It’s fucking huge, this.

We all go out in search of a good cup of tea (forget it, this is London)’

The book is expensive. It retails for £18.99. Julie is not happy about the price, but I think it is being pitched as text book (it’s much more obviously). All royalties are going to the charity Arts Emergency which supports young actors from working-class backgrounds. I’ve asked my local library to stock it (yes, they can still do that) and am happy to share my copy with people who will actually return it!


[1] Julie famously introduced Jeremy Corbyn at one of his first rallies as ‘the political leader who gives a toss’.