Welcome to The Bookshelf, our regular feature where we explore the literary loves of people we admire, from architects to actors and scientists to singers.
They say never meet your heroes, but here I am sat nervously waiting for Maxine Peake in rather cavernous cafe of The Royal Exchange in Manchester after a rather arduous journey from HQ in London. But why am I here & why am I waiting for Maxine? Well when we settled upon the decision as an editorial team to focus Issue 6 around inspiring, strong and ground breaking women my mind very quickly drifted towards this column. It’s no secret at The Holborn that ‘The Bookshelf’ is a favourite feature of mine and quickly a list of renowned and talented women was compiled with Maxine at the top. I’ve watched Maxine perform roles on TV and stage from Twinkle in Dinnerladies, to Myra Hindley in See No Evil and from Martha Costello in Silk to her outstanding Hamlet and am therefore rather excited to be here.
Though when we settle down with our coffees it is not the screen and stage we explore first in our journey through Maxine’s literary past, but socialism. Maxine’s politics is an important part of her life and has driven much of her work. A couple of years back she won the inaugural Bolton Socialist Club Outstanding Contribution to Socialism Award. So it is no surprise when I ask Maxine quite bluntly to name one book that has had the biggest influence on her she responds, without hesitation, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. In a tone that suggests she feels the choice is slightly obvious, which for someone who also grew up in a socialist household I wouldn’t agree, Maxine adds, ‘it is a socialist bible’.
Maxine was given the book as a ten year old, by her grandfather; a self-educated working man and a passionate socialist. We divert temporarily to her grandfather’s house full of interesting books to peruse, whereas Maxine admits there were few books lying around her parent’s house;.Though she does remember a series of ‘children’s pot-boilers’, as she puts it, about girls & horses that her sister read. Back to Robert Tressell’s tome. Maxine did not pick up her grandfather’s gift for a few years, but when she did read it it influenced and informed her politics strongly then and still does now. She says it was even more significant as a young communist at the time she was definitely more keen on action than theory; and despite being intimidated slightly by much of deep and complex theory as a teenager it was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that stuck with her.
I inquire what other books, non-political, still hold strong memories for Maxine from her teenage years. Wuthering Heights, was a big eye-opener. ‘I had previous dismissed books like that; I thought they were for nice middle class and all about cake & calvary’, she tells me. For it was the darkness in the novel that captivated her and it is something that has attracted her to scripts and plays professionally since. Then Kestrel for a Knave and also it’s film adaptation Kes has to be mentioned Maxine admits, though the look of worry of being predictable returns, but she says it was the first film her and her school friends had seen that was about their lives. And also it was ‘funny, sad, and beautifully told’.
So we move finally on to Maxine’s illustrious career, and considering her stellar performance of Hamlet, our conversations quickly meanders to the great Baird himself. Shakespeare was resisted, held at arms length, like it can be for many of us at school. Once she headed to RADA a structure was found and purpose to delve into his work. I ask was there a play in particular that caught her imagination first and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ quickly dances from her lips. ‘It was magical and that with its dark themes captivated me’.
Were there any other plays that inspired this young actress? ‘Well as a girl from Bolton…’ – Jim Cartwright’s Road shines strong. Its ‘poetic language’ and the fact ‘it’s real but it’s heightened and it is beautiful in its darkness’. Maxine tells me of the Nevada Roller Rink that features heavily in the play that her and her friends used to go to; it’s funny how shared experience can play heavily on our connections to literature.
A lot of Maxine’s reading since becoming a professional actor has often centred around novels, scripts and plays that she has been had to read for work. Though as we whittle through a series of fascinating texts I ask Maxine were there any books she has read out of this context. Books she said to herself that she would love to tackle as an actress. She immediately says David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet; those books are set against a backdrop of serial murders during 1974–1983, including the Yorkshire Ripper killings, following several fictional characters through a bleak and violent world of police corruption and organised crime. She exclaims, ‘I loved the books’. Luckily through some doggedness and a connection with David Peace from See No Evil, she was able to subsequently play a part in the 2010 TV adaptation.
What about something she is yet to play? Maxine tells me she stumbled upon a book called Years of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. The book tells the story of a Derbyshire village called Eyam during the plague in the 17th Century. She was first taken to reading the book as when she was a teenager she used to go on adventure type trips with her Unitarian Church to the village. Captivated by the book and it’s story-telling Maxine says she has always maintained it would make an incredible film. She even meet the man who has the rights once, but now fears her time has passed as she is too old now for the main roles. Though she admits she has a lingering hope for a smaller part she could still play.
We then start as we began with politics. For the various socialist bibles and tomes we had previously spoken about were there any books which had later in life either shifted her views or something that had provided fresh hope. Maxine admits to me that Naomi Klein is a writer she admires and her book, This Changes Everything, ‘opened her eyes’.
Interview by Morgan Hamilton-Griffin. | Illustration by Alice Griffin