When the Conservatives won the general election last May, the actor Maxine Peake drowned her sorrows not at the pub, but at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford. “We all went for a cuppa and I felt as if we were at a funeral,” she says, “but we talked it through and I came out feeling so much better. We are all under the banner of the Left, but it’s not about ramming politics down your throat or making you sing the Red Flag. It’s truly educational.”
The WCML began as the private collection of two lifelong Communist Party members, Ruth and Eddie Frow. During the 1950s it became a magnet for researchers and in the 1980s the council rehoused the collection in a magnificent Victorian building in Salford.
The Library – which holds a unique record of three hundred years of Manchester’s working people’s history – depends on volunteers. It is always struggling for funds, so support from famous local actors and celebrities is welcome.
Peake, widely considered to be one of the most compelling actors of her generation, was born in a little town near Bolton. When her parents split and her mother remarried, 15-year-old Maxine moved to Salford to live with her beloved grandfather Jim.
“In my late teens I joined the Salford branch of the Communist Party and went to meetings at the Library,” she said while talking to me from the set of a Comic Relief shoot in Plymouth. “Ruth and Eddie were then still in attendance. They knew my grandfather, who was also a member of the Party, and he was a huge influence on me and my politics.”
She remembers an amazing group of people, like Henry Suss (a Jewish Mancunian who campaigned tirelessly on the Spanish Civil War and slum housing). “It was fascinating and progressive, but by the time I knew them, they were all elderly. I was in the Party for about three years, then I went to London and got very self-absorbed, as most actors do!”
Her grandfather advised her not to get involved. “He knew I was committed to drama by then. He said ‘politics is so time consuming, Maxine, and if you’ve got ambitions for acting, it’s all or nothing’.’’
Peake joined the local youth theatre, then worked with a couple of amateur theatre companies in Bolton, only leaving when she finally got into RADA. But rather than settling in London, in 2009 she moved back to her home city with her art director partner Pawlo Wintoniuk.
A few years later she was asked to have her photograph taken somewhere that meant something to her. Wintoniuk said ‘what about the Library?’ So she rang them and they were delighted.
Peake is unusual for an actor with such a successful film, TV and stage career in that she has stuck to her northern roots and retains her Bolton accent. She is an associate artist at Manchester Royal Exchange and in 2014 participated in a fund-raising day of Radical Readings & Salford Stories at the Library with Sheila Hancock and fellow Lancastrian Christopher Eccleston. She’s funny and self-deprecating in conversation, studiously underplaying her success.
Looking at early episodes of Dinnerladies on YouTube, the young Peake, as cast by Victoria Wood in her first part after drama school (‘5ft 7” and 15 stone: I think that’s why I got the job, because I was large’), is unrecognisable. She lost weight after the doctor warned her of high blood pressure, going on to play Veronica in Shameless, the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, (southern) barrister Martha Costello in Silk and an acclaimed Hamlet at the Royal Exchange. This year she joins a sensational BBC cast as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That hasn’t stopped her being interested in all things political. She says she’s picked up more history at the Library than she learned in school. “Peterloo, obviously,’”she says, referring to the 1819 massacre on St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, when an electoral reform demonstration was mown down by sabre-wielding cavalry.“But also the ‘Battle of Bexley Square’ in Salford, when people marched on the Town Hall.”
She is fascinated by the 1930s mass trespass movement and its campaign to gain access to the countryside for ordinary people. Led by the Ramblers’ Association, they took direct action on Kinder Scout and Winter Hill near Peake’s home town.
She is also a supporter of the National Clarion Cycle Club, formed in 1895 as a social club for working class cyclists beginning to find their freedom on wheels. “It’s still going,” she says, “one group meets at Pendle where there’s an open Sunday and you can go along for a cup of tea.”
Cycling led her, indirectly, to writing. “We both like cycling,” she says, “My boyfriend’s always on eBay looking at wires and cogs and he gave me a biography of Beryl Burton for my birthday.” Burton, who worked on a rhubarb farm in Yorkshire, is the most successful female British cyclist ever, holder of seven world titles, 96 national titles and the 1967 National Time Trials record for men and women.
“I went to a producer and said it would be a fantastic idea for a play,” explains Peake. “She said ‘You do it!” I thought ‘Oh no, not another actor who thinks they can write,’ but I decided to try. I rewrote it about three times. I enjoyed the writing but I didn’t enjoy being in something I’d written. Acting’s hard once you’ve got under the skin of a character that much. But the deal was me being in it.” It became a fine stage and radio play.
There are two truly startling things about Maxine Peake. One is that she played rugby league for Wigan Ladies RLFC for three years in her teens (she claims she was so much larger than the other girls on the netball court, she kept knocking players over.)
But the really shocking one is that she had her own show-jumper. “It’s true, I did,” she says, starting to laugh, “I once told someone I used to have a horse and he said ‘Oh my god, you’re middle class!’ It was a hand-me-down pony called Smokey. I kept him in the field near our house. He was vicious, like a devil horse. I got quite a few rosettes, you know, third or fourth – probably just for turning up. They’d be going ‘that poor woman on that crazy horse’ but I kept going. That’s the thing you need. It’s not talent; it’s persistence.”
Persistence (and talent) has taken Maxine Peake a long way.
THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT LIBRARY
51 The Crescent, Salford (www.wcml.org.uk) is open Monday to Friday and some Saturdays. See website for tours and exhibitions.
MAXINE PEAKE will next be seen as a flame-haired newspaper editor in the Comic Relief series provisionally entitled Red Top.