Engage: Award-winning actress Dame Harriet Walter on tackling the topic of euthanasia
The End follows a family of three generations trying to figure out how to die with dignity, live with none and make it count. Georgia Humphreys asks star Dame Harriet Walter about her role in the bold new drama.
Dame Harriet Walter found the idea of getting up on stage “so horrible” when she was a child.
But the Londoner was forced into doing a small part by her teachers, and she realised why she had been so apprehensive.
“I terribly wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to be bad.”
Decades later, and the 69-year-old is an award-winning stage actress, with several major films – Sense And Sensibility, Atonement and The Governess – and TV roles including five years on Law & Order: UK also under her belt.
Her latest project is Sky Atlantic drama The End, in which she plays Edie, a widow who is passionate about her right to die.
After decades of depression, she tries to end her own life but fails disastrously. Her daughter Kate (Frances O’Connor), who emigrated to Australia years before, decides to move her to a retirement village Down Under so she can keep her alive.
Edie is also a breast cancer survivor, and in the first episode we see she has had a double mastectomy.
Walter, who began her acting career in 1974, admits it could be a difficult part to detach herself from sometimes.
“I think there were only a few occasions where that really got to me, and it was usually around the physical deformity, having to wear a prosthetic,” says the star, who has performed in various Royal Shakespeare Company productions.
“I think all women, so much of your upbringing and your sense of your self is how you look, whether we like it or not.
“In reality, I was having to look like that, and so I deliberately used whatever I was feeling about that, to get me inside Edie’s head. And I could take it off in the bath – she can’t.
“Wherever her head can go, when she’s having fun or a drink, this is the reality she comes home to, in the bathroom mirror. And to get that was quite bleak – using your imagination about what that would be like was quite a downer.”
She reasons: “In a play, you have hours of relentless tragedy. Whereas in a TV series, you get to come off every five seconds, have a drink of water, josh around with people, so it’s not quite the same. And everyone around you is being quite jolly. So you say, ‘This is only a show, it’s not really me’, and you come out of it quite easily.”
Walter, who is married to American actor Guy Paul (in 2004, her fiance, actor Peter Blythe, died of lung cancer before their wedding) notes she doesn’t have very much in common with Edie.
“But there are certain characteristics I can identify with. I can be quite sort of snooty and stand-offish and self-protective, sometimes, in social situations.”
Reading the script, she also saw bits of her grandmother in the character, she expands.
“She was quite judgmental of other people and watched people – didn’t participate. But then you’d suddenly hear her cackling about something, and you’d realise she’d had quite a naughty life really.
“So, she’s not very like Edie but there’s a bit of English upbringing which is it’s improper to talk about yourself or indulge yourself and, actually, what you’re longing for is to talk about yourself.”
Walter, who we will also see in ITV drama Belgravia in the coming months, is a relaxed interviewee – upbeat and engaging.
She’s also forthcoming with her opinions. Discussing how the medical world might respond to the show and its exploration of euthanasia, Walter suggests: “If it was my job as a doctor to make those decisions – or rather, it isn’t a decision is it, it’s a sort of laid down parameter that they can’t cross – I think it would be quite hard to watch this series.
“Not just because of the material, but because I suppose I would fear what the public would learn about it… It’s sort of best to let sleeping dogs lie.
“I’m not saying the whole world is going to be changed by The End, but there is a cultural shift happening, anyway.”
Another theme the show covers is that of the issues facing transgender people. Kate’s eldest child Oberon (Morgan Davies) is in the process of transitioning.
It’s something Edie struggles with at times.
“I get a bit nasty, don’t I?” Walter reflects of her character. “I think it would be a lot to expect a woman like that to understand what’s going on… and she’s so repressed that it comes out nastily.
“It’s not too ludicrous, if it was really ludicrous then we would be sending up that fear and doubt. But the fact that’s more important is that she quite obviously shifts her position without politically stating it but just by demonstrating… on all fronts she wants to be needed, and when he [Oberon] needs her help and she can give it, she absolutely loves that.”
There are also plenty of humorous but emotional scenes between Kate – who is a doctor specialising in palliative care medicine – and Edie, as we learn more about their fraught mother-daughter relationship.
“It’s not often the focus of dramas – father-sons, father-daughters have dominated, and there’s so much still left to explore in that area.
“My mum and I got on fine, but I had struggles in a different way so, you know, it’s never quite clean cut and easy.”
She recalls how writer Samantha Strauss calls Kate part of the “sandwich generation” who have to look after their children and their parents, “plus she has to look after patients”.
“By contrast, it taught me what Edie wasn’t and what she wasn’t doing and what she’d avoided and what she’d been,” elaborates Walter.
“She feels guilty that she hasn’t been more useful or helpful or a better parent. So, when she gets any chink of hope that she can show that she is useful or caring she grabs it, which I found rather moving, because it’s like if you give someone in old age a chance to change it’s rather wonderful.”
The End launches on Sky Atlantic on Monday February 10.
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