We're walking through Kersal Dale and Maxine Peake looks around. There isn't a house in sight. A forest rising up the hill to Kersal Moor frames the total rural tranquillity of the meandering Irwell, and the gentle clicking of crickets in the shimmering purple grass. This is well hidden Salford, less than a mile from the sprawling concrete credit-crunched mess that is Manchester city centre. And Maxine is made up that she's chosen this city to be her home.
"This is fantastic…It's beautiful…I would never have known it was here" she purrs, like the cat that's got the dream "When I told people I was moving to Salford they were, like `OK…why Salford?' …They think it's a little place attached to Manchester or they go `Aha, because the BBC's moving up there'…Absolutely not! To be honest, if I'd thought long and hard enough about that I might not have come. I just thought `Salford – why not? Why not!"
For an actress who's starred in top rated tv dramas, from Shameless to Myra Hindley, Maxine's approach to life is the complete opposite of most glam-aspiring celebs. After twelve years of living in London she couldn't wait to get north, and not to Manchester – "that lifestyle – loft, laminated floors, white walls…that characterless space just doesn't appeal. I wanted a little house somewhere and Salford seemed a good choice.
"It was a weird thing" she adds "I just got a bee in my bonnet, one of those instincts that Salford still has a sense of community. There's still a bit of fight left in Salford, everywhere else is kind of lying down, giving up…I thought this might be the start of the revolution so I want to be in the hub of it!"
Maxine, originally from Bolton, is certainly no stranger to the city and its politics. While doing her performing arts course at the old Salford Tech, she was a frequent visitor to the Working Class Movement Library and has still got massive links there. Earlier this year, after its co-founder Ruth Frow died, the Library held a celebration of her life and Maxine dashed over in between performances of Mary Barton at the Royal Exchange to read a Bertolt Brecht poem, then dashed back in time to get on stage.
"The Library is still my favourite place in Salford" she says "And now I'm back here I can get more involved, maybe do some reviews there because I speak to plenty of actors who would be up for it…especially doing something that has a bit of criticism in it.
"I think you've got to stick your neck out and start something off to make people aware" she adds "because in the time we are in now…people's lives are pretty stressed…It's that desire for all this materialism…it's that thing isn't it, we entertain ourselves to death, and we're sort of doing that, aren't we?"
Maxine is holding out against the lurid end of `entertaining ourselves to death', choosing parts that have a bit of depth in stories that go deeper than the average junk-coms. She's about to appear in autumn's most lavish tv drama – The Devil's Whore – which centres on the English Civil War, and stars Dominic West from The Wire, John Simm from Life On Mars and Andrea Riseborough, who played Thatcher in the BBC's The Long Walk To Finchley.
"I read the script for that" Maxine murmurs "and even though they said it wasn't going to be sympathetic it was a sort of comedy, and I thought `How can you make a comedy about the most evil woman of our time?'"
Instead she's settled for a part in the four part, Channel 4 Roundheads v Royalists saga as Elizabeth Lilburne, wife of Levellers' leader John Lilburne who campaigned for political freedom.
"It's not a big part but as usual I have funny reasons for doing jobs" she explains "I thought I'd like to play the wife of a Leveller, and it's written by Peter Flannery who wrote Our Friends In The North. It's been great doing the research for the part because what you don't learn at school is that Cromwell was just for the gentry and the merchant classes, and wasn't doing the common people any favours. It was just fascinating, learning about all these little groups that people formed, like the Diggers and the Ranters…England was such a hotbed of revolution…I think that's what we could do with now."
She looks around at the unspoilt countryside, a stone's throw from Cromwell Road in Charlestown…
"I think I'll form my own group of Diggers or something in Salford" she laughs "We could do it round here…get a little part of Kersal Moor and start it off."
It's not often you hear actresses slagging off Thatcher and talking about past revolutions but Maxine Peake really is a breath of fresh air. Today, ironically, she's modelling Madonna and Marilyn Monroe t-shirts, icons who have squeezed fame for all it's worth. Maxine could have followed the household name celebrity path but has consistently gone for quality where she just pops up in good stuff on telly, and if you mention her name everyone goes - `Oh she's a great actress, her…'.
"It depends what you want to do" she explains "If you want to be in this business to make big bucks then you've got to go and get yourself in series of things but to I'd rather do one-offs. You watch soaps and you go `Crikey, look who's in such a thing'. I just keep hoping that I get through each year doing decent stuff. I just dread the day when I have to do stuff just to pay the bills…I'm sure it will come…it probably won't be too long…in fact I need to phone my agent, he's been a bit quiet recently."
Maxine believes she's taking a big risk by acting in classical stuff like The Devil's Whore and Dickens' Little Dorrit, (in which she's also about to co-star with Amanda Redman and Tom Courtenay)…"They're completely different roles to anything I've done before. I could fall flat on my face but I'm not going to play safe. I'll probably shoot myself in the foot but I'll go down in flames."
It's certainly been a top acting journey, from playing the Gallaghers' neighbour, Veronica, in Shameless to the fraught character of Myra Hindley, via comedy cops on bikes, short films and proper theatre at the Royal Exchange.
"In a nice way, people still stop me and talk about Shameless and think I'm still in it" she says "But I've not been in it for a while now. It was great but I'd rather do one offs. It's funny because Stan, who's doing the building work on my house, is the dad of Rebecca Atkinson, who plays Karen, so I got myself a good builder out of it!"
And now she's back in Salford permanently, Maxine is happy that she's closer to LH than LA.
"I know my limitations but I couldn't go over and live there anyway…I just couldn't do that…but I have got really fond memories of Little Hilton" she says "When I was a kid in Bolton we used to knock round there with some lads and spent glorious Friday and Saturday nights hanging around LH."
Somehow, you feel Maxine's come home.
Words by Stephen Kingston
Photos by Mayu Teeven