Interview: Harriet Walter

by Fiona Rae / 04 April, 2012
The Shakespearian actress talks about starring in the UK version of Law & Order, which is screening on TV1.

Harriet Walter is one of the UK’s great classical actresses; she has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company for more than 25 years and in many other stage productions. In 2010, she and Janet McTeer were nominated for Tony Awards for their performances in Mary Stuart on Broadway. Walter has also appeared on television and film, including Onegin, Atonement and The Young Victoria, and appears as DI Natalie Chandler in Law & Order UK, the British version of the US series.

How different are the US and UK versions of Law & Order? It’s exactly the same formula, but by nature of being in London it just changes it hugely – the personality of it is different. Most of the storylines are picked up from the New York series and reworked slightly to fit London. It’s remarkable how closely the stories can work for both cities even though the personalities involved might be very different.

Is it substantially different from working on a British TV series? It is really, on the whole we have not done these quick-fire, shoot an episode in two weeks, quick turnaround crime series. We’ve rather specialised in things like Prime Suspect, which are an enclosed story which lasts over three or four episodes. This, you have half an hour to crack the crime and half an hour to mete out the right punishment.

Technically, the series features things like hand-held cameras and quick-fire editing – is that also a challenge? As an actor you meet most of those techniques at some point and the challenge is more to do with the speed of it really. You’re not in charge of presenting things like you do on stage, that’s done by the camera – you just get caught by the camera doing something, that’s the illusion. On stage, your job is to make the eye look when you need the audience to look at you and hear you when they need to hear you, whereas the technical team in the TV series does that for you, so what you have to concentrate on is being in the moment.

Where you given any instructions about playing the character in an American style? Not at all, the feeling was that we should make it very much our own. The formula is there, the format is there, and within that our job is to be true to our culture and the sort of people that we might come across in London. They’re different but the same, just like in real life. I think that’s the fun of the whole series, that people can see how things are in London and how things are in New York and relate to both of them but be very different. We absolutely were not trying to act like Americans or act in their style, but the instruction was that the scripts would not go into our personal lives or our back stories. We have certain characteristics as characters, but they weren’t going to be in the foreground, the foreground was always the crime.

The recession hit British television hard, does it need a shot in the arm from shows like Law & Order UK? It does get shots in the arm an awful lot of the time, great writers will suddenly turn up with a really good story. In some ways we’re no worse off, of course there are bigger financial problems now than there ever have been, but there’s so much creativity around in the writing and the acting and the directing departments, I only hope that those things can get through. The financial crisis might mean that people can’t rely on the big blockbuster things they always do and will be looking around for little ideas. I always believe the ideas people should win the day.

Are there any other US series that you’d like to see made into a UK version? I’d love something like Mad Men to happen, but we weren’t in the same place in the 1950s as America was. I think we must develop our writers; writers are the great hope for TV, that’s where the idea comes from and the style and everything comes after that. In America they value the writer very highly and in England, we do, but we don’t prioritise that financially, really.

LAW & ORDER UK, TV1, tonight, 10.55pm.
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