British Actors You Should Know: Nicola Walker

Picture shows DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker)

DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker).

© Mainstreet Pictures

Nicola Walker was born in 1970 in Stepney, East London, England, and began acting classes at the age of 12, in her own words, to meet boys. Both her parents were teachers, but she was the first in the family to attend university, the prestigious New College, Cambridge. She joined the Footlights comedy club, where other actor/comedians such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson got their start. But her best and lifelong friend from university is Sue Perkins (writer, comedian, and the original co-host of The Great British Baking Show), who was her college “mother:”

Not only did she abandon me on my first day but she borrowed my bike and it got nicked. But then that’s the way the relationship has been ever since. 

After university, she and Sue, screenwriter Sarah Phelps (The Sixth Commandment) and writer/actor Emma Kennedy, who wrote for Sue and Mel Giedroyc’s comic performances, shared flats and adventures. She was offered a place at RADA, but an agent suggested only accepting it if she couldn’t get work for six months. She performed in small theaters in London and at the Edinburgh Festival and was finally approached by an agent, who offered a small role in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Let’s run down some of Walker’s most memorable roles.

'Four Weddings & a Funeral'

As one of the Frightful Duo with Paul Stacey, who performed for Wedding #1 in the 1994 Richard Curtis hit, it wasn't quite a breakout role. If anything, Walker confessed, tongue-in-cheek, that the whole experience gave her unrealistic expectations:

[That job] gave me a completely deluded sense of what the acting profession was going to be like. [I was] sharing caravans with Kristen Scott Thomas and hanging out with Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant. And I thought, well this acting lark is easy, I don’t know what people are talking about. And of course after that job, I probably spent a year out of work, and desperately trying to get a theatre job. 

'Touching Evil'

Touching Evil was a vehicle for Robson Greene (Grantchester), who was much in demand for his acting talents and music-songwriting. As DI Dave Creegan of the Organised & Serial Crime Unit, he was a man with a terrible and possibly destructive secret that he could only share with his partner, DI Susan Taylor (Walker). After a serious gunshot injury that almost killed him, Creegan found he had the ability to think like a serial killer and used this gift to pursue wrongdoers, but his concern was that he might succumb to the darker side of his brain and relied on Susan's instincts and sense to balance him. 

Touching Evil ran for three seasons, and while it wasn't Walker's first TV appearance, it gave her prestigious billing with Greene and established her as an actor to be watched.

'The Last Train'

Screenwriter Matthew Graham wrote Walker a role in his post-apocalyptic 1999 mini-series The Last Train after seeing her in Touching Evil. Walker played a similar character, the tough and resourceful Harriet Ambrose. After an explosion on a train, Harriet and her fellow passengers find they have jumped 52 years ahead after an asteroid hit has left Britain ruined, uninhabitable, and dangerous.

Harriet becomes their leader, fighting off wild dogs, groups of feral children, and other hazards, and leads them to safety. She's able to do so because she knows the government's plan for the unavoidable catastrophe. The six-part series wasn't exactly a major hit, but it did continue Walker's trajectory upward.


Walker was in MI-5 (understandably renamed from Spooks in the U.K.) as Ruth Evershed from 2003–2006 and again in 2009–2011 (Walker took a break to give birth, naming her son Harry after Peter Firth's character Harry Pearce). The long-running series deals with the Counter-Terrorism Department (Section D) of MI-5. The series needed another woman agent in the series after the exit of wily, sexy Tessa Philips (Jenny Agutter, to star in Call The Midwife). Ruth was an entirely different sort of agent, cerebral, quiet, and meticulous in her research, an expert in the Arabic language, and initially rather shy and gauche, but soon earning the respect and affection of her colleagues. 

A very, very slow-burn romance started between Ruth and Harry, Head of the Department, a correct and ruthless former army officer with years as an agent in MI-5. The love affair was initially bludgeoned to death by the rest of the department's amusement but somehow persisted, despite their mutual reticence and the demands of keeping Britain safe. After Walker was written back into the series in 2009, her character took on a more active role beyond desk agent, going out into the field. (Unfortunately, we know what happens to MI-5 agents when they leave their desks ...)


Walker appeared in Luther's inaugural season, in Episode 4, where the titular detective hunted down a serial killer with a thing for women's purses. The suspect, Graham Shand, liked to arrange his victims with items from their purses strewn around them, apart from the occasional trinket he gave to his wife Linda (Walker). In this scene, Luther (Idris Elba) knew Linda suspected or may even have evidence of her husband's guilt.

She accepted that he was a thief, but its only when Luther left the file on the table, knowing she wouldn't be able to resist taking a look, that the full enormity of her husband's activities was exposed. Look for the moment Walker tears off her necklace in this extraordinary scene.

'Last Tango in Halifax'

In Sally Wainwright's much-loved family drama and Walker's breakout role in the states, Last Tango in Halifax is about the uneasy blending of two Yorkshire families. Walker played Gillian, a first-generation, widowed farmer who struggles to keep her household together. Her husband died under mysterious circumstances, and her relationship with her cop brother-in-law Robbie (Dean Andrews) could turn romantic or may lead to her arrest.

Her father, Alan (Derek Jacobi), has pretty much learned not to criticize her choices, although he is fairly appalled at her romantic partners, such as Paul (Sacha Dhawan), half her age, and the self-styled Don Juan of the community. She's loud, outspoken, and in for a shock when her father and Celia (Anne Reid) get together, and her first meeting with classy, restrained Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), Celia's daughter in this clip is a disaster.


Imagine Seeing Evil on steroids! River stars Stellan Skarsgård in the titular role, a man with the ability to see and speak to the dead. If the police department finds out about it, he'll be fired, but without the gift, he can't do his work. His primary dead friend is former partner, Detective Sergeant Jackie 'Stevie' Stevenson (Walker), whose affection and police skills remain intact from beyond the grave.

They play off each other, Stevie being a lighthearted extrovert who likes singing 70s disco in the car, whereas Rivers is pretty much unrelieved Nordic noirish grumpiness. River is about more than solving a crime; it examines loss and grief and what drives anyone to kill. Lesley Manville and Eddie Marsan also star.


Walker's big breakout role in the U.S. after Last Tango was starring as DCI Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten opposite Sanjeev Bhaskar as DS Sunny Khan, which is why the character's death at the end of Season 4 was a shock for us all. As Walker explains in this clip, the signs were all there that Cassie was struggling. Involvement in too many cases that were examples of human wretchedness and cruelty finally was taking its toll, as did her father's descent into dementia. Sunny became involved in a new relationship, which left Cassie isolated.

Cassie had decided to retire, but the department required her to stay another year, and she was prepared to grit her teeth and put in the hours because duty for her was paramount. It's a tribute to Walker that so many felt so deeply about Cassie's death and thankful for all the wonderful episodes of Unforgotten where she and Bhaskeer gave such brilliant and tender performances.

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Police officers investigate the murder of a boy whose diary implicates four couples.
Unforgotten: show-poster2x3

'The Split'

The Split, which ran for three seasons (20182020, 2022) starred Walker as Hannah Stern, a high-flying London divorce lawyer. It was something of a change of pace for Walker. She was glammed up and had to wear high heels (she spent a lot of Last Tango in Halifax in Wellington boots), but she gave the role her usual conviction and passion.

Hannah left her all-female family firm after her mother, Ruth Defoe (Deborah Findley), refused her promotion. Joining rival firm Noble & Hale, Hannah found not only that her ex-boyfriend Christie (Barry Atsma) worked there but that she was able to handle a case Defoe had denied her, the divorce of wealthy Davey McKenzie (Stephen Tompkinson) and wife Goldie (Meera Syal). Stephen Mangan appeared as Nathan, Hannah’s husband, and Fiona Button as her sister Rose.


Marriage was one of those series you either loved or hated. (Our reviewer was in the latter camp.) Written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski (Mum), its two major actors, Sean Bean as Ian, and Nicola Walker as Emma, were both superb. If anything, they were too realistic. People who've been married for three decades tend to speak in code with their own verbal idiosyncrasies, but the disjointed nature of the dialogue and its unexplained scenes annoyed some viewers.

Possibly the humor of the series was outweighed by the underlying sadness of the characters' lives –– a bereavement, Ian's redundancy, and depression. But again, with its two leads, the series could not have been in better hands. Walker commented in an interview for Radio Times:

My most memorable scene was applying cream to Sean Bean’s thigh area. It was a beautiful moment and one that I never expected as Ian had a nasty rash! It was a tremendous day in my professional career. Luckily it was in a tasteful position for camera!

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This is a warm, sometimes funny, sometimes moving look at the need for togetherness.
Marriage: show-poster2x3

'The Corn is Green'

Walker is also a renowned stage actor; here's a clip of her in rehearsal at the National Theatre last year in The Corn is Green, the first revival of Emlyn Williams’ 1938 semi-autobiographical play since the 1990s. Set in a remote North Wales village, Walker played Miss Lilly Moffatt, who is committed to bringing literacy to the community of coal miners and their families.

In the rehearsal, she and Morgan Evans (Gareth David-Lloyd) spar over literacy –– she sees talent in him, but he's resistant to change, as is much of the village. The Guardian reported:

Walker is delightful to watch, both in her angry exchanges with the supercilious Squire (Rufus Wright, excellently doltish), which bring sparky satire, and in her initially brusque attitude towards Davies’s sweet, laconic Evans.

Walker was nominated for an Olivier Award for her role.


Who better than Walker herself to tell us about her title role in the Scottish series Annika? First, it's great to see Walker as The Boss rather than, as in her earlier mysteries, the partner (dead or alive) of a male, superior, possibly insane officer. DI Annika Strandhed is Scandinavian by origin and has moved to Scotland with her teenage daughter Morgan (Sylvie Furneaux) to head Glasgow's Marine Homicide Unit. There are spectacular shots of lochs and the coastline. The show was developed from a BBC Radio series, Annika Strandhed (2013–2020), voiced by Walker and written by Nick Walker (no relation), who also developed the TV series.

The series brings over something of the intimacy of a radio drama, where strangers whisper in your ear, with Annika breaking the fourth wall, drawing on her love of literature and myth. A colleague holding a coffee cup (Starbucks!) reminds her of Moby Dick, about which she muses to us, referring rather unflatteringly to the victim as a white whale since he was killed by a harpoon to the head:

Everyone goes mad and no one even knows if the whale dies or not. One thing I do know? This great white whale definitely did.

Costars are Tyrone (Ukweli Roach), Blair (Katie Leung) and Michael (Jamie Sives), Paul McGann and (Jake Strathearn), and Annika is written by Lucia Haynes and Frances Poet and directed by Philip John and Fiona Walton.

Season 2 premieres on most PBS stations on Sunday, October 15, 2023, at 10 p.m. ET, with all six episodes on PBS Passport the same day. (As always, check your local listings, etc.)

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Nicola Walker (Unforgotten) stars as DI Annika Strandhed who juggles cases and a daughter.
Annika: show-poster2x3

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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