Maxine Peake talks about starring in the new five-part drama Criminal Justice being shown this week

What attracted you to this story?
“What’s so interesting about this drama is on paper they look like an ideal middle class family. But it doesn’t matter what you do or where you are from, this happens in all walks of life. Joe is a high-profile, high-flying barrister; Juliet is a housewife and mother. They live in a swanky Islington pad and over the years her husband has systematically bullied her. She is a broken woman when we first meet her.”

So what happens?
“In the first episode Juliet stabs Joe. She calls the police and then walks out the front door, leaving daughter Ella to find her dad with a knife through his stomach. Joe is in hospital for a while, so you don’t know if he will pull through or not straight away.”

What was it like playing opposite Matthew Macfadyen?
“Great. Because it’s Matthew Macfadyen all the ladies watching will be going, ‘Please let him survive – I’ll switch over if he dies!’ He is gorgeous and brilliant with this real ease about him – he makes everything look effortless – it’s sickening really. He rocks up, everybody swoons, he does his bit and then off he goes!”

Was it difficult to switch off from the role?
“When I have done parts before that are a little bit harrowing I have done three-week shoots, so it has been alright. But this was over three months and by the end of it I was like, ‘I’m just going to lie in a darkened room for a couple of weeks with my phone off.’ It’s just acting – as my friend says, ‘You’re not packing parachutes!’ But it was exhausting. You will see there aren’t many laughs. Juliet doesn’t do a comedy turn half way through! It’s pretty relentless and there were days when I was in the car going back to my flat and I just couldn’t speak – I had big puffy eyes thinking, ‘Why do I do this job?! But I did love it.’

What did you learn yourself from the story?
“I think women still get a very hard time in the justice system. It is still very male dominated and it does seem to be – I’m going to upset a few people because I am speaking completely out of turn – an old school sort of boys club. I could be wrong, but I would image it is a lot harder for a woman to battle through the justice system.”

How was it acting with Alice who plays your daughter Ella?
“It is very bizarre because I’ve played a mother a few times [most recently in The Street as Madeleine, the mother of a Down’s syndrome teenager] and when I speak to friends who have children they say the love between you and your child is the most amazing thing. It’s a love you never experience with other humans, so I do think crikey, I haven’t been through that! But Alice who plays Ella used to break my heart – I only had to look at her and I’d start crying, she was brilliant.”

You started out in comedy on Dinnerladies but recently you seem to have done a lot of really dramatic roles?
“I do like a bit of old emotion. It’s like therapy you see, you can get it all out, have a good old cry and a big tantrum and then go home and be normal – go back to Salford and the Co-op and forget all about it. People actually still call me a comedy actress – although I can’t remember the last time I made anybody laugh!”

Criminal Justice starts at 9pm on Monday on BBC1.