It’s not easy be­ing an al­pha fe­male

Partly driven by her in­se­cu­ri­ties, ac­tress Sarah Par­ish re­veals to Ben Lawrence why she was drawn to her lat­est role.

The Dominion Post - - Culture -

Dur­ing the past year, we have seen Sarah Par­ish has played a small-town queen bee in Broad­church, a ter­ri­fy­ingly tac­i­turn TV ex­ec­u­tive in W1A and now a hard-bit­ten se­nior de­tec­tive in Ban­croft.

Par­ish spe­cialises in al­pha fe­males and she won­ders if that’s all down to the way she looks. ‘‘I think I have quite a hard look that can be fright­en­ing,’’ she laughs, be­fore clar­i­fy­ing that such char­ac­ters are ‘‘far re­moved from who I re­ally am’’.

De­spite the aura of steely author­ity she ra­di­ates on screen, she says she is not an es­pe­cially con­fi­dent per­son – ‘‘though I hope I am friendly and warm’’.

Looks, of course, are a nec­es­sary part of be­ing an ac­tor, and Par­ish plays the part, with her cut-glass cheek­bones and dark, slightly fe­line eyes. Easy, you would think, for van­ity to creep in – but for the tough love doled out by Par­ish’s mother when she was smaller.

‘‘She said to me once: ‘Sarah, on some days you can look quite pretty and on other days you re­ally look quite plain’.’’ She in­sists that, ‘‘that stood me in very good stead as an ac­tor’’ – but ad­mits to hav­ing had non-in­va­sive surgery be­fore film­ing the third se­ries of W1A ,to keep her skin look­ing taut.

Par­ish was born in 1968 and grew up in Yeovil. She had a very happy child­hood and orig­i­nally in­tended to be a dancer but failed her au­di­tion for the Royal Bal­let School. She says that was a bless­ing in dis­guise and that a fam­ily trip to see An­gela Lans­bury and De­nis Quil­ley in Sweeney Todd in the West End was the mo­ment she knew she had to act.

She left home at 17 and went to London, work­ing in a va­ri­ety of jobs, in­clud­ing clean­ing flats in the Bar­bican be­fore at­tend­ing drama school.

She first be­came known for her role in one of the fa­mous Bod­ding­tons beer ads in the 1990s (in which she ap­pears in a skimpy bikini, curves be­ing lov­ingly mas­saged with chip fat by a young hunk), be­fore mak­ing her mark with such meaty cre­ations as the acer­bic MP’s aide Amanda in rom­com Hearts and Bones, and the su­per-com­pe­tent Al­lie in hair­dress­ing saga Cut­ting It.

‘‘I look at it now and think ‘Crikey!’,’’ she says, of her Bod­ding­tons au­di­tion. ‘‘My agent said it was an ad­ver­tise­ment cast­ing and asked me whether I could wear a bikini. Nowa­days I would say ‘No’,’’

Par­ish has clearly tough­ened up since her early days – per­haps be­cause of her ex­pe­ri­ences in Amer­ica, in the late noughties, where she used to au­di­tion for the pi­lot sea­sons. ‘‘I al­ways got fu­ri­ous when pi­lot sea­son came around,’’ she says. ‘‘You’d read the first page and it would say: ‘[In­sert char­ac­ter name]. She is 24, gor­geous, has a fig­ure to die for’. And then in comes the guy. He is ‘45, bril­liant and in­tel­li­gent’ or what­ever. Noth­ing about how he looks, of course. I said I would never go up for any­thing where it said that the char­ac­ter was hot or sexy.

‘‘Firstly, be­cause I don’t want to sit in a room with a bunch of mod­els and feel ter­ri­ble about my­self, but also be­cause it’s hor­ri­bly sex­ist.’’

Sex­ism is, of course, an all­con­sum­ing topic. ‘‘There is less sex­ism than when I started. I have seen more fe­male di­rec­tors, writ­ers, fe­male crew. We are def­i­nitely mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.’’

Par­ish is look­ing towards more cre­ative control and is start­ing to take on ex­ec­u­tive be­hind-thescenes roles in sev­eral drama projects that are cur­rently at a nascent stage.

She be­lieves that an em­pow­er­ment of women will also help com­bat the aw­ful al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment which she says, ‘‘were bound to come to light sooner or later’’, yet also feels strongly that the in­dus­try shouldn’t be di­vided along gen­der lines.

‘‘I don’t think that we should be say­ing that things should be more fe­male-led be­cause you are pit­ting the sexes against each other. It can’t be­come a ques­tion of men ver­sus women.’’

El­iz­a­beth Ban­croft, Par­ish’s lat­est char­ac­ter, has had to work hard to suc­ceed in a man’s world. A tal­ented de­tec­tive chief in­spec­tor with no smooth edges, she has had to be con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than the men who sur­round her. In re­search­ing the part, Par­ish spoke to sev­eral se­nior fe­male po­lice of­fi­cers in Bolton, where the se­ries was filmed.

‘‘They all had a sim­i­lar air about them – they were tough peo­ple. When you look at the tragic things they have to deal with every day, as well as the fact that they are sur­rounded by loads of blokes, they have to build an ar­mour. The way to deal with it is to be ei­ther in­cred­i­bly fem­i­nine or in­cred­i­bly mas­cu­line, and I think it’s a shame that you have to be so ex­treme.’’

Over four episodes, Ban­croft‘s past catches up with her and her ti­ta­nium core is se­verely shaken.

As an ac­tress, Par­ish is drawn to this sort of emo­tional un­rav­el­ling. ‘‘It’s fas­ci­nat­ing – when you watch a control freak break down, things get pretty ugly.’’

Of course, there is a link here with Anna Ramp­ton, the al­most mono­syl­labic ‘‘Direc­tor of Bet­ter’’ in John Mor­ton’s sublime BBC mock­u­men­tary W1A. Par­ish’s pitch-per­fect ‘‘Yes. No. Ex­actly’’ has now slipped into the national con­scious­ness. The fact is (to coin one of Ramp­ton’s catch­phrases), this steely ex­ec­u­tive was men­tally frag­ile and un­suit­able to deal with such a de­mand­ing world. I ask Par­ish whether it is flip­pant to deal with such se­ri­ous is­sues in com­edy.

‘‘Ab­so­lutely not,’’ she says. ‘‘I think com­edy is ac­tu­ally a bet­ter place to ex­plore dark is­sues than drama. I know that as a viewer I in­vest far more in a char­ac­ter that I have laughed at and the ef­fect can be in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful.’’

Par­ish is good fun and plain­speak­ing, and I re­mem­ber her mother’s no-non­sense ap­proach to her looks. Par­ish seems to have passed this prag­ma­tism down to her 8-year-old daugh­ter, Nell, who, she says is ‘‘not re­motely in­ter­ested in what I do’’.

‘‘We did a fundraiser at Winch­ester Cathe­dral last night and Hugh [W1A co-star Hugh Bon­neville] was there and I was say­ing: ‘Look, there’s Padding­ton’s dad! And she was like: ‘What­ever’. She just wanted some cake.’’

That fundraiser was for #2Mil­lion Steps, a cam­paign aim­ing to raise £2 mil­lion for a Pae­di­atric Emer­gency and Trauma Unit in Southamp­ton. It was started by Par­ish and her ac­tor hus­band James Mur­ray (the cou­ple live nearby in Hamp­shire), after their first daugh­ter, El­laJayne died in 2009, aged eight months, hav­ing suf­fered from a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect.

The project has gal­vanised Par­ish, and she has had to throw her­self into pub­lic speak­ing. ‘‘I am get­ting slightly bet­ter at it but I still shake with nerves. I can barely speak.’’

Par­ish says she is driven, in part, by a typ­i­cal ac­torly in­se­cu­rity, and I won­der if that has be­gun to sub­side now that she is more suc­cess­ful. ‘‘Every year, I say this will be the year when I fail. And then, at the end of every year, I say ‘I think I have got away with it again’. Bril­liant.’’ – The Daily Tele­graph

❚ Ban­croft de­buts on TVNZ1 at 9pm on Sun­day.

Sarah Par­ish (in front) is joined by Faye Marsay in the four-part se­ries Ban­croft.

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