TV star on the tragic loss of her baby daughter
When Sarah Parish wants to get things done, she says she “puts on a bit of Anna Rampton”. Parish played the fictional BBC head of output in mockumentary W1A. Now she and her husband, fellow actor James Murray, have channelled Rampton’s bracing efficiency in real life, raising £5.1m for a new paediatric A&E department at University Hospital Southampton.
On the phone from the hospital, they talk animatedly about how the soundproof walls will give recovering children privacy, and the in-house X-ray department, meaning patients don’t have to be discharged and moved to another wing for treatment. When it opens next spring, the department will treat more than 30,000 young people every year.
Raising the money was hard work; more challenging than their day jobs acting, laughs Parish. She met Murray when they both starred in BBC drama Cutting It in 2002. They’ve become fundraisers to build a legacy for their daughter, Ella-Jayne, who died at eight months old on January 3, 2009.
Ella-Jayne was born five weeks premature with a congenital heart defect and a hole in her heart. For four months, she was treated at the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Southampton.
“Having been through that maelstrom of anxiety, the worst possible thing that could happen to a parent, you just want to know your child is getting the best possible shot at recovery and at life,” says Murray. “When Ella-Jayne was in hospital we were surrounded by the best staff but you have to make sure they have facilities to match their expertise.”
Parish adds: “Everybody’s situation is different, but for me, having been in that desperate situation, it’s about relinquishing control. There is nothing you can do, you have to take it one minute at a time to stay as strong as you can for this child who needs you.”
Their charity, The Murray Parish Trust, raised £2m for the department and it has been matched by the Government. A further £800,000 has been allocated by University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. “Someone climbed the Matterhorn to raise money for us,” says Parish. “It’s so lovely to see people picking up the ball and running with it.”
Parish explains the importance of the 11 soundproof cubicles. “They give injured children the dignity they deserve — they just want to be with their parents and not overheard. At the moment there are just four curtained bays with beds in, so if someone is in agony next to you, you can hear exactly what is going on. It is traumatic,” she says.
I interviewed the couple in 2014, when they were charity novices. They had raised £400,000 for two new bed spaces and an expanded wing at Southampton. They spoke about the experience of having a baby, knowing it was supposed to be a happy time, but finding themselves, Parish said, “in the middle of a hideous nightmare”. After Ella-Jayne died they went to Cambodia for two months to work in an orphanage. Parish said: “We had to get out because there is nothing worse than being surrounded by people asking if you are alright. You are not alright but you don’t want to talk about it all the time. I remember one person telling me to go and lie on a beach but I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
Ten months after Ella-Jayne died they had another daughter, Nell. She is now eight and knows all about her sister, says Murray. “If the work is taking us away from her we tell her it’s because of Ella-Jayne and keeping her legacy alive.”
This project was inspired by a campaign by the Evening Standard newspaper. “We were at a ‘do’ for donors from our first fundraising and going ‘How are we going to raise more money?’” says Murray. “Then a clinician came in with a Standard. She read that the Standard had matched funds raised by Great Ormond Street — wouldn’t it be brilliant if we did the same and the Government matched our funds?”
“Taking it on was daunting,” says Parish. “It put our little homemade charity on the map and made us feel much more responsible than before.”
Their colleagues have been supportive — the cast of Trollied came to their last Odd Ball fundraiser and Hugh Bonneville, Olivia Colman and Catherine Tate have given speeches for the charity.
Parish was the first to hear that they’d met their target. “Jim was in another room when
You make strong connections when going through terrible trauma
one of our trustees called and I was so excited that in the next five minutes I’d tell Jim.”
“It’s a cause people can relate to,” Murray continues. “This could happen to anyone at any time. Like any other young couple it could have happened to, we have suffered a tragedy and want to help others that might be in the same situation — to help advance paediatric medicine. We are just two people trying to find some positivity out of it.”
Murray talks about the children they’ve met campaigning. “There’s a boy who was knocked down by a car and because it happened to be on a day where the resources were stretched at the hospital, he didn’t get the immediate care he needed. So his prognosis for being able to walk again is foggy at best.
“If the facilities had been on hand under one roof it would have been more favourable. Now we are able to look his parents in the eye and say what we’re doing will make a difference.”
The staff who looked after Ella-Jayne will work on the new ward. Parish says: “We met them at the most desperate time of our life, you make these very strong connections when going through terrible trauma, so I love that we still know them. They work crazy hours and are all geniuses, it’s lovely to help them when they helped us. The NHS is brilliant but they desperately need charities like us.”
Now it’s back to acting. Murray is about to go to the Middle East to play Ryan Reynolds’s brother in an action film and Parish has just returned from Rome, where she was playing Lucrezia de’ Medici in TV series The Medicis: “You feel quite a responsibility playing someone who was alive.” She’s off to Manchester next month for ITV detective show Bancroft, adding that she misses Anna Rampton and “would love for W1A to come back”. When they are working in separate places they try to Face Time every night, with Nell.
“Our proper jobs sometimes do take second place to the charity,” admits Parish. “There are deadlines with huge amounts of money at stake so I accept that I’ll have to read scripts another day or just wing it. The charity is triple the work of acting. Going to Rome to film was like a holiday from the charity.” Murray chips in: “You worry that your audition will suffer and you won’t get the job. Then you get a major donor and realise that’s why we do it. It’s about keeping our daughter’s memory alive.”
This is just the start. Parish says: “Having achieved this makes us want to build on the charity. There’s a slight gulp of anticipation thinking about what’s next. This has snowballed. We have a fantastic support network whom we can’t let down.” They’ve been inundated with ideas. “To have got this far is the stuff of dreams,” says Murray. “If we can build this in two years, if we continue on this trajectory with more projects, we can make a real difference. It’s become Ella-Jayne’s legacy rather than just something Sarah and I are doing.”
AMAZING EFFORT: fundraising couple James Murray and Sarah Parish and (right) Parish in the ITV detective series Bancroft