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Sharing a laugh with God

Sally Phillips tells Claire Brine about being funny, making films and finding faith

Comedy was our family language

WHEN a TV and film star walks through a crowded café in central London, heads turn. I spot comedy actress Sally Phillips across the room and she catches my eye. Rushing over to greet me with a hug, she immediately insists on buying me coffee and cake. Then, just as we are settling down for the interview, an opportunistic fan approaches our table, telling Sally how much she adores her work. It turns out this kind of thing happens a lot.

‘I do get recognised, mainly because I’ve made programmes that small groups of people are quite devoted to,’ Sally explains. ‘So guys might recognise me because they love I’m Alan Partridge and Taskmaster. Women in their twenties tend to know me because of Miranda, while older women recognise me from the Bridget Jones films. These days I’m also known by people in the Down’s syndrome community, which is very tight-knit.’

In 2016 Sally broke away from her usual comedy platform to present a BBC documentary about Down’s syndrome. In A World Without Down’s Syndrome? she showed how the condition affects her eldest son, Olly, while also exploring the ethics behind pregnancy screening. It was a move that made her nervous.

‘I didn’t want to become known as the actress who had a child with Down’s syndrome,’ she says. ‘But I knew I couldn’t ask people to go on camera and speak openly about their families if I wasn’t prepared to take any risks myself. So I made the documentary.

‘I suppose my only anxiety in campaigning on disability is that I really love comedy. And I need to carry on making it to earn a living. But when I’m talking about Down’s syndrome and eugenics, I recognise that it’s not terribly funny.’

And being funny is what Sally is about. Taking me back to her earliest childhood memories of comedy, she recalls laughing with her parents at the Goodies, the Goons and Monty Python.

‘Comedy was our family language,’ she says. ‘We lived abroad, and I think that when Brits live overseas, we can end up overdeveloping certain characteristics. We drink a lot of tea and import Marmite and Cadbury’s chocolate, but we also resort to telling a lot of jokes, because that’s how we are different from everybody else.’

Growing up, Sally didn’t feel that she was ‘particularly funny’, but she started taking comedy seriously while studying languages at Oxford University. Later, she quit her PhD before she’d even started it, opting instead to enrol in clown school. After a stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, job offers started rolling in, leading her to make TV programmes such as Smack the Pony, Green Wing, Miranda, Veep, Zapped and Trollied and films including the Bridget Jones trilogy. Millions of people have enjoyed her scenes with stars such as Miranda Hart and Renée Zellweger, but I wonder about the bits fans didn’t get to see: what did they all talk about on set?

‘Sometimes actors talk about the ridiculous things we are asked to do for TV programmes or charity,’ Sally reveals. ‘But I was making the Down’s syndrome documentary when we filmed Bridget Jones’s Baby, so Renée and I talked quite a lot about that. She is into social justice – though it’s quite strange to be talking about that at 5 am.’

Perhaps surprisingly, faith has also been an occasional topic of conversation on set. Sally tells me that she and many of her comedian friends are Christians.

‘When I became a Christian at 26, I felt isolated, so I used to invite a group of friends to my flat to pray together, read the Bible and talk about comedy and faith,’ she says. ‘There was Milton Jones, Tim Vine, Jo Enright and the comedy writers James Cary and Paul Powell. We talked a lot about how to be a Christian and a comedian, and we had lots of discussions about swear words and whether they were appropriate.’

What was Sally’s view?

‘I feel our job is to represent people as they really are,’ she explains. ‘If you start saying that a character has to behave perfectly, then pretty soon you are left with only being able to play perfect people. And so the only person you can play is Jesus. I don’t see a problem with broken people playing broken people.

‘As for swear words, why are they wrong? Why is it so horrifying to name a body part? I do think Christians can be slightly obsessed with the rules around sex. There are more important things to worry about.’

While Sally today chats away confidently about her Christian beliefs, opening up on the subject of faith didn’t always come easy.

‘When I was a new Christian, I wasn’t keen on talking to the press about my faith, because I felt so exposed,’ she confesses. ‘But these days I feel proud to be a Christian. All my friends who have faith are working hard to make the world a better place. The Church is providing a welcome for the lost and the lonely, running night shelters and food banks. And when I go to church with Olly, it’s nice to know that I don’t have to fill in any forms or pay for access to special services for him. Everything is given out of love, for free.

‘Having said all that, I still feel uncomfortable in talking openly about the mechanics of my faith, because I’m aware that it can sound quite crazy.’

Christianity sounded strange to Sally herself back when she was an ardent atheist.

‘I tried to be a Christian at school,’ she says, ‘but when I went along to Christian Union, I found it to be preposterous and decided the whole thing was rubbish.

‘Then I got to uni and was targeted by the Christian Union there, which put me right off. I found it infuriating when Christians said: “I know I’m going to Heaven.” I used to reply: “You don’t know – you just believe that.” I became very anti-faith.’

But in Sally’s mid-twenties, her opinion began to change. She experienced an oppressive darkness in her life and couldn’t explain it.

‘I’d met with some witches because I wanted to do some research for a sitcom I was writing,’ she says. ‘I thought these witches were hilarious, but then I found them to be less so, and I began to have terrible nightmares.

‘Around the same time I ended up on a job with two Christians – the comedian Milton Jones and the actor Patrice Naiambana. They had me in a pincer grip and between them covered all my questions about suffering and “what do you mean when you say you talk to God?”

‘It was kind of God to bring these two men into my life, because they had very different attitudes to faith. Milton was reluctant to talk about it, but Patrice couldn’t stop talking about it. It was as though God was showing me that I could fit anywhere between those two extremes. I didn’t have to be one or the other.

‘One day, Patrice prayed for me. I cried and became a Christian. It doesn’t sound much, does it. But I arranged to meet him at church the next morning, and I turned up. And I haven’t stopped turning up since.’

I ask Sally if she can explain why she is convinced the Christian story is true when she spent so many years rejecting it.

‘I suppose it’s because I’m finding that the promises keep being true,’ she says. ‘The Bible says, “If you do this, that will happen.” And then it does. Most of the recommendations seem sensible and life-giving.

‘Another thing that keeps me connected to faith is the sweetness of God. When I pray, I come with all my worries, and gradually I can feel this sweetness seeping through my spirit.’

Sally also finds that being a Christian brings her an out-of-character courage. She credits it with helping her through times of doubt.

‘Three years ago I was asking God what I was for. I’d spent 20 years walking into pretend rooms, saying other people’s lines. Was that what I was for – or was I meant for anything else?

‘Then came the opportunity to make the documentary about Down’s syndrome. And consequently I’ve found myself speaking in the most extraordinary places, including the House of Lords. I want to say: “Guys, I’m a sitcom actress! This is ridiculous.” But then I feel this massive shared laugh with God. It’s really funny that he has put me there.’

While Sally likes to face the challenging circumstances with a good dollop of humour, life hasn’t always been a laugh a minute. Last year she went through a painful time when she and her husband divorced.

‘We had a very difficult marriage,’ she says. ‘Divorce is totally heartbreaking, and I haven’t handled it very well. But my children and I have received so much love from our church. And here’s the other thing I love: Jesus is so clearly for the broken people. He prefers them. He seeks them out. Sometimes I think we need to become broken before we can understand how much he loves us.’

Sally’s faith was also greatly tested about 13 years ago, when doctors told her that her baby son, Olly, had Down’s syndrome. For a long time, she blamed God for not giving her the healthy baby she had prayed for.

‘At first, I thought: “Fair cop, Guv. I’ve had a stress-free life so far, so I can cope with Down’s syndrome.” But then I expected to see more mercy, and it didn’t come. Olly didn’t only have Down’s syndrome, but he also seemed to have all of the medical conditions associated with it, such as occluded hearing and poor eyesight. I became bitter and said: “OK, God, that’s it. I’m done with this.” I tried to be an atheist for a year.’

But despite giving atheism another ‘good crack’, Sally eventually went back to faith. She cites a supportive church community as being significant in helping her to find peace and acceptance.

‘Having a problem in community is always slightly humiliating, because it’s difficult to be the person who needs help,’ she says. ‘But I also believe that a lot of problems are solved in community. More and more I’m finding God in people. I have a constant, quiet knowledge that when I’m meeting them, I’m meeting with him.’

Drinks and cakes almost finished, our conversation is coming to a close. While we’ve talked about the struggles of living with faith, Sally assures me that it remains a positive influence in her life.

‘Sometimes Christians sell this idea that there’s a God-shaped hole in life, and if you fill that hole with God, then all your problems will be resolved,’ she says. ‘But the Bible says something different from that. Jesus promises us an amplified life – and I love that. Amplified means more of everything, on every level. And I can’t say that God has reneged on that promise. I’m definitely living it.’

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