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Candid for the Cameras

She may be a household name, with credits in TV and film on both sides of the Atlantic, but Sally Phillips is also dedicated to using her name to help others.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Sally Phillips asks me as we sit down for our interview, “I get through gallons of the stuff.” Yes, it’s one of the most innocuous questions anyone can be asked, yet I’d been half-expecting Sally to be surrounded by an entourage, given her portfolio of work over the last 20 years. From writing and starring in comedies such as popular sketch show Smack The Pony, playing the sniggering receptionist in I’m Alan Partridge and appearing as Holly Hawkes in hospital comedy Green Wing, to portraying Bridget’s best friend Shazza in all three of the internationally successful Bridget Jones’ Diary films, posh Tilly in Miranda, and the straight-talking Finnish prime minister Minna Häkkinen in award-winning US comedy Veep, not to mention her recent voiceover role in hit animation Ferdinand, Sally’s career has been pretty stellar. And yet here she is, offering me a cup of tea.

In fact, she comes across as quite the opposite of showbiz; I find an intelligent woman happy to have a good natter and talk passionately about what’s close to her heart. The evening we meet, Sally has just come off stage at Richmond Theatre with fellow comics Jo Brand, Adam Hills and Seann Walsh, who have all given their time to perform to raise awareness and funds for charity SeeAbility. “I’m a parent of a child with a learning disability and SeeAbility do amazing work with people with disabilities,” Sally explains. “Adults with a disability are 10 times more likely to have sight problems than someone who is typically developing, and a child is 28 times more likely to have those sight problems. My son Olly, who has Down’s Syndrome, does have vision problems and there are a lot of people with similar issues who don’t get the care that they need; this is where SeeAbility steps in to help them.”

Epsom-based SeeAbility, which works primarily across the south of England, encourages people with disabilities to challenge what they expect from life, from both themselves and from wider society. The charity provides support and advocates eye care for people with learning disabilities and autism, many of whom have sight loss. SeeAbility is one of the oldest disability charities in the UK and has pioneered specialist support for more than 200 years.

“SeeAbility got in touch with me to see if I would get involved with this event and I thought ‘ooh that’s good, yes that needs to happen’; it’s a great to know they exist,” Sally adds. Sally is happy to talk frankly about her family life, which makes me warm to her even more, but she has met challenges along the way with being so open. When I ask her whether she would ever do another documentary to follow up her 2016 one A World Without Down’s Syndrome? there’s one clear answer. “No, I wouldn’t thank you, that one was enough,” she laughs before turning serious again. “I really enjoyed it and, in a way, it changed my life; once you’ve been through that troll blizzard, it gave me more courage to publicly stand out. The thing that really got to me was the argument [presented in the documentary] was co-opted by the abortion debate. Disability rights are different. People were so nervous because of anything that looks like it may limit the freedoms women have won, so people can be quite aggressive.” How did she deal with it? “The way I see it, no one died so I could deal with it again, you’re freed in a way,” she muses. “I think it’s nice not to be too po-faced about disability. The reality is, I probably wouldn’t have spent my life among people with disability if I hadn’t had Olly, but now that I do I can say it’s so, so much better.”

This leads onto a conversation about how people with disabilities have so much to teach us, especially in a culture where everyone’s trying to be perfect. “We live in times where everyone’s trying to look the same – why shouldn’t we try to be different, wonderful and extraordinary!” she says passionately. “All the body hating us women do, you hang out with someone with a different body and you stop caring about it really very fast. There we go, me being very serious,” she jokes.

Yet I like seeing this serious side of Sally. We know the comic actress of stage and screen well but now I’ve seen first-hand her readiness to help charities, as well as local initiatives. She recently got involved with the Wimbledon Short Film Festival, where she starred in an award-winning piece called Blood Shed with Shaun Dooley. Initially I thought she must sit on the festival’s board or a fellow actor had asked her to participate, but this wasn’t the case. “They [the film- makers] got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to do it. I like supporting people as it’s really hard to get going in this industry, and I like short films because it’s a bit like a sketch, plus it was a lot of fun to do. It’s tragic but true that if you’ve got someone from the telly in the film they’re more likely to sell it and make the money back.”

While home for Sally is Richmond, she does have a strong affiliation with the Wimbledon area; her father Tim Phillips was Chairman of The All England Club for 11 years and a well-known tennis player himself (having reached the US Open doubles finals). Does that mean her tennis is pretty good? “Mine is quite poor unfortunately,” she says. “I really love tennis and wanted to be quite good at it but I’m short and slow so that, in general, doesn’t help. My younger brother is really good, my dad played at the Grand Slams and we’re really proud of my brother’s daughter; we think she’s got the tennis genes as she’s only seven but has an LTA ranking.”

Our chat does eventually turn back to what she’s best known for and I wonder what’s the strangest thing she’s been asked to do in the name of comedy. “Armando Iannucci [the award-winning film and TV writer and director] once had me body painted as a filing cabinet, that was quite strange,” she says, “and I’ve been flown over the Houses of Parliament yelling ‘looking for company?’ trying to start the first sex scandal in the next government.” Unusual things indeed, but experiences that no doubt have led this well- known actor to have a refreshingly down-to- earth approach to life.

To find out more about SeeAbility’s work, visit www.seeability.org

© Ruth Crafer© SeeAbility