Culture

Sally Phillips: 'I had to go through this revelation that I'm no good at acting'

Sally Phillips always wanted to be a Brownie, then almost became an academic before comedy came calling

Sally Phillips

Image: RUTH CRAFER

Sally Phillips was born in 1970 in Hong Kong. Her dad’s job with British Airways meant she grew up in the Far East, the Middle East, Italy and Australia. After leaving school, she went to New College, Oxford to study Italian and linguistics and graduated with a first.

During her uni stint she joined the Oxford Revue, performing alongside the likes of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Her first TV role was on Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun in 1994, and since then she has gone on to have an illustrious career in TV and film, most notably appearing as Shazza in the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary.

But it’s TV comedy that Phillips is most renowned for. She co-creatied the Emmy-winning comedy Smack the Pony and has also had roles in I’m Alan Partridge, Green Wing and Miranda. In 2003, she was listed in The Observer‘s 50 funniest acts in British comedy.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, Phillips talks about her globetrotting upbringing, how she realised that she wanted to make people laugh and how her oldest son has changed her perspective on life.

At 16 I was in an all-girls boarding school in High Wycombe. I did have some good friends there, but mainly I hated it. Everyone wore exactly the same stripy skirts. I wish I could say I was a rebel, wearing latex, but I was definitely trying to fit in. I wasn’t a tragic sad case, but the whole time I felt I just wasn’t like the others. I would say to my 16-year-old self, in a couple of years it’s going be good that you don’t fit in here. This is the only place that it matters that you don’t fit in. The minute you leave, this is going to be a massive advantage. 

My dad worked for British Airways. I was born in Hong Kong and my little brother was born in Borneo. And we lived in the Middle East. My first school was in Beirut – I remember soldiers firing on the beach and the school bus being held up and then just thinking, we’ve been blown up on the road. I went to school in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and I was desperate to join the Brownies in Abu Dhabi. I remember running to my mum shouting, I’ve been accepted into the Brownies! And she just said, we’re moving country again. So I never got to be a Brownie. Again, I would tell my younger self, it is going to be completely fine never to have been a Brownie, though it felt like the end of the world then.  

I think the idea of the company paying for boarding school is that it would give you some stability when your family were constantly moving around. But the price of stability was being torn from your family home and your family relationships. We were living in Australia and I was going back to boarding school in the UK and I was flying on a plane on my own, aged nine. I locked myself in the bathroom and basically just screamed. But my parents thought they were giving me the biggest treat and getting the best education money could buy. I found out much later that my dad, because he worked for British Airways, was allowed to walk me onto the plane into my seat. I was belly aching the whole way. When he got back to the terminal he thought, I can’t do it, so he turned round to go and get me. But by this stage, I realised I’d lost. So I sort of pulled myself together and he saw me looking quite composed so he left me there. I’d tell my younger self, keep up the crying for just five more minutes. Just keep complaining a little bit longer. 

Sally Phillips in 1998
1998: Becoming a familiar face on TV after appearing on I’m Alan Partridge and Holding the Baby. Image: Shutterstock

I don’t know where my love of performing came from, but I was doing it really young. I was putting on plays for parents in a slightly insane way, I was a megalomaniac writing my own Aladdin aged six and making everyone in my school in the Middle East be in it. Later on I was doing school plays every week. I thought I was very good, but the more serious I was, the funnier I was. If I was playing Juliet and I died, the audience would laugh and say ‘bless’. I had to go through this revelation that I’m not good at acting. I’m ridiculous. I would probably tell my younger self, you don’t have to protect yourself from being ridiculous. It’s a great career. I wasn’t someone who stood on tables doing the can-can. Or someone who made loads of jokes. I remember realising that the better I tried to sing, the funnier it was. That thing of reaching for the stars and ending up falling into the dessert trolley, that’s a big part of my writing.   

When I came out of [Oxford] uni I was really afraid. Because by that stage I’d come across people like Rachel Weisz and I could see if I wanted to be an actor there might not be room for me. I was too scared to audition for Rada because my family was so dead set against it. So I was really nervous. I thought to myself, well listen, if I get a first I’ll become an academic. And I did get a first and I was on my way to studying spaghetti westerns. But then I thought, I’ll be 27 and a world expert on spaghetti westerns – I don’t think I even like spaghetti westerns that much. So I ran away to clown school. But I’d say to my younger self, be a bit braver. I wish I’d had a go at Rada. I wasn’t courageous enough but that was what I really wanted to do.  

Smack The Pony stars at the Emmys
2000: (Left to right) Smack the Pony writer Vicky Pile, co-star Doon Mackichan and Phillips at the Emmys in New York City. Image: Shutterstock

I’d say to my younger self, you’ll have jobs you think are a big break but quite often you won’t get work for a long time after that. It doesn’t work how you think it will. Even after things like Smack the Pony or Bridget Jones or Alan Partridge. But I’d say, don’t be freaked out if you keep feeling you’re going back to the beginning. How and when you get employed is going to be completely unpredictable. And it’s going to feel desperate. I had one year when I decided to go classy. I had one job when I had to open the door to Robson Green and he told me my ex-husband had killed and probably eaten my lesbian lover. And I had to say “He’s done what?” But I found it really, really hard not to just be hilarious and that did not work in that context. 

I probably assumed I would be a mum at some point. But I would probably say to my younger self, take marriage much more seriously and give it a lot more thought. As Caitlin Moran says, it’s the most important decision you will ever make. I think we were in the era where being a feminist meant not thinking about that, not having a fantasy about a wedding and being a mum. I hadn’t had a serious and honest conversation with myself about what kind of family I wanted. What kind of marriage I wanted. What kind of work-life balance – ha ha. I think it felt unromantic to think that far in advance, but previous generations did think about that quite seriously. I would just say, you need to have some very unromantic conversations about what you want. Because I think my ex and I wanted to please the other and tried to be someone we weren’t. He really wanted to go and live in a village and have a stay-at-home wife. I couldn’t be that.  

Sally Phillips with sons
2018: With sons Olly, Tom and Luke in London. Image: Shutterstock

My first thought when I found out I had a Down’s syndrome kid [her oldest son Olly has Down’s syndrome] was, so this is it. Until now nothing’s gone particularly wrong for me. But I’ve had a feeling that would change, something would happen. So my very first thought was, OK, if this is it, I can handle it. But everyone around me was behaving like the world had ended, and that was very unhelpful. I started to believe them at one point. And I must say that the worst thing has been trying to get the help or support that just isn’t there. But I’d like to go back to myself at that time and say, your life is going to get so much richer. You’re going to get so much more of everything – of suffering and of love. I always think of it as, I am living an amplified life. Wider, higher, free-er.  My son has an amazing ability to see what’s really important to the other person. He’s the one who finds the person who is left out in a group. He’ll see when I’m unhappy before I realise it. He’s not magic. He’s just a boy. But he’s very emotionally aware. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

If I could go back to any moment in my life it would be when the kids were small, and we all used to dance in Olly’s room to Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) by Shakira. It was hilarious, but I kept it very serious, like this was the highest art I’d ever seen. And they would really go for it, doing these very focused ballet moves and Brazilian moves. They did hours of that when they were little but now of course they’re 18, 16 and 11. If I could go back to those children’s shows in Olly’s bedroom when they were small, and play them in slow motion, I would be so happy.  

Sally Phillips: My Life at Easter will air on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on April 7 at 11.15am and April 9 at 11.30am

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Bikini Kill star and riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna: 'I'd ask my younger self why she was doing meth'
Kathleen Hanna
Letter to my Younger Self

Bikini Kill star and riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna: 'I'd ask my younger self why she was doing meth'

Baroness Floella Benjamin on being Black on TV, Play School and giving hope to children in poverty
Baroness Floella Benjamin
TV

Baroness Floella Benjamin on being Black on TV, Play School and giving hope to children in poverty

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke
Books

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke

Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'
Furiosa
Film

Furiosa director George Miller on the function of stories and why Mad Max is a 'cautionary tale'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know