Weekend interview: Sheridan Smith

The line-up has been announced for Lytham Festival 2019
The line-up has been announced for Lytham Festival 2019
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Sheridan Smith is back on our TV screens. She talks to Phil Penfold about being in the limelight, acting and why she loves living on a farm.

There must have been so many of her loyal fans who were more than a bit concerned about the path that Sheridan Smith was taking. She had won Bafta and Olivier Awards, and was acclaimed by the critics. But then she alienated audiences when she didn’t turn up for some performances of the West End hit Funny Girl, and her life started getting a tad messy. And, at the height of her worries, she posted some tweets that raised a few eyebrows.

But today, the hugely talented Miss Smith is the picture of health and full of exuberant goodwill, and not the sort that comes from a supportive bottle. That’s not a slur on her – she’s confessed that in her darkest hours, she relied a little too hard on a drop of alcohol when a performance 
was over.

Now, though, the 37 year-old seems to have a renewed sense of purpose. And that, she reveals candidly, stems from a few things. The new man in her life, Jamie Horn, a partner who keeps very much in the background; her new dog, a long-haired puppy called Trevor – Sheridan has always been canine-crazy – and her new home, a “farm in the country, a long way from London”.

The latter helps keep her focused. “I just love mucking out the donkeys. We have three of them, all rescue animals, as well as goats and pigs. And I couldn’t be happier just pulling on a pair of old jeans, and a pair of wellies, and getting stuck in. It’s hugely therapeutic, literally ‘down to earth’, and at last I find myself doing something that has absolutely nothing to do with entertainment, and which is sensible and practical.”

Born in Epworth, just over the border into Lincolnshire, Sheridan cut her teeth in entertainment, singing and playing in all sorts of clubs and venues in South Yorkshire, particularly in Doncaster. This is the part of the world where she learned the showbiz adage of “teeth and smiles” from her mother Marilyn (who took her to countless dance and acting competitions in the area), and how to play an audience with gags and asides from her father Colin. It was his death from cancer that caused her such distress.

But today, dressed in black leggings and top, with her blonde hair tucked back, she is being open, honest and, at times, engagingly funny. Sheridan is back on form, and her demons are in the past.

She’s firmly back in the limelight, too. Last year she found time to make two new TV dramas – the six-parter Cleaning Up, for ITV, which started last week, and the BBC’s one-off Care, and she also recorded a new album, A Northern Soul. She’s also soon to embark on a stage tour. “That’ll start in March and, among others, I’m playing both Hull and Sheffield. So I’m back being busy.”

She says a happy home life helps. “Yes, I want my career, but I would also like to have as much as a ‘normal’ existence as is possible. I honestly cannot be doing with all that alleged ‘glitz and glamour’ thing. I love meeting people and I’ll always stop 
and talk. But yes, I have changed – when I first started out getting successful, people from public 
relations departments would school me in what I could and could not say, what was required, what wasn’t.

“Part of my upbringing, from Mum and Dad and my brothers, was always to be truthful, to be honest. But what I was hiding was my true self. It sounds very dramatic, but I’m being honest here. I’ve finally learned that if I’m open and honest people will relate,” she says.

“Back in November, I was given the incredible honour of singing at the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall. What a complete privilege. Me, in front of all those important people and scores of millions on TV. But it wasn’t the royals that I felt I had to bow and curtsey to, all the politicians and the big-wigs. It was the lads and lasses of the services, and in particular all those veterans, that made me feel so incredibly humble. It was, honestly, overwhelming. I was in tears – it was very emotional”.

As the new year moves on, Sheridan will also be turning her attention to setting up her own production company. “I definitely want to be more creatively involved and I want to be able to work with good, talented people,” she says. “I think that the final decision to go down this route came with making Cleaning Up, because it was the longest TV shoot that I’ve ever been on. It’s six segments, and it took the best part of the year to get it all done. So I really got to know the cast and crew, and I began to realise what astonishing talent there is around – everyone from the ladies in make-up and costume to the sound guys and our two directors. The atmosphere on the set was always upbeat, everyone knew their job, and it was always a happy place. I thought to myself ‘This is how I’d like to progress it in future’, using folk that I know, with whom I feel confident.”

Cleaning Up centres on Sheridan’s character, Sam, a mother-of-two who is estranged from her husband. She’s an office cleaner, working at Canary Wharf, and is an out and out Londoner – which meant that she had to drop her native accent. And Sam has a problem. She is a gambler, a pastime that has become an addiction. “She has her daughters, and a messy life. I can relate to the messy life – the children I haven’t had yet.”

Sam has debt problems and, after overhearing one of the high-flying traders on the phone discussing an insider deal, she finds the funds to buy a few shares and, she hopes, the way out of her problems. But then it all gets deeper – and darker.

“It’s all gambling though, isn’t it?” says Sheridan. “It’s the same, basically. You could be placing £1m on the stock market hoping that shares could go up – or £1 on a likely horse in the bookies in Doncaster.

“I love this series, because it addresses a lot of issues and problems – not least the home gambling industry. It’s a long way from my early years in Epworth, when even a little lass like me could be sent off to place a bet in the local shop, and the room would be so full of smoke that you couldn’t see from one side to the other.”

She enjoyed playing Sam. “She has depth and grit to her. It’s always the research for me – whether I’m playing real-life people like Mrs Biggs or Cilla, or the fictional people like Sam. I go in there, and I try to find what makes them tick, what their motivation is.”

But when the filming is over she seldom watches the finished product “because I always disappoint myself. I always think ‘could do better’”.

She did go back and see her own Who Do You Think You Are? – which she found “cathartic” – and she’ll be interested in the controversy that Cleaning Up causes. She’ll also take away a new skill. “We were sent off to a proper cleaning school, so that we looked as if we looked as if we were doing it right. I am now expert in tying a refuse bag properly! I also know that, with a stain, it is not wipe, but dab. Have I taken all the new cleanliness home with me? Have I heck,” she says, laughing. “I make sure all the animals are in a nice clean environment, though.”

Cleaning Up continues on Wednesday at 9pm on ITV. Sheridan Smith will also appear at Sheffield City Hall on March 25, and Bonus Arena, Hull, on March 28.