Sarah Parish: ‘The pain was excruciating’
Breaking her back on holiday recently was a terrifying ordeal for SARAH PARISH. But, she tells Hattie Crisell, determination, humour and a spine-straightening corset got her back on her feet – and our screens – in record time
Sarah wears coat, Joseph
In the morning that I interview actress Sarah Parish, I’m the first to arrive at the photo studio in West London – and as I wait, I’m a little worried about what to expect. It’s only three weeks since she revealed in an Instagram post that she’d fractured her spine. ‘Life really does appear to be taking a massive dump on my head right now,’ she wrote, alongside a photo of her in hospital. I’ve interviewed her before, two years ago, during which she was such good company that her publicist and I were often helpless with laughter – the epitome of someone comfortable in her own skin. I’m just not sure how comfortable she is likely to be today.
Then, from a window, I see a familiar figure, walking tall with a poker-straight back. It’s Sarah, in jeans, trainers and a rainbow-striped jacket, arriving on her own from her home in Hampshire. She doesn’t look like somebody with a broken back. Having greeted me warmly, she lifts her jumper to reveal some scaffolding – a stiff medical corset, which will help her back to heal.
Sarah, 53, has been acting for more than 30 years. She’s appeared in so many TV shows – Industry, W1A, Cutting It, Broadchurch, Hearts and Bones, Medici, Atlantis, Mistresses and Bancroft, to name just a handful – that she is part of the furniture of British culture.
She grew up in Yeovil, Somerset, with parents who loved musical theatre; her elder brother and sister are now a music producer and music teacher respectively. As a child, Sarah wanted to be a dancer, but failed her audition for the Royal Ballet School. Instead, she threw herself into acting. An appearance in an advert for Boddingtons beer, in which she reclined in a bikini before purring, ‘Give us another rubdown with that chip fat’ in a thick Mancunian accent, won her a role in medical drama Peak Practice. The rest is TV history.
Once we’ve settled with a coffee, she obligingly gives me the full story of her accident, which happened at the end of a holiday in Turkey with her husband, actor James Murray, and their daughter Nell, 12. ‘I would love to say that I was flinging myself around water-skiing or bungee jumping, but I was actually fast-walking through the buffet area of the hotel to get myself a piece of cheese to have in the cab on the way to the airport,’ she says. ‘Literally every five yards around me was one of those yellow signs saying “Slippery floor” and I just went like that…’ She mimes a banana-skin-style pratfall.
Shirt, Jigsaw. Trousers, Frame
While the scenario may be humorous, the pain was not. ‘It was excruciating,’ she says. Instead of getting into the waiting cab for the airport, she was lifted into an ambulance and taken to the nearest hospital. ‘We were going, “We might still get the plane! You never know, if I get in the MRI quick enough we might get it.”’ She laughs at her naivety. A series of tests were run and while she waited for the results, Sarah admits to feeling very frightened, worrying if she might ever walk again. ‘I had a very dark night of the soul,’ she admits.
Luckily for her, while the MRI revealed a broken vertebra, the fracture was a clean one, and she doesn’t seem to have suffered life-changing damage. After three days of bed rest she was flown home on a special medical flight. ‘It was so gutting – it literally is going to be the only time that I ever get to fly in a private jet, and I was horizontal, there was no champagne and I didn’t even get a bag of nuts,’ she jokes. But her recovery is going well. Within a day or two she was walking with a Zimmer frame, and then with crutches. ‘Three weeks ago, I could take three little steps – and now I can run.’
This is actually the latest in a series of accidents: earlier on the same trip she cracked a rib by falling into the water while wakeboarding, and in 2018 she broke her leg sledging on a snowy day. ‘I have had nights lying awake thinking, “I’ve got osteoporosis.”’ But a recent bone-density scan came back clear. ‘I’m just very clumsy,’ she laughs. The family are spending Christmas in Costa Rica, where white-water rafting was to be on the itinerary. ‘I said to Jim, “I might have to cancel that.”’
Sarah and I are meeting to discuss her new Netflix thriller Stay Close. Based on a novel by Harlan Coben, it’s a twisty, eight-part mystery involving a large cast of characters, each of whom seems to be harbouring a terrible secret. Sarah stars as nightclub manager Lorraine, alongside Cush Jumbo, James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage and Eddie Izzard. Many of her past roles have been severe types, from psychopathic police detective Bancroft to W1A’s uptight Anna Rampton; she’s previously put this down to the fact that ‘I haven’t got a nice, cute little face – I’m high of cheekbone, as my mother would say.’
So it’s refreshing to see her play Lorraine, a role that draws instead on her natural warmth and humour. ‘She is a lovable character – she’s the heart of the piece,’ she says. She also has wild curly hair, very different to Sarah’s own. ‘It seemed like a great idea at the time. It’s a fun look but, of course, the decisions you make at the beginning of the shoot… by the end, you’re thinking, “Oh my god, that’s another hour in make-up that I’m never going to get back.”’
Things have changed a lot since she started out. At the casting for that Boddingtons ad in 1994, she was told to change into a bikini and high heels in a toilet cubicle, then come in and audition for a room full of men. It’s hard to imagine an advertiser handling a campaign that way today. ‘Yes, I wouldn’t say it was a healthy environment in the 80s and 90s,’ she says. ‘Looking at where we are now and where we were then, we’ve made a huge leap, thank god. The pendulum has almost swung too much the other way, but that has to happen. For things to change – and they must – the pendulum has to swing the other way. Our whole world has been run by white middle-class men for hundreds of years. It’s now time for everybody else to come to the table, and if that means that some people are going to have to sit out of work every now and again – and that includes myself – then suck it up. The world has to change, because the world that we know was only working for a very small number of people.’
One area where the pendulum hasn’t swung far enough, she believes, is in the representation of older women on screen. ‘I was talking to a few of my girlfriends the other day, and we all still work, which is great, but what we find is that a lot of the time, we are in programmes servicing a younger character’s story. What I would love to see, and I know all my older friends would agree, is the stories being about us.’
Her vision is a persuasive one. ‘As a woman gets older, she does become more interesting. We’re less insecure, we’re funnier, we’re blunter. Everything about us is better – apart from our skin laxity.’ She laughs. ‘I think there is a fear of age, and we’ve just got to embrace it. We’re all going to get older, and we need to see that, warts and all, on TV. Older people have sex, older people have affairs, older people go to work – let’s see it, let’s not be frightened of it.’
I ask if she’d like to get more involved behind the scenes of television, so she could have more of a say in what is being made, and she confirms that she’s working on a couple of projects but can’t discuss them yet. ‘Being an actor is a wonderful job, but you are at the mercy of everybody else’s decisions a lot of the time, and as you get older you don’t want that as much.’
Sarah with husband James and their daughter Nel
Part of getting older, of course, is the menopause. It has made her occasionally ratty, she says, but that has its upsides: ‘What’s great and awful in equal measure is that the fluffy oestrogen that used to take the edge off, so that you’d let things go, that’s gone, and I do find myself going, “That’s bull***t!” You’ve got nothing to lose, that’s what it feels like. And in the ‘olden days’, at 53 I’d be in my last few years – but I’ve got another 30 yet. So this period is about becoming a new woman.’
She’s found the pandemic a good time to reflect. She and James, who married in 2007, lost their first daughter Ella-Jayne in 2009 when she was eight months old; she had a congenital heart defect. Though the grief was shattering, it led the couple to start a charity, the Murray Parish Trust, through which they’ve raised huge amounts of money for paediatric emergency care in the south of England, and helped fund a new children’s trauma department at University Hospital Southampton. ‘There is only one way to numb the pain of losing a child and that is to help other children,’ she’s explained previously.
Last time we spoke, they were embarking on a fundraising campaign to buy an intraoperative MRI scanner that would allow children to be scanned during brain or spinal surgery. Covid, of course, has delayed this, but it’s still on the agenda. ‘I’m very confident that the appeal will be done this time next year,’ says Sarah. In the first lockdown, they paused it and raised money for NHS meals instead.
‘Obviously lockdown was an awful time – we could see what was going on, and it was pretty scary,’ she recalls. ‘But we were together as a family, and Nell still really likes us – because she’s at that age where we’re not horribly embarrassing yet – and so we just had a lovely time at home. I remember going for a walk one day and thinking, “God, I feel completely happy and at peace.” As an actor, you never, ever feel like that. You’re always thinking about the next job, or “What if I don’t work next year – how are we going to feed the family, how are we going to pay the mortgage?” You’re so used to being in that permanently slightly stressed place that to have it taken away for a while was an incredible feeling.’
Sarah in new Netflix show Stay Close
It couldn’t last for ever, of course, and nor, in the end, did she want it to. ‘There was a patch in August 2020 where we were like, “Um, we’re sick of banana bread, we don’t want to do any more home schooling, we’ve drunk our body weight in wine, and we’re running out of money” – and then work kicked back in.’
James has subsequently won a role in The Crown, which must have been an exciting moment. ‘It was, yeah. I mean, double-edged sword really, isn’t it?’ says Sarah, looking at me straight-faced. For a moment, I am confused, until she adds, ‘Well, he’s playing Prince Andrew,’ and starts to cackle. ‘It’s a great part. When he got the audition through, I went, “This is ridiculous – you’ve got to do it.”’
At the time, James was in Scotland on a fishing trip with his best friend or ‘other wife’, as Sarah puts it – the actor Robson Green. ‘He had to film his audition himself, with Robson playing the Queen, which makes me laugh so much,’ she grins. ‘This Geordie Queen! “Why aye, pet! What’s going on with you and Fergie?” He sent me the tape and I literally cried – it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’ James’s portrayal of Prince Andrew, she adds more seriously, is note-perfect. ‘It is scarily uncanny and he’s having a great time.’
In British TV terms, the couple are quite used to mixing with royalty – Sarah’s friends include Amanda Holden and Angela Griffin – but they’re not very interested in the celebrity world. She has turned down Strictly, for example: ‘Most actors have!’ I ask why, and she says, ‘Everybody wants to learn the dances and wear the costumes – I just don’t want to do it in front of the public. I’m not good under pressure, I don’t like the limelight and I don’t go to parties or anything like that. I’m an extrovert, but I just like being at home.’
Strictly, she adds, would tap straight back into that dark night of the soul she had in her hospital bed in Turkey. ‘I’d have nightmares that I’m in the wings, I look down, I’m in Lycra, I haven’t learnt the dance – then we’re doing a rhumba, and I fall over and break something,’ she says. And yet, as we wrap up the interview, she stands up straight and glides gracefully into the photo studio – seemingly as comfortable as ever.
Stay Close will premiere on Netflix on 31 December
Styling: Nicola Rose, Assisted by Lottie Franklin.
Make-up: Barrie Griffith using Rodial. Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes using Hair Rituel by Sisley.
Picture Director: Ester Malloy.