Sally Phillips, one of our best-loved comedic actors, recently became the focus of media attention for her BBC documentary, World Without Down’s Syndrome. As the mother of three children – all at schools in Richmond – her plan had been to investigate a new screening programme for the condition and take a rational look at the lives of children with disabilities. Instead she found herself in the middle of one of the most contentious battlegrounds of modern life, the debate between the Pro-life and anti-abortion lobbies. Here she tells RiverTribe Editor, Linda Duberley about the real reason the programme was so important and why children with intellectual impairments should be cherished.
We all know Sally Phillips. She played Bridget Jones’ loyal but mad friend, Shazza. She was also Miranda’s irritating and upper class friend Tilly. Her roles are many and diverse but she is right up there as the funny girl we love to love, one of the most talented, comedic actors around.
Then last year, we saw another side to her character. This was the side that showed her strength and resolve as a woman and a mother – it was the side that made us think twice about our favourite pretty, witty actor.
That was when Sally Phillips took to our screens in a different role, this time in order to promote her BBC2 documentary about a proposed screening programme to detect Down’s syndrome in unborn babies. In her numerous appearances to promote World Without Down’s Syndrome, Sally delivered her message with the kind of resonance and humanity that made many of us think twice about our own pre-conceptions. I watched her appearance on BBC Breakfast the morning the programme went to air and was moved to tears within fifteen seconds of her opening her mouth.
I have never met Sally before, but we have a great mutual friend, so somehow I knew I would like her. I was surprised at how much. She has a fierce intelligence that almost accelerates toward you once the conversation begins. This is a woman who thinks deeply before she speaks, but once she starts, you simply have to keep up. It is refreshing, in an era where there is so much noise, to hear such a clear narrative.
She says she acts because she has to. This is the clarion call of those who are devoted to treading the boards, but she is also is a talented screen-writer. She has a First in Modern Languages from New College, Oxford, nine performances at the Edinburgh Festival behind her with TV and film credits of which any actor would be proud. She has the kind of lateral-thinking brain that makes complex subjects accessible. If you want someone to take a look at the debate on how we live our lives as mothers and families, you could do no better than look here.
One notion stuck with me as we chatted at Carluccio’s in Richmond: How moving to see someone with a powerful intellect seek to protect those whose own intellect is impaired, but for whom life is still a joy.
What makes her remarkable beyond her acting career is her role as matriarch to her family in general and as mother to 12-year-old Olly in particular. Olly has Down’s syndrome. He is loved and he is valued – and that is why she made the programme.
Of course not everyone saw it that way. We are never far from remembering that we live in an internet age and nothing illustrates that more than part of the reaction to Sally’s programme. Out there among the supporters and well-wishers, were the disingenuous online crusaders who chose to turn her call for concern into an anti-abortion debate.
“This was never about abortion. It was about taking a look at the world in which we choose to live. It was about asking people to listen to their own judgement and not necessarily responding to what the doctors say. It was asking whether we needed this test at all”.
“I was upset that the Pro-life lobby co-opted this discussion because it was never about that. It was always about focusing attention on disabilities,” she said.
“Down’s syndrome children are not unhappy. Olly is not unhappy. He is full of joy and he has given his family so much happiness. I simply wanted to raise the question about why we have to live in an age where screening for imperfections might mean we filter out our chance of profound happiness.”
Sally had not expected to be the focus of such intense debate. Twelve months earlier she had been asked to take part in a documentary as - what TV producer’s in my experience call- a contributor. After noticing she was down for filming on several dates, she realised she might have more than just a bit part and decided to investigate. She bumped into Charlotte Moore, Head of BBC Documentaries, with whom, along with Executive Producer Emma Loach and Writer Claire Richards, she hatched the plan to develop the programme.
“Once I realised what the repercussions of the screening could mean to us all, I thought it was really important I move ahead with the filming. There are so many questions about who really benefits from this that I felt the subject had to get an airing”.
“Is it really the end of your world if you have a Down’s syndrome child? Are they unhappy children? Are they in pain? What does the medical profession gain from offering this screening programme and what ulterior motives do they have when they already know that most women will opt for a termination if they get a result which shows they are pregnant with a Down’s syndrome child?”
Sally questions why medical professionals are so supportive of a screening process which will cost £17m a year to develop and even asks what they might want with all the extra embryonic tissue from the process? But the real issue for her is, what happens if we end up in a world where we are always striving for so-called perfection?
She also wanted to shine a light on why, for the first time, a big commercial enterprise should be involved in, what she calls, people screening?
These are deep issues for us all and it takes a courageous woman to push them out into the spotlight, especially when she has to expose really personal feelings of her own.
So as the Autumn of 2017 rolled on, the post-documentary dust settled and Sally retreated behind the parapets of her Richmond home. She has two other children besides Olly. They are nine-year-old Luke and five-year-old Tomas. She is a brilliant mother. I am an old fashioned journalist and I have double-sourced this point, so I guess this is where she gathers her strength and builds resilience.
She is always doing something. On the day I interviewed Sally we photographed her for our cover at the Orange Tree Theatre where she is an ambassador. She will shortly take part in Comic Relief Day.
“I loved Paul Miller right from the moment I met him and thought he was great. An amazing individual,” she says of the Theatre’s Creative Director.
She is also Ambassador for the Me Too & Co charity, based in Twickenham and a big supporter of Challengers, the charity which provides play breaks for youngsters with disabilities. I am not quite sure how she packs all this in since she is also due to appear in Hospital People on BBC 1 next month, will be playing the Queen in Henry IX on Gold and has a lead role in Veep on HBO.
She’s what my friends and I call, ‘a Highly Impressive Woman’. She is in fact, a Funny Girl and an Inspirational Woman.
©RiverTribe Magazine 2017