Sally Phillips on neurodiversity, Smack the Pony and Girls on Film in Belfast
Award-winning actress, comedian and producer Sally Phillips, best know for her roles in Smack the Pony, I'm Alan Partridge and Bridget Jones, is amongst the guests at a live recording of the Girls on Film Podcast in Belfast this month. Jenny Lee asks her about the changing role of women and people with disabilities in film and the future of sketch shows
How important are podcasts like Girls On Film for exploring and inspiring the role of women in film and what would you still like to see evolve in the industry to better represent females?
Well, it’s important for me. Firstly, because it’s so good (ranked in the top four film podcasts globally, iNews) and secondly, because they have created a genuinely supportive community around the podcast.
Hosts Hedda (Archbold) and Anna (Smith) started the podcast with the specific aim of amplifying female voices in film and although there’s a way still to go out there, there are now nearly 150 (award winning) episodes. It’s never been actresses whingeing, it’s fun and feminist in the very best way.
Feminist Film Studies can feel not just intense, but many miles away from cinema itself and all the things we love about it. Girls on Film make discussions about representation, story structure and beauty away from academia and back onto the film set.
Partly because it’s been such a struggle for women to be included in front of and behind the camera, many of my favourite films were made by men. Girls on Film conversations help me to work out the difference between what has to be accepted and what is just the way it’s always been done. It’s never too early (Cinemagic) nor too late (Joanna Hogg) to start owning your own stories and making your own movies.
You are taking part in Girls On Film Live as part of Cinemagic On The Pulse festival alongside Sophia Myles and Ronni Ancona. As well as giving audiences a chance to ask questions, can you reveal what you hope to discuss at the event to whet appetites?
It is always a bit hard to predict because, although Ronni and I are now pretending to be grown up and are indeed producing movies, I think we’ll never lose that comedienne’s thing of going down rabbit holes and being fascinated by the absurd.
Anna Smith tells me that we will talk about all our careers from a feminist perspective and I suppose Ronni and I have things to share about creative partnerships and how we support each other in a male-dominated industry. We are there to give advice to folks considering the industry but also to listen and learn about ourselves.
You have set up your own independent production company, Captain Dolly, with Ronni Ancona. Can you tell us your thoughts behind doing so and reveal what projects you are working on?
The most honest answer I can give you to that is that we felt the process of getting a film made was so unnecessarily bruising there had to be a better way. And as we couldn’t find it for ourselves, we thought we’d make one. We want to champion women and neurodiverse artists and make the process easier for them too. It’s been a crash course in admin skills.
Studio Soho, our sister company has a track record in releasing untold stories (for example Joyland and Girls Can’t Surf) and it’s taken until now, until our 50s to finally admit to ourselves how desperately we want to be telling them and getting them into cinemas.
You've played everything from a lesbian nun to the Finnish Prime Minister to Shazzer in Bridget Jones - had you a favourite role?
You have to love all the characters you play, so it’s hard to pick a favourite - even when the end product doesn’t rock the world. TV and film feel like quite different animals for me because I’ve done more pure comedy on telly. I loved playing Minna Hakkinen in Veep (I hero worship Julia Louis-Dreyfus who didn’t disappoint), but for sheer creative freedom Smack the Pony was amazing.
Although TV is incredibly exciting at the moment, I will always love the carefulness people take with film. As an actress, it’s wonderful when the things you can do are exactly what are required for the space you’ve been allocated. Shazzer in the Bridget Jones trilogy was a gift in that respect, but a really fun cameo gives me deep, deep joy. I was recently married to Dexter Flexter in The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight with female director Vanessa Caswill, which was a hugely enjoyable experience.
Would you like to be a part of a fourth Bridget Jones and do you think this will ever happen?
I’d love to be part of it and I have no idea!
Smack the Pony was a ground-breaking female-led sketch show - do you think a similar show should be developed for audiences today or does it belong to a bygone era?
I think it’s on its way back. Commissioners are reluctant to buy the surreal as it they seem convinced, in spite of the enduring success of Monty Python, that it won’t get a big enough audience, given how much they can cost to make. And we can’t pretend the sketch hasn’t been totally changed by social media. The sketches that came out of, for example, the Italian Mayors during the pandemic were hilarious. We have to work out what to do with that.
You've made a documentary about Down Syndrome in the past, inspired by your son Olly. Belfast actor James Martin enjoyed Oscar with the short An Irish Goodbye - would you like to see more neurodiverse and disabled actors on our screens?
Most definitely. ‘Don’t play us, pay us’ goes for women and people of all disabilities. I loved James’ performance and the whole film - it was so light and yet brought all the big questions to the audience about capacity and familial obligations. I just wish they’d let him give a speech at the Oscars.
Did you enjoy filming My Happy Ending or was it quite an emotional rollercoaster? Did it make you write your own bucket list?
We shot a majority of the film sitting on the same four chairs in the same room in Aberysthwyth. There was no hiding from difficult emotions and so we became very close. Miriam Margolyes is a legend. Although my bucket list doesn’t exist on paper, I realise, reading this question, that I have started to write in my head and it involves a lot of train journeys.
Have you any other roles coming up you can talk about?
I’m afraid I can’t talk about the exciting ones. I’ll always do QI because it’s my spiritual home and I’ll be popping up in Jerk, Big Mood and other sitcoms in the next few months.
Girls on Film Live will be recorded at Belfast’s QFT on March 25 at 1pm as part of Cinemagic’s On The Pulse short film festival. For tickets and full programme visit Cinemagic.org.uk.