Sharon Small, co-star of new BBC psychological thriller Trust Me, talks to Janet Christie about the Edinburgh-set drama, sexism in TV and the perils of being mistaken for Maxine Peake. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
If you’re ever in a situation where someone asks if there’s a doctor in the house, don’t be surprised if some of those racing forward to assist turn out to be total frauds. Not so much medical professionals, as actors who may once have played the role of a doctor and identified too much.
“God, I can keep someone alive.” says Sharon Small, recounting the research she did for her latest role as a doctor in BBC1’s Trust Me, a psychological thriller filmed in Edinburgh starring Jodie Whittaker (yes, that doctor) who assumes the identity of a doctor.
“We were shown how to fit a line in, do stitch and sutures, how to clear airways, how to intubate, how to do heart compression. And you do think, I could keep someone alive, that would be amazing.” She laughs, under no illusion as to the gap between reality and fiction.
“But that’s the joy of acting, isn’t it?” says the Fife-raised performer. “Whatever the character’s job, you always think that in another life I would have been so good at that.” She laughs. “In practice, it’s an illusion.”
With a career spanning 30 years, Small has covered a variety of jobs, from detective sergeant to midwife, in roles that have made her a familiar face in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Mistresses, and more recently in Stonemouth and Call The Midwife.
“For Trust Me we did a fantastic day with the writer Dan Sefton, who is a practising Emergency Department doctor, and also with an ED doctor in a Scottish hospital. We went round the department and watched. It really struck me that everybody was always doing something, even when you thought they weren’t, they were reading charts, conferring, and he was listening all the time, aware of someone’s heartbeat or coughing. He said it’s the quiet ones you have to worry about, because when they go quiet there’s something wrong.”
As mother to two boys, Leo, 11 and Zac, nine, Small is no stranger to A&E, the last occasion being when her elder son tripped over a guy rope on a campsite and broke his elbow.
“His arm was like a weird squiggle. But the good thing is it was a school camp and among the other parents there were four doctors and a midwife so they just leapt into action and I didn’t have to do anything.”
Is she sure they were genuine?
She laughs. “Yeah, next time I’ll double check, but you don’t do you? That’s what Trust Me is about and it’s tense. Because as an audience you’re in on the secret and ultimately you’ve started to like Jodie Whittaker’s character so you’re on her side. But you know what she’s doing is wrong and she could get caught, which adds to the tension.”
It’s not all beads of sweat and buckets of blood though, as Small’s character Brigitte manages to have fun despite the serious environment of her working life.
“She was a bit of light relief because she had a bit of fun about her and I realised I’d been doing a lot of things like Call The Midwife, where I would be crying. Mums at the school would say, ‘Aw, saw you crying a lot last night’. I tend to get a lot of dramatic roles, or ditzy ones, but Brigitte is good fun and a woman that’s my age. She’s quippy and fast-talking, I think because she’s in a tense situation – their job is to keep people alive till they get them to the operating room. But Brigitte has a secret too…”
You’ll have to watch Trust Me to find out what that is, because unlike Jodie Whittaker’s whistleblowing character, Small’s not saying.
With work often taking her away from her north London home on location, her partner photographer Dan Bridge often does the bulk of the childcare, a situation that has attracted reverse sexism on occasion.
“Because Dan has been the primary carer he’s been with the boys while I’ve been away. I remember asking if he was going to go to one of the coffee mornings, and he said no, that would be the last shred of his masculinity. I think things have shifted a bit now, but people used to say, so when is Dan going back to work? and I used to think no-one would ask me that.”
Filming Trust Me in Edinburgh allowed Small to get home for weekends and a harmonious work-life balance was achieved with plenty of FaceTime calls and the children are used to their mother working away. Sooner or later she is hoping to clock up a performance that they will be able to watch without being traumatised, having been maimed, paralysed, shot and killed more than once, not to mention all that on-screen sobbing.
“I’ve just been channelling a Glaswegian crack whore in the Threepenny Opera, so that’s not a great role model either,” she says, “swearing like a trooper. And before that I did a play at Hampstead about social care and addicts and Carmen Disruption, yeah that was too grown up too,” she says of her role in Simon Stephen’s acclaimed urban deconstruction of Bizet’s opera at London’s Almeida in 2015.
“They know I go off and do acting, but have never seen me in anything so it seems a bit pie in the sky. Hopefully, if I keep working I’m sure they’ll get to an age where they can watch something and go, ‘aye, right, so that’s what you’ve been doing’.”
Working on Trust Me gave Small the chance to film in Scotland again, something she had enjoyed in Stonemouth, where she played small town crime lord Peter Mullan’s wife Connie.
“I’m really proud to have been part of something by Iain Banks,” she says, “and it’s nice that there are some Scottish dramas coming back in because for a wee while there I felt I wasn’t able to use my own accent.”
Growing up in Kinghorn, Fife, the daughter of a care home worker, Small was the eldest of five. Did that make her the family entertainer?
“No, it made me the responsible, bossy one that no-one liked. No, it’s not that they didn’t like me, but I was in charge and emotionally responsible and I think I’m still slightly seen that way when I go home. Now they just say ‘you know you’ve not actually been here for like a hundred years, so just shut up.’”
Small was inspired to go into acting by a combination of watching Sally Field nailing multiple personalities in Sybil, and the explosion of leg warmers and exuberance that was The Kids From Fame. This made young Sharon if not “want to live forever or learn how to fly (high)” – this is Fife in 1982 remember – at least consider the possibility of treading the boards for a living.
“I remember going to a barbecue beach party because it was Kinghorn gala week and I was just buzzing from the first episode, thinking, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, that’s what I want to do’.”
Given that Small wasn’t from a theatrical background, the response she got was “What?” and a sense of “Where did that come fae?” she says.
Undeterred, she enrolled at what was Adam Smith College to study drama for a year before heading for London to study, catching the night bus with a pal, and staying ever since.
“My mum said recently ‘Remember I made you take everything with you because we needed your room? All your school drawings, everything you owned on the bus,’ and I said ‘I know.’
“So I came to London with £10 in my pocket and my pal when I was 19. You got in at dawn and had to wait for the tube to wake up and I remember when Victoria burst into life, she went ‘Oh my God I hate this,’ and I went ‘Oh my God, I love this.’ Now she lives by the river in Dunkeld among that beautiful scenery and I’m so urban.
“I was definitely playing catch-up. There were people at drama school who were way ahead of me. I’d not seen theatre really and had a lot of stuff to learn.”
Learn she did and after college did a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, then landed a job at Pitlochry Theatre and more stage and screen work followed. Since then Small has played countless roles on TV, radio, film and stage, starring alongside everyone from Hugh Grant in About A Boy to Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie, with seven years alongside Nathaniel Parker in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.
“Nat Parker was a great big puppy dog and we got very fond of each other over the years. We had great guest artists come along because it was seen as a nice classy piece of telly and people came and cut their teeth, like James McAvoy and Henry Cavill, and we had the fantastic Bill Nighy and John Sessions.
“As a character my parameters were really narrow as it was created from a novel, so it felt less fulfilling as an actor, but I did other things in between, a play or a film, whatever.
“I’ve done things that mean I’ve been less easy to pigeonhole which sometimes can go against you because you’re not looked on as the person who does this or that, but I just try and be an actor. I’ve always had that philosophy where I try and keep going, moving forwards, sidestep if you have to, but never, ever, go back. It’s ok if it’s another job like the one you’ve just done, but never go back.”
It was the 2008 TV series Mistresses that established her on-screen status, following the marital and extramarital affairs of four women, played by Sarah Parish, Shelley Conn, Orla Brady and Small.
“That was great to do and Mistresses was unusual because it was older female leads – having sex,” she says, going on to voice her frustration at the paucity of roles for women now that she’s 50.
“It changed about the age of 43, when they have stopped giving me roles for women that have sex… I don’t want to bleat on about it …” she says.
No, the more bleating the better, be our guest…
She laughs. “But it does change, you stop playing girlfriends and start playing different characters. Women don’t change that much. But they don’t have women who are the same age as their sexual partners on screen.
“I think they’re trying to address it though, things like Apple Tree Yard with Emily Watson being the age she’s supposed to be in her forties, not playing a 28-year-old or a 39-year-old and it’s coming from Hollywood as well, people like Maggie Gyllenhaal just saying ‘oh shut up’ when they’re told they’re too old to play someone’s sexual partner who is the same age or older than them. And the girl [Jamie Denbo] from Orange Is the New Black... she’s 43 and was told she was too old to play opposite a 57-year-old actor. So at least people are talking about it.”
There is also an upside to the competition for roles, according to Small, because it’s down to the sheer number of talented female actors her age.
“There is less around, but also I happen to be in a pool of really fantastic actresses in my age group, and we can all pretty much play roles for 45 to 65-year-olds,” she says.
Surely there’s an audience for drama with an emphasis on women in their prime, judging by the success of dramas like Happy Valley and Small’s latest favourite, Broken, starring Sean Bean and Anna Friel, Jimmy McGovern’s BBC1 drama.
“Yeah, at this age there are a lot of issues – divorce, mental health, balancing kids, ailing parents – there’s a big old life balance going on, you’d think that would be good drama. Have you been watching Broken? That’s a slice of life that’s fantastically well explored, the poverty that’s going on in this country, the pain of so many people. I’ve been obsessed with the news every single day, recently. But I think young people down here are becoming as involved as I noticed they were in Scotland, so things might be shifting... hopefully.”
With Trust Me about to air, Small projects an air of calm as she looks at her schedule and thinks about her next job, possibly behind the camera as director, something she’s keen to develop. But in the meantime, she’s enjoying the summer with her kids.
“I’ve just been at my boys’ school for the first time, helping out with the Year 7 production of The Wizard of Oz, just a bit of voice work, character work, so that’s sweet.
“I’ve nothing next,” she says, “literally. Today I’m just trying to find a job and booking a family holiday, whichever comes first.”
After decades in the business, she’s learnt to be philosophical about the stop-start nature of her career.
“If you compare yourself to other people it just gets you down so I just keep slogging away. There’s an illusion that you’re working all the time, but you’re not.”
In Small’s case, this impression is compounded by being mistaken for Maxine Peake. “It’s great because people mix me up with her quite a lot and think I’m on the telly all the time.
“We met at a theatre watching mutual friends and she said, ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ and I said, ‘I’ve got one to pick with you too’. She’d been in New York and someone said ‘Oh my God, you’re Sharon Small’, and I said ‘I get ‘you were great in Silk’.’ Someone at the school last week told me I was good in Three Girls. I never know what to say.”
Maybe they could do a two hander...
“We could be sisters, separated at birth, that’s why I had to go to Scotland,” says Small.
Twins, I suggest.
“No, we couldn’t be twins, I’d have to be the older one, which sucks…” she says, fake annoyed.
One of them could be evil…
“Are you making me the evil one?” she asks.
OK, Maxine can be the evil one, but isn’t evil a better part?
“Hmmm. Yeah, OK, I’ll be the evil, bitter, twisted, adopted daughter, sister of Maxine Peake…” she laughs.
I think we might be onto something, but at this point the PR tells us time is up. “If I’ve said anything t**tish please don’t write that,” says Small. “I look back at interviews and think “Oh God, I did say that, but it just sounds terrible out of context.’”
What, like being the evil, bitter, twisted adopted sister of Maxine Peake?
“Ha, ha, yeah, that kind of thing.”
OK, Trust Me, I won’t.
Trust Me starts on 8 August, BBC1, 9pm