Parish on Bancroft, Broadchurch and being bad
Love to loathe her, killer cop Elizabeth Bancroft is back on our screens and for Sarah Parish it’s a role to die for.
“There aren’t a lot of parts for women like this,” she says, anticipating the start of the second series of the thriller on ITV this week.
“She has no redeeming qualities really and it’s nice to play a woman like that. Elizabeth Bancroft is a bad person, does bad things, but I really like her!” She laughs, the first of many big, booming Brian Blessed-lite laughs that echo down the phone.
Parish has been a TV fixture since she burst onto our screens in a Boddington’s beer advert in 1994, and went on to star in The Pillars of the Earth, Peak Practice, Hearts and Bones, Cutting It, Doctor Who, Mistresses, Merlin, Atlantis, Monroe, Trollied, W1A and Broadchurch, in which she worked with David Tennant for a fifth time. “Yeah, we’ve been through everything David and me!” And now there’s Bancroft, which had impressive ratings of 6.7 million per episode last time round.
“Elizabeth is very different from the roles I tend to get,” she says. “I do play a lot of strong women, but they’ve always got a sympathetic, vulnerable underbelly. Elizabeth is the first I’ve played that doesn’t have any such thing. She’s just bad and makes no excuse for it, and I like that. I love playing her.”
Bancroft, series 2
When we meet Detective Chief Superintendent Bancroft again she’s riding high professionally but past events are about to catch up with her. Having apparently got away with shooting her nemesis and making a pact with a crime boss, she’s been promoted to head up a newly merged police force and is admired by colleagues, apart from Superintendent Cliff Walker, played by Adrian Edmondson, who is determined to expose her.
Meanwhile her personal life is a mess as she’s estranged from her son, but a dysfunctional family reunion is about to take place when he’s connected to a grisly double murder she’s investigating.
“Because of him she’s taken off the case and for someone very controlling like Bancroft, that’s difficult. She’s already holding guilt and pain from the things she’s done in her past and to find her son again in these circumstances is too much for her. What we see in this series is basically a woman having a nervous breakdown.
“She’s a great police officer, great detective, gets things done. Whatever she has to do she has an ability to make it OK in her head, like a lot of psychopaths.”
As Bancroft writer Kate Brooke has pointed out, we have no problem with Tommy Shelby spending five series of Peaky Blinders ruthlessly dispatching rivals, but when a woman does the same, we’re not so forgiving. So the knives were out for the conflicted cop at the end of the last series with outraged viewers keen to see her get her comeuppance, and a second series was almost guaranteed.
“I think people will back her, even though they know she’s bad, because she’s up against something that’s worse than she is. I think the audience will get behind her and go ‘Oh my God, why do we like her so much?’
“It’s not like playing Anna in W1A, which is fun, and you can leave behind at the end of the day.”
W1A, the comedy mockumentary about life at the BBC, saw Parish starring with Hugh Bonneville, Monica Dolan and Jessica Hynes as Anna Rampton, head of output. Brilliant at making decisions, usually the wrong ones, Anna has perfected the art of saying very little at a lot of meetings where a lot is said and nothing decided.
Mixing it up
“I try and mix up my jobs, do a comedy then a drama then a comedy and be as versatile as I can. So Anna was brilliant, then Bancroft, then I just finished doing a comedy called The Cockfields [on UKTV’s GOLD channel] in which I play Melissa, who is very unlike me – I love getting as far away from me as possible.”
Written by 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown’s Joe Wilkinson (After Life), The Cockfields is a three part series also starring Sue Johnston, Nigel Havers and Bobby Ball.
“Melissa doesn’t mean to be a pain in the arse, but she is, in a passive aggressive way. One of those people you don’t want at your party because you know they’re going to complain and moan about something, but they’ll do it in a ‘really nice way’. She’s a spoilt madam, Melissa, and I quite like that.”
Spoilt, psychopathic, salt of the earth, Parish has played a lot of strong women over the years. Why does she think that is?
“Cheekbones!” She laughs.
“I don’t have a lovely, round, soft face. I have a look, and it’s a very strong look. I’m tall, I’m big and I’ve got cheekbones. I don’t look like a nice, friendly girl next door. I have played a lot of murderers and quite a few bitches, so if I ever get the chance to play somebody nice and smiley, I literally grab that part.”
She can currently be seen on our screens playing somebody sympathetic in Netflix’s latest series of Medici, as Lucrezia Tornabuoni, wife of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, and mother of Lorenzo, rulers of Florence during the Italian Renaissance.
“A nice woman, and she smiled!” says Parish. “Sometimes it’s nice to play someone who has no evil underbelly, but it’s very rare I get those. Usually I end up killing somebody.
“Lucrezia was an incredible poet and playwright and taught her son Lorenzo everything about art, which was what made him great.”
Filming in Rome and Tuscany was also a nice option for Parish, who loved visiting “all the places she’s ever wanted to go” like Montepulciano, Vicenza, Volterra, filming in palazzos that are off limits to the public.
“That’s the side of acting that’s so interesting. Seeing behind the scenes and doing research when you’re playing somebody who is real is a privilege and honour. You feel a responsibility to find out as much as you can. That was difficult, because that Renaissance period, there’s loads of stuff about the blokes and not much about the women. So I got a guide who took me to all the stuff to do with Lucrezia, where she was buried, pictures of her you would never know were her, different churches, it was incredible. One of my favourite jobs ever.”
Originally from Yeovil, 51-year-old Parish has played a lot of Northern women, but also has very strong Scottish roots.
“I’m a Campbell, actually,” she says, “which is funny because my husband’s a Murray and they hated each other. My grandfather was from Dundee and I don’t know where my grandma was from, but she sounded quite Edinburgh.”
At this point Parish does a convincing “you’ll have had your tea” accent.
“And my ancestors were all from Orkney. I’m going there next year with my brother to see the house my grandad was brought up in. It’s still standing, deserted, with the wallpaper and piano, just as they left it. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Murray Parish Trust
When she’s not on location Parish is based at home in Winchester with husband actor James Murray, who she met when they made BBC drama Cutting It from (2002-2005), and their ten-year-old daughter, Nell.
When she’s not acting she spends a lot of time on the Murray Parish Trust which she and Murray set up to raise funds for the Children’s Intensive Care unit at Southampton General Hospital. Their elder daughter Ella-Jayne was born premature there in 2008 and died at eight months due to a congenital heart defect. The Trust has just raised £4 million for a new paediatric Emergency and Trauma department for the South of England.
“We thought we should have a rest after that, but within a month had started another appeal for £5.5m for an MRI scanner within an operating suite so a surgeon can see what he’s doing with a child with a brain tumour. State of the art, but it costs a lot of money!”
Panto at two
Parish started acting at the tender age of two when she played the pearl in an oyster in the village hall panto.
“I was wearing a little tutu with jewels on and had to come out of the shell and run around the stage once in the first act then get off. But everyone went ‘ohhhhhh!’ so I just stayed on. I ran around the stage, I ran through the interval, I ran through the second act…”
Turned down by the Royal Ballet School when they predicted she’d grow too tall she turned to youth theatre, then after school went to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, “a bit more alternative than RADA or LAMDA, which worked for me,” says Parish. “We did a lot of television and screen practice as well as stage work. Acting on the TV and acting on stage are two very different things. A lot of drama schools never really sit you down in front of a camera and teach you how to put yourself on tape or take a performance down to be in front of a camera. TV is where a lot of our work is and where our writers are at the moment.
“I’ve done more TV than theatre and I’m used to that but the first eight years after drama school I did only stage work and loved it.”
Stepping back on stage in 2015 in Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream at Chichester, gave her a chance to tread the boards once more.
“I loved it but I found it difficult to work that muscle again. As a TV actor you tend to get a little bit lazy and spoilt. After the press night, I felt right, done it, but I’ve got to do it for another month!
“But you get that longevity, the ability to plunder a character every night and discover new things. If you mess up you can’t do it again, so it’s terrifying but also freeing and you have to really, really work. That’s what we’re trained to do. Yes! I feel like I should go back on stage. Chichester’s really close to me so I’ll see what’s going on there next year.”
But before that, there’s Bancroft and Parish has just seen the final version of the show herself. “You never know which bits will be in so I was delighted. I watched it and kept forgetting it was me in it! Which is a good thing. You’re led down a certain path then the rug is pulled from under you, and I kept going ‘Oh my God!’”
Sounds like she kills it.
Sarah Parish stars in Bancroft, on three consecutive nights starting on New Year’s Day at 9pm on STV.