Whether she’s playing a grieving mother, an alcoholic teacher or a valley girl, Smith seems to have boundless empathy for the characters she plays, writes Alexandra Pollard
“Chavs and slappers!” That was Sheridan Smith’s tongue-in-cheek assessment, a few years back, of the kinds of characters she tends to play. “Tarts with a heart” is how an interviewer put it to her in 2012. It would be more accurate these days to say that she portrays women on the edge. And that she has quietly become one of the most reliably brilliant actors on British TV.
We’re only a month into the new year, and Smith’s already pulled off a hat-trick of astonishing performances. First up was Four Lives, the enraging BBC drama about the serial killer Stephen Port, and the allegedly homophobic Met Police failings that allowed him to go on killing. Smith played Sarah Sak, the mother of Port’s first victim, Anthony Walgate. Had the police had not dismissed Anthony’s death as self-inflicted, because he was a young, gay sex worker, they might have prevented Port from murdering three more young men. The real-life Sak, who fought tirelessly for the police to treat her son’s death as suspicious, had one request when she spoke to the show’s producers: “I want a gobby northern bird to play me, not some posh actress.”
Smith was the perfect choice. She plays Sak as a woman with boundless love who pursues justice like a pitbull. She is no saint – in her grief, she shouts and swears, pushes her husband away and washes down fistfuls of pills with lager – but Smith doesn’t deal in perfect women. Take the scene when Sarah suggests, correctly, that her son was drugged, raped and murdered. “That’s not what we’re saying,” says the policeman. “Yeah, well I am,” she shoots back. “And I’ll go on saying it while there’s a hole in my arse.” It is the kind of sincere, unshowy performance in which Smith excels.
This past week has seen Smith star in Channel 5’s The Teacher, as a self-proclaimed “chaotic slag with a drink problem” who is accused of sleeping with her 15-year-old pupil. Not an easy woman to root for, yet Smith so embodies her character’s pain that you end up feeling it, too. And in ITV’s No Return, which starts on Monday, she is the mother of a teenage boy who is arrested for sexual assault while the family’s on holiday in Turkey. As ever, she nails that potent mix of bolshiness and fragility – doing karaoke to “All About That Bass” one moment, spitting at the feet of a mother who refuses to help her the next.
Just like Stephen Graham, another of this country’s finest actors, Smith manages to not just perform but become her characters. Perhaps because she has been on the receiving end of endless prurient tabloid scandals, and has openly battled with her own mental health, she seems to have boundless empathy. She is drawn towards playing women with nothing to lose, her characters dealing with grief, loss, addiction or mental illness. As Anna Mackmin, who directed her in Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in 2012, put it, she is “missing a layer of skin”.
Smith’s casting in Hedda Gabler raised eyebrows at the time – even the Old Vic needed some convincing – but her performance proved people wrong. She has been doing that for her entire two-decade-long career. When she was cast in Legally Blonde on the West End in 2010, she was best known for playing chaotic young women in The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and Gavin & Stacey. People were “panning it in advance”, she recalled. “I think they had thought, ‘Oh that bird from Two Pints of Lager is now going to try and sing a bit.’” But her singing, just like her comic timing in those Noughties sitcoms, and just like her acting in these gritty dramas, was impeccable.
The critics loved it. “With her brilliantly warm, winning, witty and all-round adorable performance as Elle,” wrote The Independent’s Paul Taylor, “Sheridan Smith achieves stage stardom like some jaw-dropping hole-in-one in golf.” The Telegraph’s reviewer agreed: “The chief glory of the show is Sheridan Smith as Elle, blessed with vitality, warmth, great comic timing and sudden moments of touching vulnerability.” An Olivier Award soon followed, and Smith went from jobbing actor to top-of-the-call-sheet star.
Performing was the only thing Smith ever considered doing. She was “dragged up right by proper salt-of-the-earth parents” in Lincolnshire, and was already on stage at six, joining her parents’ country and western show. “I’m no good at anything else,” she once told an interviewer in typically self-deprecating fashion. “I’m quite thick, you see.”
That self-doubt has nearly been her undoing. When she first became famous, “I felt stressed and anxious all the time”, she told You magazine in 2020. “I was supposed to be a celebrity but I couldn’t do it right. I’d be told by publicists how to behave. I’d forget and say exactly what I thought. I drank pints, made rude jokes and was brilliant at saying the wrong thing.” The tabloids lapped it up. In 2016, the loss of her father resurfaced the trauma of losing her brother to cancer when she was eight, and she suffered a breakdown of sorts. After stopping taking her anxiety medication, she ended up in hospital. When she took a leave of absence from Funny Girl, Graham Norton joked about it onstage at the Baftas. “Here I was in unbelievable distress, and a room full of people in my industry were laughing at me,” she later recalled.
It was members of the public who helped her get through those dark days, which is surely a testament to Smith’s ability to connect with her audience. Strangers would stop her in the street and hug her. “Not to worry, love,” they’d say. “You’ll be all right.” Those words of comfort, combined with giving birth to her young son Billy, gave her the strength to return to acting.
“I want to find the heart in them,” Smith once said of her characters, “no matter how flawed someone is.” Long may she continue to do so.