Sheridan Smith: a class act

As Sheridan Smith plays a zero hours cleaner who scams the stock market in ITV’s Cleaning Up, she says she now prefers drama that has something to say

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Sheridan Smith apologises for being out of breath. It’s understandable. She’s one of Britain’s most popular TV actors and our interview is being performed on the move as she dashes to her car on the way to the set of another as-yet-unannounced new project. It’s been a scramble to make time for our chat, but it seems she was determined to make it happen even if it meant answering questions on the move.

“Sam’s got a gambling addiction but she’s a great mum and great friend, savvy, streetwise.”

“I love Big Issue – you know I do,” she insists, having regained her composure. “There was a homeless guy when I first moved to London, he used to sit outside my theatre and he would sing songs to me as I came out every night. He would sing: ‘My name is Tallulah…’ You could hear it through the fire escape door. I got chatting to him, he said: ‘Oh, go on, write an autograph.’ I was only 16, so I wrote this little autograph. Then years later, I was walking through Soho and I saw him, he was selling Big Issue. I went up to him and I said: ‘Do you remember me?’ He had it in his pocket. The same little thing, and it was just the most amazing story, so I always love doing stuff for you guys. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to do it.”

Stardom seems to have been in Smith’s blood from birth, having been born into a musical family in Epworth, tucked away in the muddle of small towns sprinkled between Doncaster and Scunthorpe. Her parents, Colin and Marilyn, performed as country music duo The Daltons and her great-great-grandfather was a star of the Victorian music hall, famous for his banjo playing. After excelling at performing arts in school, and signing up for the National Youth Music Theatre, Smith quickly graduated from lead roles in popular stage standards like Bugsy Malone to appearing on TV in The Royle Family and from there to star-making shows such as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Jonathan Creek.

Recent years have seen a definite shift from comedy to drama, however, and in particular shows that confront pressing social issues. True crime mini-series The Moorside was based on the 2008 hoax kidnapping of Shannon Matthews, a case that David Cameron seized upon as evidence of “broken Britain”. The recently broadcast Jimmy McGovern one-off Care featured Smith depicting the pain of looking after a parent with dementia in the current tangle of underfunded social services.

Now, in new ITV drama Cleaning Up, she plays Sam, a zero-hours contract cleaner single mum who overhears an insider trading plot while working in a London office and decides to teach herself how to play the stock market, using her illegal eavesdropped tips to pull herself out of a spiralling gambling debt. On the one hand, it’s a riveting thriller about someone wading dangerously out of their depth, but at heart it’s also a scathing exploration of the yawning chasm that has put the haves and have-nots further apart than ever.

It’s the sort of story that could easily stumble into trite moralising, but Sam is no angel. “Gosh, no, far from it,” Smith laughs. “But you still hopefully are rooting for her, you know? I try and look for something a bit different and Sam was a real flawed character. Obviously, she’s got a gambling addiction but she’s a great mum and great friend, savvy, streetwise. I just fell in love with the character, really.”

This is nimbly illustrated in the first episode, in which we see Sam dodge parking fees, flee the scene of a minor car crash, and generally lie and hustle to get through the day with enough sanity and cash intact to look after her daughters. There’s a strong sense that she’s not that different, in terms of temperament, to the risk-taking wealthy City sharks whose dodgy schemes she piggybacks on.

“Just because she hasn’t had the opportunities maybe that these big banker guys have doesn’t mean she’s not as smart or savvy, you know, and I love that. I love that she really wants to give her kids the opportunity she hasn’t had. Her gambling is kind of her chasing that big win for them – to get out of debt, for one, but also to just give her kids an opportunity that she really never had.”

Cleaning Up airs just over two years after Smith’s father died of cancer, following a period when she struggled with anxiety and missed one performance of hit musical Funny Girl, with another halted mid-way through. She had by then already won two Olivier awards, including best actress in a musical for Legally Blonde, and a best actress Bafta for Mrs Biggs, as well as an OBE. But she had started to have panic attacks as her success grew, and her career took a tabloid-pleasing nosedive after Funny Girl, amid heavy drinking and Twitter rows with fans and critics.

Now she has moved to the countryside, spent money on rescued donkeys, goats and pigs, got engaged and has meaty starring parts in the likes of Cleaning Up coming up – as well as a new album
A Northern Soul and a solo tour on in March – 2019 looks to be a much happier time.

Smith with cast mates in Runcorn-set Two Pints of Lager…

Neither actor nor character was an expert on financial markets at the beginning of the show. “I didn’t understand it all,” she chuckles. “So it kind of helped with the character because I was kind of learning as she was learning. It was all new to me. I’ve never really understood that world but it started to make more sense. It kind of works that Sam’s learning and I was learning as she was learning. That sounds weird that I’m talking about her like she’s not me. You know what I mean!”

For all its Canary Wharf intrigue and nail-biting financial subterfuge, Cleaning Up is also making some important points about income inequality and the way in which so many workers are functionally invisible to the people who see them every day.

“I actually didn’t realise how that whole silent army, the kind of invisible army of the cleaners – they just don’t even notice that they’re there. When we were researching, going to these places, I really noticed it. Why would the cleaners not be savvy enough to know what is going on? Like Sam keeps saying: ‘We’re the last people they’re going to suspect.’”

“I keep getting drawn to those roles. I guess it’s my roots, where I’m from, and it’s stuff that I know. With Care, my dad had a stroke and while I don’t know what it’s like having someone with dementia, when my dad passed away it was caring for a parent. I don’t think I’m consciously choosing those jobs, but they just keep coming to me and I connect with them.

“I was drawn to this because of that class divide thing – why can they get away with it and we can’t? They’re interesting roles but also they say something, they’re important. It’s not like I actively search them out. When I’m reading scripts some characters you really connect to, some you don’t. It’s just come about at the minute that all the ones that are coming out are that type of drama.”

The press is already talking about another series, which suggests Sam’s scheme may run longer than intended, but, unlike her risk-loving character, Smith isn’t about to gamble on that outcome.

“We obviously hope that people really enjoy it, and I loved making it and I hope people really get behind it, but you just never know. If people watch it and enjoy it then there is an opportunity for us to make more.”

More top notch Sheridan Smith drama tackling important issues? That, we reckon, is something you can definitely bank on.

Cleaning Up launches on ITV on Wednesday 9 January at 9pm. She plays Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Hull from 21 March

Clean break

Cleaning Up is the first TV work from Coventry-born Mark Marlow, who used his degree in film to keep the creative juices flowing during a series of mundane office jobs by writing scripts. Inspiration struck not while at work, but at home.

“I was lying on my living room sofa watching Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street,” he explains. “I spotted some cleaners in the background of a scene and suddenly the idea hit me. If they work in an office surrounded by market-sensitive information, what’s to stop them making money from it?”

The show’s themes quickly grew from that concept, Marlow says. “Once I knew risk and reward would be major themes of Cleaning Up I wanted to understand why gambling is becoming an increasing problem in modern Britain. For me, TV drama is at its best when it holds up a mirror to society and shines a light on a subject, whilst also finding a way to engross and entertain the audience.

“It’s a fine balancing act but, when TV gets it right, the character’s struggles become their own and there’s a chance someone somewhere might see things from a new perspective.”

Of course, not every aspiring screenwriter gets their script picked up and turned into a major ITV drama starring one of the country’s most popular actors.

“The journey from script to screen has been very surreal,” admits Marlow. “I’ve had to pinch myself that this is really happening many times but realising Sheridan Smith would be playing the lead was definitely the highlight.

“She’s such an amazing actress and I knew she would be perfect for the role because she has such a natural gift and her ability to tonally shift from darkness to light is absolutely incredible. I feel very privileged and fortunate to have been able to work with so many talented people on my first TV drama, but it just goes to show, if you try for long enough the lucky breaks will come.”

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