The stately house and grounds of Knebworth, in Hertfordshire, home of the Lytton family for more than 500 years, have seen some action over the decades. There was 1974’s Bucolic Frolic, featuring Van Morrison and the Doobie Brothers. The Britpop Woodstock that was Oasis’s two-night stand in 1996. The 375,000 fans who came to worship Robbie Williams over three nights in 2003, promptly infecting the boy-band alumnus with a career-threatening dose of stage fright.
And now, in late 2011, there’s the sight of Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe sashaying through the woodpanelled halls of the grand house, big of hair and even bigger of frock.
She looks a bit like Sheridan Smith, the comedy-tyke actress in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Benidorm and Gavin & Stacey - but after a makeover by the wardrobe wizards responsible for making Birdsong a thing of period wonder, the one-time professional “chav” is transformed.
Knebworth House is the set of The Scapegoat, an ITV drama based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1957 thriller of doppelgangers and mistaken identity, and Smith, who plays a platinum blonde opposite co-star Matthew Rhys, is having the time of her life.
“It’s wonderful,” whispers a clearly delighted Smith as the cameras set up for another shot. “It’s one of those parts where you get to wear fabulous outfits, and everyone else is quite dowdy and dark. I think the costume girls had fun making me look ridiculous in over-the-top dresses and coiffed hair-dos.”
So maybe that explains the crew’s likening of Lincolnshire’s finest to Norma Jean... Hang on, cautions the pragmatic and self-questioning Smith, let’s not get carried away. “One of the crew says when I walk onset, ‘Good morning Ms Monroe!’”
Still, the proudly working-class Smith is enjoying dressing up and “going posh”. For one thing, after years in sitcoms, light drama, musical theatre (she won a best actress Olivier Award for Legally Blonde during her 13-month run in London's West End) and those bit parts, she’s savouring the challenge of acting in a quality drama. She’s done it on stage, in last year’s Terrence Rattigan revival Flare Path (a best supporting actress Olivier Award there), but not so much on telly. For another, it gives her a chance to schmooze her handsome co-star.
“I worked with Matthew years ago, on a film called Peaches - I played Shop Assistant 2,” laughs Smith, 31, of her co-star, who has dual roles in The Scapegoat as a caddish, upper-class businessman and his lookalike, an innocent schoolteacher he dupes into taking over his chaotic life.
“I had a very small part in Peaches, but I had to say a jacket looked good on Matthew. I annoyed him tremendously just because I fancied him so much!”
Has the actress confessed to this long-ago crush during the filming of The Scapegoat?
“I think he knew at the time, cause I was like a little giggling girl around him! But then we stayed mates, and when we got to do The Scapegoat together I was so chuffed cause he’s the nicest guy, and a brilliant actor, lovely to work with. And in The Scapegoat I get to actually kiss him, so I’m very pleased!” Smith laughs.
Nine months after meeting Smith at Knebworth, I catch up with her in London. And, my, how her reputation has grown. She’ll be appearing in cinemas twice next week, in period romp Hysteria (about the invention of the vibrator) with Rupert Everett, and in urban shoot-em-up Tower Block with Russell Tovey. The latter film, daft but entertaining, sees Smith channelling her inner action hero as she and fellow residents of a highrise try to avoid being picked off by a sniper. A vest-clad Smith shimmies down lift shafts, punches out hoodies, and gets busy with a nailgun. Not in a DIY sense.
No, she didn’t put in serious gym time for the part, but given her injuries - a split lip, bruised jaw and dislodged tooth cap, she says, “I wish I had! But no, I just got stuck in. I love that - having a go at your own stunts, trying to be brave… When I did Jonathan Creek a long time ago, we filmed in a 20ft-deep tank at Pinewood. I can’t swim, and they just had to throw me down there. And when they said ‘Cut!’ the divers pulled me up to the surface and I came up coughing and spluttering. And everyone was clapping and they brought out a T-shirt saying ‘I do my own stunts’. So since then I feel like I need to live up to that.”
A different kind of toughness was required for her other current ITV drama. Smith has the lead in Mrs Biggs, a five-part, decades-straddling telling of the life of Charmian, wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs.
Smith takes impassioned inspiration from the strong women she’s worked with or encountered, from Kathy Burke to Alison Steadman, Sue Johnston to Maggie Smith. Charmian, who lives in Australia, had a similar impact on her. “My God, her life! She’s incredible!” she marvels of the woman who met Biggs when she was 18 and stood by him through all manner of traumas.
Charmian’s resilience in the face of adversity - a saga of love, abortion, abandonment, betrayal, a life on the run and, eventually, exile and single-motherhood - made the biographical part a career-high joy for Smith. But making Mrs Biggs was also emotionally gruelling.
“It’s one of the great untold stories of that time. Everyone knows something about Ronnie, but they don’t know anything about her story, and it’s fascinating. And that was a real responsibility. Charmian’s amazing and I didn’t want to let her down.”
Sheridan Smith has always, it seems, been about full-force commitment. When she was 16 she moved - alone - from rural Lincolnshire to London to star in a production of Bugsy Malone. Her parents perform as a country and western duo, so they understood the allure of the stage, especially for their little girl who’d sung, danced and appeared in Annie since her preteens. But still. She was only 16.
“Thankfully my family were so supportive,” says Smith, her eyes moistening - she admits her emotions bubble close to the surface. “They didn’t say, ‘No, you’ve got to go to uni’ or make me do anything I didn’t want to do. But to lose their little girl off to London at that age is kind of terrifying - especially when it’s not to go to a drama school where you’re looked after.”
Instead, Smith lived in a flat in south London with four 16-year-old boys and Hannah Spearritt, who was soon to become a member of Simon Fuller’s post-Spice Girls pop group S Club 7. Their diet was jam sandwiches and their downtime was partying. But Smith thrived.
Fifteen years later, she finds herself in huge demand. And this month brings another theatrical project: the title role in a new production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic.
As we speak she’s in rehearsals at the National Youth Theatre’s premises in north London.
“I find rehearsals just as terrifying as the actual play,” she says. And true to breezily confessional form, she’s been admitting to her collywobbles to her 200,000-plus Twitter followers. Is she up to this heavyweight play? The reassurances from her fans have flowed. In any case, she says, “I’ve realised, bizarrely through watching the Olympics, that I’d wound myself up into this complete tizz – ‘Oh my God, I’m out of my comfort zone, I can’t do this…’ But watching all those athletes, they just zone-out and focus. So I thought I’d treat rehearsals as a training day and just do baby-steps, one day at a time. I’m trying to keep my head in the character. If I think too far ahead, I’ll panic. It’s such a mammoth role, bigger than any challenge I’ve done before.”
Unfortunately for the decidedly unstarry Smith, the night that Mrs Biggs began on TV last week was also the night Hedda Gabler opened. When we spoke last month, she wasn’t looking forward to the overlapping exposure.
“Oh God, I’m gonna be a wreck!” she wails. “When I finish that night I’m going to have to stay away from the internet, aren’t I? The thought of it all makes me feel sick…”
She would have had to resist the urge to panic-Tweet, too. “Yeah, I’ll just do my job and not think about it. It’s a shame cause I would love to have watched Mrs Biggs going out live, knowing all my family are watching it. But I’ll just have to Sky Plus it,” she shrugged. “Or iPlayer it.”
Sheridan Smith, the superstar-next-door: so all over the place and in demand, she can’t even keep up with herself.
The Scapegoat is on tonight at 9:00pm on ITV1
Mrs Biggs continues on ITV1 on Wednesday at 9:00pm