When I met Sara Coward days before Christmas, she knew she didn’t have long to live. The 68-year-old actress, who has played posh Caroline Sterling – owner of Grey Gables and landlady to the Grundys – in The Archers since 1979, was told in September that she had terminal cancer, which would probably kill her before the year was out.
Yet she has been smiling ever since, embodying her own mission, in a turbulent world, to get people to be nicer to each other. It’s called the SM:)E campaign, and Sara launched it from her hospice bed in Warwickshire. Using social media, she invited people all over the world to share their smiles, and to post messages about a kind act they had recently performed or received. So far, there have been hundreds of responses, using the hashtag #milesofsmiles.
“We worked out that it would take 2.5 million people standing shoulder to shoulder to form a line 1,000 miles long,” she says. “So we are asking for 1,000 miles of smiles. People say it’s a lovely legacy, something nice to be remembered by. But I have no interest in being remembered. I just want the world I’m leaving to be a kinder place.”
She beams. She has invited me into the palliative care home in Leamington Spa to which she moved after leaving the hospice, and her passion shines through even the ripples of wooziness brought on by heavy pain-relief medication.
“The idea came to me before I was properly, properly ill,” she recalls. “I’d had breast cancer, and a mastectomy, but I was getting a little better, and it dawned on me that my illness had introduced me to people full of huge kindness.
“It gave me an opportunity to be kind to others. I was sitting in the hospital reception once after some radiotherapy, and I noticed a man struggling to get coins into a payphone. He just couldn’t do it, so I offered him my mobile.
“I then heard him talking to his girlfriend. He said, ‘This amazing thing’s just happened, this wonderful lady’s just lent me her phone.’ But what did it cost me? Next to nothing. And from there I thought, ‘What’s the smallest, easiest, cheapest thing you can do to improve someone else’s day?’ It’s a smile, don’t you think? A friendly acknowledgement of their existence.”
Sara’s concern for others was also evident during her eight years working for the Stratford-upon-Avon branch of the Samaritans (just occasionally, she says, someone in desperate straits at the other end of the phone would say to her, “Hang on, is that Caroline Sterling?”).
But since July 2016 she could have been forgiven for feeling concern only for herself. The breast cancer was behind her, and a series of scans had come back clear, but then her right arm started swelling and she found a lump in her neck. Her oncologist delivered the news that she had an unusual and inoperable cancer.
She insists that she wasn’t too devastated even by the three-month prognosis she got in September. “I would prefer it to be over quickly,” she says. “But I did have to tell them at the BBC. Nobody knew about the breast cancer except dear Sunny [Ormonde, who plays Lilian Bellamy], and lovely Michael Cochrane [below, who plays her husband, Oliver Sterling].
“But obviously I couldn’t keep this from them. The first they knew was when I sent them an email in October. I don’t know what they’re going to do with the character, but I do hope they don’t write her out. I’d like them to find someone else to play her. In fact I know the very person; Michael Cochrane’s [real-life] wife Belinda Carroll would be perfect.”
Sister of the late Kate O’Mara, Carroll is a long-standing character actor with a TV CV that includes Crown Court, Casualty and Lovejoy. She also has another personal connection to the radio drama – not only is she Michael Cochrane’s wife, but she was also once married to Simon Williams, who plays business magnate Justin Elliott. Has Sara, as one of the longest-serving cast members, seen The Archers become more or less of a cultural institution? “Gosh. I don’t know. But I have seen it become kinder, in terms of the cast pulling together, the team spirit. That’s largely because of the younger people coming through, I think.”
Such as Felicity Jones, the former Emma Grundy, now a movie star? “Yes. Bless her!”
Sara sits forward in her chair in the nursing home’s hairdressing salon – the quietest place we could find to talk. She looks tremendously elegant in a spangly woollen poncho, and but for the swelling all up her right side, it would be hard to know how desperately ill she is. The random cruelty of her illness is underlined by the fact that her mother, at 98, is fit enough to visit her every week from London. But Sara shows not a whit of self-pity.
“I have a lovely array of friends, and a rescue lurcher called Sati, who I adore. I’ve been very lucky, and it doesn’t worry me that my life is coming to an end.”
What, looking back at her acting career, is the greatest source of pride?
A long pause. “Actually, it goes back to when the IRA were bombing the West End. I was in a play with Dorothy Tutin, and we had a very quiet, gentle scene together. Then, halfway through the scene, the IRA exploded a bomb right outside the theatre. It was really shocking. But we just looked at each other, our eyes opened a little wider, and neither of us dropped a beat. We held the audience for another ten minutes. I’m rather proud of that.”
She should be. It was an impressive show of pure professionalism. But her SM:)E campaign exudes pure goodness, and maybe, in the end, that counts for even more.
For more on the SM:)E campaign go to facebook.com/smilemoments1000/
The Archers airs Sunday to Friday at 7pm on Radio 4