Cleaning Up’s first episode was not a roaring success. ITV’s newest drama starring Sheridan Smith as Sam – a cleaner who enters the murky world of insider trading – has been heavily trailed by the broadcaster, but its debut received mixed reviews from viewers, with many pointing out a slew of inaccuracies.
They have a point.
What kind of stockbroking firm leaves confidential data on desks and allows workers to leave their screens unlocked? And surely you’d be hard-pushed to find a real-life illegal trader who announces on a phone call exactly how many years he could spend behind bars if he’s caught.
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But search #CleaningUp on Twitter and you’ll be met with a second layer of critique, aimed squarely at Smith herself. You’ll see users picking apart her acting abilities, her accent, labelling her a one trick pony and worse. There is so much bile.
Sheridan Smith is not the problem with Cleaning Up. Wobbly exposition, glaring factual errors and a questionable premise have been rightfully mocked. But with Smith at the heart, you have a character to root for – a single mother desperately trying to hold her family together as the debts pile up and her online gambling addiction saps her low income.
The 37-year-old actress has a born ability to make us care.
Perhaps it’s that very ability that fosters such polarised opinions.
For all the cruel tweets for Cleaning Up, there’s also love and adoration for Smith. “#CleaningUp is absolutely fantastic and as always @Sheridansmith1 is doing a phenomenal job,” wrote one.
“I thought #CleaningUp was fantastic!” said another. “I adore Sheridan Smith and all of the negative tweets about the character really show how misunderstood addiction is.”
For large portions of Smith’s career the industry has revered her, too. Her performance in Mrs Biggs won her a Bafta, and she can also count two Oliviers and an NTA among her collection of silverware, plus a string of acclaimed roles in Cilla, The Moorside, The C Word and last year’s Care.
But it was Smith’s presence at the 2016 Bafta Television Awards that triggered one of the lowest points in her career, when viewers ripped into her for appearing disappointed after The C Word failed to win any prizes. At the same time, her much-loved father Colin was battling terminal cancer. We watched what was perceived to be a public meltdown as Smith pulled out of her role in musical Funny Girl with “stress and exhaustion”, and sent a flurry of reactive tweets amid relentless press coverage.
She eventually returned to the West End role, completing a UK tour, and has since spoken about the lead-up to her time off, telling Radio Times: “My anxiety levels started getting a lot higher; it was that fear of failing, I guess. It came out of nowhere and got gradually worse and worse and came to a head.”
Mental health – its causes, effects and prevalence – is increasingly discussed, but it’s still brave to publicly talk about grief and psychiatric care on a publicity tour, as Smith has done in the build-up to Cleaning Up.
She describes her skin as “paper thin”. Her emotions brim near the surface – it’s part of what makes her such a believable actress – but it must also make it that bit harder to be in the public eye.
So isn’t it depressing that her first major TV series since her comeback has been met with such personal, cruel attacks. Isn’t it time we celebrated Sheridan Smith’s talent instead of looking for opportunities to lob criticism her way?
This article was originally published in January 2019