In the first episode of Cleaning Up, Sheridan Smith – as Samantha, an office cleaner – sneakily tries to cover up the stubborn stain of someone’s careless al-desko lunch. From that moment you’re on her side all the way, as she necks the leftovers in wine glasses on a conference table, begs for extra shifts and heads home through the glass jungle of Canary Wharf, worrying about her kids and her debts and playing roulette on her phone.
Not perfect, not a squeaky-clean role model; a problem gambler, but crackling with intelligence and mischief. The writer Mark Marlow’s heroine is one of the invisible: a humble cleaner in a tabard, the woman swanky bankers don’t notice, but who might beat them at their game.
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Sheridan enthuses, “She’s someone you immediately fall in love with: massively flawed, but you’re on her side. Morally there’s a lot she does wrong,” says the 37 year-old, “but it’s for her family – she doesn’t want to lose her girls and her house. She’s got a gambling head on her, so might get that big win. And there are these big rich companies cheating – why should they get away with it, and not some poor cleaner?”
She wins your heart quickly, Sheridan Smith. I met her first in 2011, when her star suddenly rose. She moved from her Lincolnshire village at 16, had a well-noticed debut appearance at the Donmar Warehouse and then a run of sitcoms like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin & Stacey. “Chavs and slappers a speciality!” she cries.
The leap to West End stardom was a hilarious performance in Legally Blonde, in which a chihuahua jumped into her pink handbag with flawless timing, seven shows a week: “I had bits of meat tucked down my bra. I smelled!” Trevor Nunn spotted her for a stunningly moving part in Flare Path, and that was when I found her in her flowery dressing room, with a second Olivier on the shelf and reviews she did not dare read: “Superb… Impish charm… Stunning… Brilliant technical acting”.
That nonplussed her: an ongoing anxiety is that she never went to drama school. “Learning on the job for me is like trying to be a sponge, taking it all in. I’m really grateful to directors, and actors. Like Dustin Hoffman saw me in Flare Path, and put me in his film [Quartet] with Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith… acting royalty. I was so, so nervous, but Maggie took me under her wing. I like taking direction… nuggets of genius, they’ve got!”
She grew up dancing and singing with her parents, a country and western duo, which feels relevant – the music is about simple, strong emotions, hearts that break and women who soldier on: “My mum always says the show must go on.”
Alongside stage stardom, there were plum TV parts in the Great Train Robbery drama Mrs Biggs and as Cilla Black in Cilla, a Bafta, then an OBE. But soon after her visit to the Palace in 2015, her father Colin was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had lost a brother the same way, and always felt her success could help make up that loss to her parents. The diagnosis knocked her sideways, just as she was starring in Funny Girl. Again she had audiences on their feet, turning easily from brash jokey confidence to self-doubt and anxiety that was, in fact, close to her real state. “I’ve always had impostor syndrome: ‘Oh God, what if I can’t do it, what if this role is the last one?’”
Those interludes of desperate anxiety, unseen by audiences, had haunted her for years, and in 2016 broke down her composure entirely. The impending loss of her dad was too hard a blow, not least because she was working flat-out 170 miles away. She faltered during Funny Girl, and withdrew for two months with stress, exhaustion and grief.
“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. And Dad dying. It wasn’t that I chose to take the time off, but you know, it was better that I had time with him. No one’s as good as your dad, are they? He used to say, ‘No one’s good enough to take you up the aisle, I’ll take you up the red carpet!’ Every event, he was my date. Since he passed away I don’t go to many things any more.”
Throughout her rise she had no long-term partner, and family is vital. “I lost my eldest brother when I was eight, my other brother Damian’s in a band now and plays up north. I’ve always got that solid family and go home as often as I can.”
There were snide press reports about her collapse, and in a flurry of unwise, unhappy tweets, she protested. Sometimes angry: “They don’t give a f*** about my dad!” More often regretful and loving towards her fans: “Sorry I’m not strong enough”.
Being open to heartbreak, anxious to learn and unsure of her abilities are the qualities that make her so mesmerising to watch. But they leave her vulnerable. “When I was in Hedda Gabler, the director Anna Mackmin said my skin was paper thin. And it is, yeah.”
Less mentioned in the reports of her collapse during Funny Girl is something she proudly reminds me of now. “I came back after caring for Dad, and finished the run. Then I did the tour. I wanted to do the tour, I felt I had let people down. It was cathartic to finish it that way.”
Meanwhile, though, she had taken one eccentric route in defiance of all the grief and shame. She has a mass of tattoos: a Daddy’s Girl, a This Too Shall Pass, a C’est la vie. “I was not in a good place. My mum went berserk! Maybe in my head I just wasn’t going to act any more. I was in this mad little world. Why should the whole world have a right to look at me? But then I got better and thought: ‘Oh, I’m an idiot! Of course I’m going back to acting!’ Now my make-up artist has ordered a product from America that covers the tattoos. And I wear cardigans a lot!”
Psychiatric care has helped her: “Various specialists. It took a couple of years to get right, and to get over the social phobias. I recently got a great doctor, and I think I’m finally back. I decided to talk about it because it’s an illness like any other illness. I was ashamed and embarrassed and now I need to be an advocate, to say: ‘It’s OK to not be OK. Ask for help.’” She’s frequently approached by fans experiencing similar struggles: “Girls come to gigs, message me, talk to me about anxiety, being too fat or not pretty enough.”
Music is growing more important – she’s just released a second album, and sang a song she wrote for her father at the British Legion Festival of Remembrance in November. “Such an honour! Music is therapeutic, I can get all my emotions out, tell a story in three minutes, not three hours.”
We talk some more about Cleaning Up, and how they sent her “for office-cleaning lessons – I learned that you don’t rub a stain, you dab it, and there are lots of different cloths for different jobs.” As for Sam’s gambling addiction: “Well, I know people who’ve had similar situations. Look at telly now, every ad is gambling. And women, at home with kids, no chance or time to go out and get more money. Why wouldn’t you?”
The gamble of her own career is gradually paying off in a calmer, more level way. “I don’t have big ambitions any more – as long as I’m working and my mental health’s good. I’d like to get married, have a kid.” She told me back in the summer that she was engaged. James Horn, reports say, is a quiet and courtly city worker. “I need to come home to someone caring, understanding. Normality. But someone who’ll put up with the madness of this industry.”
I rang her recently and asked about a wedding date; she responded with a torrent of happy giggles. “No rush! I’m booked up filming all next year, we’re just enjoying the engagement.” Other plans, however, move fast: she at last has what she’s longed for for years, “A little farm out in the country. I’ve just got four donkeys. Got another dog now, too. My fella wants chickens, fresh eggs. I’ve realised how much I missed the countryside.”
The other 2019 plan is setting up her own production company. “I’m super excited about finding people I want to work with all the time, looking for fresh talent, maybe giving some young people who don’t have the money to train a chance to perform. I’d love that.”
Any New Year’s resolutions? “No more dogs, no more tattoos, I promised my mum. But I will probably break it. More dogs, anyway.” And she is still resolved on a hen party at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in Tennessee. We had shrieked together at our first meeting when she found out I’d been there. “Hen party! Yes! With all my girls! You coming?” Too damn right I would, if still wanted when the day dawns.
This article was originally published in the 5-11 January 2019 issue of Radio Times