The actress with Down's syndrome who has earned a milestone role in BBC's Upstairs Downstairs drama
'Fearless': Sarah Gordy who has nabbed the lead role in BBC's Upstairs Downstairs would also love to appear in Doctor Who
Her character’s reunion with her beloved brother, Sir Hallam, formed the heart-rending finale to the first series of Upstairs Downstairs and provided a stark reminder of the way things were done ‘back then’.
Hidden away in a mental asylum because her Down’s syndrome would bring shame on the family, Lady Pamela Holland lived a solitary half-life with only her cherished photographs for company.
Tonight, viewers will see her returned to her rightful home, 165 Eaton Place, as the revival of the BBC drama returns to our screens for a second series.
Much is riding on the show – there have been inevitable comparisons with Downton Abbey – and it’s hoped that Upstairs Downstairs, like its ITV counterpart, will be commissioned for a third series.
And no one is hoping that happens more than Sarah Gordy, who plays Lady Pamela. As any actress would be, she is delighted to have a major role on prime-time television, but it also means so much more.
For Sarah, who, like her character, has Down’s syndrome, this marks a milestone in an already extraordinary career.
More delicate than she looks on screen, Sarah is 5ft with pale, twinkly blue eyes, fresh skin and a smile that enchants everyone she meets. Now in her early 30s and utterly guileless, she does not hide her delight at her newfound stardom.
‘It’s great,’ she giggles, sipping on a glass of champagne – her favourite tipple. When she is working away, her mother always keeps an emergency bottle in her suitcase.
Proud: Upstairs Downstairs actress Sarah Gordy with her supportive mother Jane in Medeira. Jane describes herself as a 'mother with claws'
‘I love being popular in Upstairs Downstairs,’ Sarah says. ‘I know what it was like back then for Pamela and I cry for her. It makes me sad to compare it with my life. It does make me mad to think people were locked up in institutions. I’m very lucky.’
Sarah spent months researching the role, reading up on what life was like in the Thirties – the revived Upstairs Downstairs is set in 1936, six years after the original series concluded. She created a back-story for Pamela, studying old newspapers at the library in Lewes, East Sussex, where she lives with her mother Jane and father Jere, a retired oil company executive.
Such is Sarah’s attention to detail that she even gave her character a perfume, Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden, that was first introduced in 1934.
She says: ‘I did my research on what life was like for people like Pamela, how they were mistreated. I looked at what they ate and drank. All their food was crammed with gelatine, things such as jelly and tinned ham. I went on computers in the library and at the records office, and looked at old newspaper cuttings.
‘For her character, I researched her strength – her hidden strength – because she is a very emotional character. Her world is her brother. He thought she was dead, he didn’t know she was there. She missed him so much when she was away. She’s caring and she has a constant love for her brother. It will never die.
Alongside co-star Pamela Howard who plays Dr Blanche Mottershead in the period drama
‘She’s very protective towards her family. She wants to look after them and she wants to socialise with adults. In this series Pamela gets to be more glamorous and confident, which I like.’
Sarah is an accomplished actress who has appeared in Peak Practice, Casualty, numerous plays and a short film, Jasmine, about a disabled woman who has to care for her drug-addict sister. She has also played a number of ‘straight’ roles, including in a series of Harold Pinter Shorts at the Brighton Fringe Festival.
Sarah was brought up in mainstream education, attending a primary school in Bromley and a high school in Houston, Texas, after her father’s job took the family to the States. She spent her early teens there along with her younger sister Catherine, a website designer. The family returned to Lewes when Sarah was 16 and it was here, at the local comprehensive, that she began to act.
She says: ‘I liked school. I have never been teased, never been bullied. I was lucky to escape that. Some of my friends were bullied.
‘I did school plays. I did notice I had this talent to act and I wanted to do it professionally. I said, “Mum, I want to take my acting seriously,” and she said, “I’ll see what I can do.” ’
Jane, a no-nonsense, energetic, woman, contacted Kaleidoscope Theatre, a group of actors – most with Down’s syndrome – who live together and perform around the country.
Miss Gordy hates reality television
Jane says: ‘She won a place with them, but after three weeks she said she wanted to come home. She didn’t like the food and she hated sharing a room. Then she tried for Carousel, an arts organisation for people with disabilities. There was one place but the director called me and said, “Sarah’s great but I’m going to give it to another girl who auditioned because she doesn’t have the same life opportunities as her.” And I was pleased he did that, it was the right thing to do.’
However, when Carlton Television contacted Carousel looking for an actress to play a relatively complex role involving a Down’s syndrome child, the director suggested Sarah.
‘And that’s how I got my big break on TV,’ she says, smiling as always.
In the summer of 2010, her agent called Sarah to tell her she was going to be in Upstairs Downstairs alongside Ed Stoppard, who plays diplomat Sir Hallam Holland, and Keeley Hawes, who plays his wife, Lady Agnes.
The role of Lady Pamela poignantly illustrates how much attitudes have changed over time.
The show’s writer, Heidi Thomas, says: ‘My youngest brother David had Down’s syndrome and people with learning difficulties have always been part of my life.
‘When I researched the way in which Pamela would have been treated, I realised how much we, as a society, have changed in our approach to people who are not average.
Sarah’s own exciting life is proof of this. I’d quite like to be Sarah Gordy sometimes – the girl has an absolute ball. And she is a consummate professional. She fits into the Upstairs Downstairs company as neatly as the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.’
Recalling the moment she received the news, Sarah says: ‘I was doing my other job – not so glamorous. I work as a volunteer at the British Heart Foundation in their charity shop in Lewes. I was in tears when my agent told me. I was so happy. It was a dream of mine. I wanted to do a costume drama. I love the dresses and the jewellery.
‘When I got the part, I began working out every day. I have three different aerobics tapes – Elle Macpherson, Cher and tae-bo. And I go to Weight Watchers. I always have and I encouraged my mother to do it as well.
‘I finally got to meet the “star- studded” cast at the read-through. They are a lovely bunch of people. I’m always still hugging Ed Stoppard when I come off set. And I love working with Keeley Hawes. She is beautiful. When she comes in, the first thing she does is hug me.’
Every night, during filming, Sarah pictures the scene she will be in the following day. She says: ‘I go over the lines in my sleep. Sometimes, my mum wakes up and hears me saying them. I never get nervous on set. I just enjoy it so much. My mum does the nerves, I do confidence.’
Jane usually travels with Sarah. She helps her with her lines and also provides the director with a set of trigger words to elicit particular emotions, although they are rarely needed. Jane says: ‘There’s “champagne”, which always produces the most beautiful smile – her champagne smile. Then, if it’s something awful, it’s “snakes”. Sarah hates them and that produces horror.
‘There’s also “stealing chips”. There’s an advert in which the boy won’t let his girlfriend have any chips. Sarah thinks that is the most terrible thing and that produces an “It’s not right” face.
‘When we’re looking at Sarah as an actress, everything comes from emotion except one thing. She has a highly developed sense of empathy and she’s very bright, but she’s got no comprehension of evil. It just isn’t in her make-up.’
The family home is crammed with Sarah’s books – she’s currently reading Rudyard Kipling’s poems and Jennifer Worth’s memoir Call The Midwife. She hates reality television, with the exception of Strictly Come Dancing, and fell in love with Shakespeare after seeing the 2005 National Theatre production of The Merry Wives Of Windsor starring Michael Gambon and David Bradley.
Sarah says: ‘I loved it. It was the language, the characters, the speech. I clapped so hard I nearly broke my wrist. I went backstage and met Michael Gambon and David Bradley. I spent 40 minutes talking to David Bradley about Shakespeare. I met him again recently.
‘I have done a radio play called Resurrection, by Nick Warburton, which is on Radio 4 on Good Friday. I play a clergyman’s daughter and David Bradley is the narrator. It was a dream come true for me – I’m working with the big boys now!’
Jane did not know Sarah had Down’s syndrome until three days after her birth. She says: ‘Having a baby doesn’t suddenly turn you into a mother. At first, I was frightened to pick her up because she was so small, so fragile.
‘Then on the third day, Jere told me she had Down’s syndrome. They spent an hour telling me everything that could go wrong. I spent ten minutes in shock and then something happened. I went from a girl too frightened to pick her up, to a mother with claws.
‘At the time I thought they’re going to give me a year where I fall in love with this little scrap, then they’re going to operate on her and I’m going to lose her. Many babies with Down’s syndrome have heart problems and have to have surgery. Sarah had nothing.
‘They checked her regularly for five or six years, but apart from cataracts, which were operated on last year, she’s been fine. I would love to go back in time to my younger self and say, “It’s a gas.”
‘Sarah brings such joy and she’s taught me so much. She’s taught me not to take myself too seriously, to enjoy the moment. There’s a fearlessness with Sarah, an honesty. Nothing is contrived.’
Jane is rightly proud of her daughter and hopes that viewers will see Sarah as a positive role model. She says: ‘Sarah’s lucky. She’s very bright, very beautiful and very talented. You could say she’s not the average Down’s syndrome person but look at a lot of actresses – they’re not the average person either.
‘It’s good to have a positive image, because there will be people who have just had Down’s syndrome babies out there and they need to know it can be OK.’
The outrage that greeted Ricky Gervais’s use of the word ‘mong’ shows just how much attitudes have changed. Sarah says: ‘I’m trying to put the positive out there and the negative, what Ricky Gervais did, was an accident but it was uncalled for. I don’t like the word because it undermines people who are different.
‘I don’t think he realised how much it hurts. I would love to meet him. I want him to look at the person, not to judge, just look at me and don’t say things you’ll have to regret.’
As well as her acting work, Sarah sits on two council committees that help people with learning disabilities and is a trustee of the Oyster Project, a self-help charity founded by disabled people.
Jane says: ‘We work together on her drama, but with her committee work, her charities, she flies solo. She does all her research herself, too. My job is to make things happen for her. Well, it was in the beginning, but now she chases the writers herself. She’s forever on the internet checking what people are doing.’
‘Oh yes,’ agrees Sarah. ‘I check all the writers. Writer means job opportunity.’ She hopes there will be another series of Upstairs Downstairs and would also love to appear, one day, on Doctor Who.
‘That’s my next dream,’ she says. ‘I love working. I love watching myself on TV. The first time it was pretty weird, in Peak Practice. Now it’s not so weird. It’s great. I’ll be watching the first episode of the new series of Upstairs Downstairs with a glass of champagne.’