A Down's child is a blessing, not a tragedyYes, there are challenges. But Sally Phillips says her seven-year-old son Ollie – cheeky, honest and an enthusiastic dancer
– is the life and soul of her family
Proud mother: Sally Phillips says that far from being a 'problem', a 'challenge' or her particular bugbear a 'tragedy', her son Ollie is a blessing
Sally Phillips has one of those faces that is just, well, funny. It’s something about the corners of her mouth, she reckons, that cause people to think she is permanently poised to crack a joke and make them fall about laughing. So they try to get there first.
It’s a handy trait to have as a comedy actress. But it doesn’t half cause problems in real life. ‘Getting a new passport took me a stupid amount of time,’ she points out, with what may or may not be a smirk. ‘I had to go back five times with different photographs because they kept saying I was smiling, which is against the rules. I was not smiling. Eventually they had to accept that I just look like this.’
Although best known for her comedy acting – remember her Shazzer, the kooky best friend in Bridget Jones – the on-screen work has always gone hand-in-hand with her writing. Sometimes, as in the sketch show Smack The Pony, the two have dovetailed rather deliciously. And so it is with her new venture, a very funny, very low-budget, bridal romcom, which stars David Tennant as the groom. She wrote the screenplay and stars in it, although as she points out, ‘I play an American. I’m only in it because I was cheaper than a real American.’
The plot – Hollywood power couple arrange a ‘decoy’ wedding on a remote Scottish island to evade the world’s press – might seem far-fetched, but was very much based on real life. Or at least Tinseltown real life. ‘Remember when Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck called off their wedding They put out a statement saying that they knew things had got out of hand when they ended up having a decoy wedding and a decoy bride. I thought, “Bingo! That is such a good premise for a film.” Being me, I never actually expected it to get made – 90 per cent of screenplays never do, and I always say there’s a “pancake rule” that means the first one must be a disaster. But someone liked it, and so it actually got made, with me starring in it and everything.’
When she got the commission, Sally, whose husband Andrew is an IT specialist, was pregnant with her first child, Ollie, who is now seven. With hindsight she had a rather rose-tinted view of how life would progress. ‘I had a vision of sitting writing my screenplay with my baby in a Moses basket by my side.’ She laughs. ‘That would have been naive even if things hadn’t been more complicated.’ As it turned out, things – as they often do – turned out to be quite complicated indeed. When he was ten days old, Ollie was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. He was in and out of hospital almost constantly for the first year of his life. Sally’s life, meanwhile, had been turned upside down, and writing her first screenplay suddenly slipped down the priority list. ‘I think parenthood does that anyway, but there is no doubt that my experience was more intense. It’s why we are only now sitting here talking about this film, when Ollie is seven. In the event, I had to get a co-writer in to help me get it finished.’
Now, you’d imagine introducing the subject of a disabled child into an interview ostensibly about comedy writing might be a bit, to use one of her expressions, ‘icky’. Yet we flip from discussing Hugh Grant’s skin (‘very soft, I’ve heard. But only heard. I have no direct experience,’ she says) to talking about amniocentesis tests for Down’s syndrome, and their implications, with surprising ease. And astonishingly, I find myself continuing to laugh throughout. Take her attempts to describe the very specific joy that comes from having a Down’s syndrome child. It takes something of a skill with words and images to liken that child to a happy drunk, but that’s exactly what Sally does – and, what’s more, it works. ‘It’s the best way I can think to describe what being around Ollie is like. He is like the happy drunk at the party – you know, the one who has had a few, but isn’t yet at the point of being offensive, or throwing up on the carpet. He’s the guy who breaks all the rules, says what he thinks, and is a bit rude but truthful with it. He’s the guy who makes you laugh, despite yourself. The person who gets the dancefloor going and makes everyone loosen up. That’s Ollie.’
Far from him being a ‘problem’, a ‘challenge’ or – her particular bugbear – a ‘tragedy’, she describes Ollie as a blessing. ‘I really mean it when I say that. People think it’s just something you say, but it isn’t. Of course some stuff is difficult. Your heart breaks when he doesn’t get invited to a play date, or he gets a rash that doesn’t go away, or his stomach hurts and you can’t make it better and you can’t explain to him what’s wrong.
‘But I can tell you for sure that having a child like Ollie brings such joy. I was dancing around the kitchen to Olly Murs this morning. My Ollie will only allow one song at a time in the house, so you have to hear the same one a thousand times. But he will get you dancing to it.
Happy day: Sally Phillips with her husband Andrew Bermejo. A mutual friend set them up
‘He set our lives on a completely
different path that we perhaps wouldn’t have chosen, but it’s infinitely
better than being stuck on that Tiger Mum stress treadmill. We spend
much more time genuinely having fun with each other, rather than ticking
the achievement boxes.
‘What having a Down’s syndrome child
isn’t – and I feel very strongly about this – is a tragedy. All those
pregnancy books you read when you are expecting refer to Down’s syndrome
as if it were the worst possible outcome, and it’s not. I mean it
really is so far from the worst possible outcome. My son is lovely. He’s
in mainstream school and parents of other children in his class say
they are so glad he’s in the class. He’s very popular and he can talk
and read and walk and do maths and play computer games and all of those
things. In fact, he’s better at the computer than I am.’
The fact that Ollie can read makes her
dilemma here, trying to explain the complexities of caring for him, so
acute. ‘I never ever want him to read anything I say about him and think
he’s remotely a burden, or a problem, because he isn’t. He is a joy.’
was no warning that Ollie would have a disability, in fact quite the
opposite. The tests were done, and no red flags went up. ‘We were told
we had a 1 in 10,000-odd chance, and he wasn’t diagnosed immediately, so
I was sort of very angry for a while. It took me a while to work the
steps backwards, and when I asked myself, “So would you have
terminated” the answer was no.’
Film star: Sally as Shazzer, the kooky best friend, with Renee Zellwegger in Bridget Jones
Now she has come to resent the
question, and all the assorted ones that are either asked, or implied.
‘They are always questions that are a step away from, “Would you prefer
not to have had your child Would you prefer it if he never existed”
No! I’m very glad my child has been born, thank you very much. I think
‘My blood runs cold when I hear the “great news” that we have found a marker for the Down’s syndrome gene, which means we can identify it more easily. Why is that good news It’s only good news if you’re going to terminate. Hurrah, we can kill more! That makes you want to vomit when you’re a parent.’
Has having Ollie changed her, though She made a career out of an outwardly carefree, laugh-a-minute approach to life. ‘Has it made me less able to laugh, do you mean’ she says. ‘I don’t think it has. You kind of have to see the funny side. Today we were at the theatre and Ollie climbed up on the stage and everyone was looking. You can either be mortified by that, or embrace it. Work-wise, it doesn’t really have an impact on what I do. It does a bit in my sensitivities about things, I suppose. I’m not going to be one of those people who thinks it’s enormously amusing when Ricky Gervais wants to repopularise the word “mong” for instance, but in terms of writing, no. If anything, work has been a welcome distraction.’
Writer and actress: Sally with her Smack The Pony co-stars Fiona Allen (left) and Doon MacKichan
Another distraction is the fact that she now has two more children. Luke is four and baby Tom is just three months. Presumably, it was a difficult decision whether to have more children ‘You go one of two ways. Either you say, “This child needs extra help so we’re going to devote everything to him.” Or you say, “This child needs siblings.” Both are equally good, but we felt there is a lot they can get from siblings, and vice versa. The siblings of special needs children are quite special. Absolutely accepting and totally loving, from birth, someone who is different mentally, and has a different way of seeing the world, is a wonderful trait. It’s a trait I wish there was another way of getting, but there isn’t. And it does involve a degree of not having it fantastically easy.’
Career-wise, the tricky bit now is for Sally to work out whether she wants to concentrate on writing full-time, or continue to pursue acting roles. Oddly enough, this decision probably won’t come down to her family circumstances, but something much more superficial and tragi-comic. ‘It really will depend on the plastic surgery situation,’ she says, deadpan, pointing out that she is now 41 and things are always tricky for fortysomething actresses, even if their home lives are as uncomplicated as you get. ‘I don’t fancy doing all that Botox, facelift stuff, but if you’re the only 50-year-old who doesn’t, you’re going to be in trouble. I went to LA recently and the customs guy asked if I was ever going to do some work there. I said, “No. I can’t do the plastic surgery thing” and he said, “Oh, but we need folk to play real people too.” Then he added, “Mind you, I’ve had an eyelid tuck myself.”’
The Decoy Bride is out in cinemas on Friday and available on DVD on 12 March.