‘The unbearable loss that changed me for the better’ Sarah Parish on surviving every parent’s worst nightmare

‘Nothing awful had ever happened to me…’ …then Broadchurch star Sarah Parish had to face every mother’s worst nightmare. She reveals how losing her baby daughter forced her to reassess everything – and ultimately made her a better person.

Sarah Parish
Jumper, Hildur Yeoman. Image: Alisa Connan

‘Very often,’ says Sarah Parish, ‘I get scripts and the first thing it says about the character is, “She’s severe, hard…” She bursts out laughing. ‘Which I get, you know, because I haven’t got a nice cute little face.’ More raucous laughter. ‘I’m high of cheekbone, as my mother would say. As soon as the audition comes through, you know what the description is going to be. “She’s an ice maiden! She’s hard as nails! She’s no-nonsense!” And in actual fact, severe and hard is probably not what I do best. I’m not particularly severe in person.’

It’s true that Sarah, an actress who has graced our screens for 25 years, is not remotely severe in person. Today, settled in an armchair before her photo shoot, she’s positively jolly. She has a booming laugh – an enormously contagious ‘Hahaha!that comes from her whole body. Almost every answer, even to some of the more serious questions, is peppered with jokes. 

The role we’re here to talk about today, however, is the classic hard-as-nails type: Elizabeth Bancroft, who returns to ITV with a bang early next year. If you didn’t catch the first series of Bancroft, it’s a fantastically hammy thriller. Sarah plays a brilliant police detective with some very dark secrets – let’s just say you wouldn’t want to be left alone with her in an interview room. I’ve seen an action-packed trailer for the second series and I try to describe it to her but am lost for words. ‘It looks completely bonkers,’ I eventually say. She roars with laughter.

Sarah Parish
Sarah wears dress, MaxMara, from Fenwick. Belt, Masscob. Watch, Cartier. Shoes, Manolo Blahnik. Image: Alisa Connan

‘It’s great, isn’t it?’ she agrees. ‘We got massive viewing figures for the first series, and they stayed with us right to the end. It got mixed reviews, though – some people loved it and some absolutely hated it.’ Did she mind that? ‘No! It’s got a funny flavour, because it’s very melodramatic. But there’s enough in it for people to get hooked, and she’s such a compelling character. You kind of hate her and you love her at the same time. It’s fun to do and it’s fun to watch.’

Sarah is very much in demand. She’s just appeared in comedy three-parter The Cockfields, in a small but hilarious role as the spoilt, self-pitying Melissa. ‘That was a mistake casting,’ she tells me. ‘The job had actually gone to somebody else [Kim Cattrall, I learn later]; it had fallen through at the last minute and I got a phone call. I was like, “Brilliant! I’ve never played someone like that!”’

It’s a shame that Sarah doesn’t get more comic parts, because she’s very good at them – as anyone who saw her as Anna in the BBC mockumentary W1A will know. Her next big role (back to the ice maidens, apparently) will be in Industry, a major HBO production that’s being executive-produced by Lena Dunham of Girls fame.

Sarah Parish
Starring in police thriller Bancroft. Image: ITV

But then it feels as though Sarah has rarely been off our screens since her Boddingtons ad in 1994 – which started with her as a silent, sunbathing glamazon in a bikini, before the camera pulled away to show her drinking a pint of beer in Blackpool. The advert concluded with the immortal line, ‘Give us another rubdown with that chip fat,’ delivered in a thick Mancunian accent. It doesn’t sound like an auspicious career start, but it was. ‘That got me noticed by TV casting directors; I got the role of Dawn in Peak Practice and from there it was all TV. I have a lot to thank that advert for,’ she says. 

Sarah’s CV includes parts in Cutting It, Merlin, Mistresses, Broadchurch and the film The Holiday, to name just a few. I say it looks from the outside as though her career has been very consistent, and she agrees that it has, more or less. ‘There have been periods where I’ve done things that I haven’t been as excited about. In the middle of my 40s I still worked, but not as regularly. That’s always a tough age for an actress, because people have to change their perspective of you. You’ve just done Mistresses so they’re still thinking of you in that way, but in actual fact you don’t look like that any more and you’re not that person. So that was an interesting time.’

Has she ever had a confidence crisis? ‘I think all actors do.’ It’s such a precarious business. I think it now – you know, “Hell, what am I going to do next?” I’ve no idea what I’m going to do after Industry. I think that’s something that haunts all actors, because we’re a self-employed entity and you could go out of fashion just like that.’ But she hasn’t, I say. ‘Not yet!’

Sarah Parish
Dress, Hildur Yeoman. Image: Alisa Connan

Sarah is 51 and still taking lead roles, which suggests that perhaps opportunities for actresses have improved – hitting middle age no longer has to mean, as it did for so long, being sidelined into bit parts as the worried mother. ‘Yeah, it’s good, but I still don’t think there are enough opportunities. I think that as you get older, you become more interesting. You become wiser, you’ve got more to tell, you’re funnier. And really, the only series that I can think of that has concentrated on that is Last Tango in Halifax. It’s still much more appealing for producers to put loads of very attractive young people into something, and then there’s a smattering of oldies, but they’re not carrying it. Let them carry it, I think.’

She also believes there’s untapped comic and dramatic material in the life stage that women face after 50. ‘In this day and age, when we are much more open to talking about the menopause – I mean, the amount of hilarious stories I hear from my friends! We don’t really have a lot of TV about mums whose kids have gone, who are in that time of life where they go, “God, this is it, isn’t it? That’s the person I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with, and they never look at me any more; my kid only comes back to do their washing. Who am I?” And, just practically and economically, the people who watch TV are 50-year-old women. If you want to make money [as a TV channel], that’s your prime audience.’

The story of Sarah’s own life, beyond the solid acting career, has been shaped by a personal tragedy. In 2009, she and her husband, the actor James Murray, lost their eight-month-old daughter Ella-Jayne to a congenital heart defect. In the aftermath of her death, they went to Cambodia and spent two months working in an orphanage. It turned out to be the first step on a new path. In 2014 they set up the Murray Parish Trust, dedicated to advancing paediatric emergency medicine in the south of England. Working with another local charity, they’ve recently succeeded in raising over £2.5 million for Southampton University Hospital, which the government matched; it paid for a brand new children’s emergency and trauma department. 

Sarah Parish
Sarah with her husband James
and their daughter Nell last year. Image: Alpha Press

‘I’d had a very easy life before that,’ Sarah says. ‘Nothing awful had ever happened to me. But with something like that, I know it’s a real cliché, but it has made us. And the charity – especially running alongside careers as actors – is perfect. It’s the ideal thing to do, because as an actor you really do have the space to become an awful person if you want.’ She laughs heartily. ‘Because everything is based around you and what you need. It’s a great job and we’re very lucky. Then when you work on a charity alongside it, and you see what life is, the really bad side of life, it just makes what you do [for a living] amazing, you know. My job is my holiday and the charity is my job.’

Sarah has been with James for 14 years. ‘It changed us as people, definitely. It has to. And actually, the older you get, the more people you meet who have lost children. A lot of people lose children in far worse circumstances than Jim and me. Ella-Jayne was only eight months old, she was very poorly anyway, so we were already prepped for what could happen. Whereas I’ve met people along the way who had a healthy child, everything was good, and suddenly they’ve gone. I’ve known people who have lost their children at the age of 16. It’s just unbearable. It will always change you as a person. It’s changed us for the better, I think.’

Their current project is to raise £5.5 million for an intraoperative MRI scanner (IMRI), which will allow children to be scanned in the operating theatre during brain or spinal surgery. ‘It’s so important,’ says Sarah, ‘because at the moment they’ll be scanned at the other end of the hospital and by the time they’re wheeled into the operating theatre, their brain has moved, so the scan doesn’t make sense any more. I was reading a case study the other day of a two-year-old girl who had 19 operations and 12 CT scans. She died – but if we’d had the IMRI, we think that she would have lived.’ Raising so much money is a daunting task. ‘They’ve given us three years,’ says Sarah. ‘The last one took three years and we were only doing half of it, with another charity.’ With a wink, Sarah leans in towards my phone, on which I’m recording the interview, and says loudly, ‘We’re going to go back to the government and I’m sure they’ll give us the money to match-fund again! Of course they will.’ She and James have a second daughter Nell, who’s ten; they’ve just returned from what she describes as a brilliant holiday driving a motorhome around New England (‘You’ve got to be quite up for it; there’s not a lot of showering,’ she says). She seems very happy. But she never would have known when she was younger, I imagine, that charity work would end up being such a central focus of her life.

Sarah Parish
Blouse, Amanda Wakeley. Trousers, Emporio Armani, from Fenwick. Shoes, Rupert Sanderson. Ring, Monica Vinader. Image: Alisa Connan

‘I think my life has turned out very differently to how I thought it would,’ she agrees. ‘I mean, I have a great life, but if you’d asked me 20 years ago I’d have said, “I’ll have five kids”, because I loved kids; unfortunately, it turned out that I was a bit rubbish at having them. But you live with what you’ve got. You know, we don’t get paid for the charity stuff we do and we work solidly at it, so sometimes you do go, “Oh I can’t bear it, we’re not getting anything back!” But then you think, “Stop being so pathetic – you’re getting loads back.” This is what I am here to do. And like I said, on the other side of it, I have this incredible job where people fuss and do my make-up and bring me breakfast. 

‘So this might not have been the life that I thought I’d have, but I’m damn lucky to have it. And I love it.’ She smiles at me, and this time, she doesn’t crack a joke.

Series two of Bancroft will start on New Year’s Day, ITV, 9pm. To donate to the Murray Parish Trust, go to themurrayparishtrust.com