Sally Phillips is used to strangers grinning at her. “I haven’t played a lot of murderers, so when I walk down the street, people smile at me,” she says. To them, she is the giggling receptionist in I’m Alan Partridge, a range of wacky characters in Nineties sketch show Smack the Pony, Bridget Jones’s brassy best friend Shazza in the blockbuster films, and the catchphrase-turning Tilly in Miranda. The 52-year-old actor brings a sunny, irrepressible energy to all her projects. “I feel really, really lucky,” she tells me over the phone. “Partly because [my TV series] get repeated, and it means that even when I’m having a baby, people still think I’m working. It feels good to be a part of people’s imaginative landscape.”
Phillips’s latest role has a bit more edge. She’s a guest star in the third season of Breeders, the Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard-led moody sitcom about an imperfect parenting couple of two pre-teens. In the new series, Paul (Freeman) is temporarily living away from his family home, because his rage aggravates his eldest child’s anxiety. By chance, Paul strikes up a friendship with new neighbour Gaby (Phillips); one that includes Sunday lunches and skipping work to watch a bad film at the cinema. Paul fails to mention Gaby’s existence to his wife (Haggard’s Ally). Though nothing explicitly illicit happens, there’s a definite sense of a line being approached; then again, it’s so subtle that you question whether you’re reading too far into the situation, and begin to think that perhaps there’s nothing inappropriate about their relationship at all.
“Half of the population will think that’s completely fair enough, and the other half will think he should be burnt alive,” says Phillips. And which part of the population does she fall into? “Oh, I was on the ‘this is not OK’ side,” she says, firmly. “What do you mean you’re going to the movies with someone in the afternoon? That’s completely unacceptable. One hundred per cent not OK. But then again, there are some relationships where a husband just has many female friends, and the wife is completely fine with that, which feels saner, to me. I think, ‘Oh gosh, I wish I was that well-balanced. I wish I was that mature!’”
The shifting of personal identities in adults after the arrival of children is something that Breeders explores at length, with both parents having to reevaluate their positions at work, in their home and in their romantic relationship. “It’s good to look at how you can veer off course without meaning to,” says Phillips. “I think it is a thing where you have to reinvent your relationship, with kids involved. There’s that old joke: ‘Watching my wife give birth is like watching my favourite pub burn down.’ You have to work out who you are. I think husbands do get pushed to the back of the queue. Well, in my house, they did.”
Phillips has three children of her own from her 14-year-long marriage to shipping director Andrew Bermejo. They ended their relationship in 2017, and Phillips has previously talked about how tensions began to grow between them after the birth of their first child, Olly, in 2004; they found out that he had Down’s syndrome soon after birth. At multiple points during our chat, Phillips brings the conversation back around to her family – her sons are clearly at the front of her mind after filming a show about parenting.
Phillips can certainly relate to some of the struggles seen in Breeders. “It’s not completely different [to my life] in that I am quite often failing,” she says, laughing wryly. “Or getting it wrong. Or feeling like you’ve got it wrong, and definitely wanting to get it right, definitely wanting to be good. That’s what I really identify with in those characters; they really want to be good. We all start off with all the hubris: ‘I’m gonna have the best marriage ever… I know it goes wrong for some people but mine’s gonna be great! I’m gonna be a great mum, and I’m gonna do all the things my parents did wrong, right!’ But we all fail – we all fail differently, don’t we?
“Really, my parenting objective at the moment is to get through the day without anyone getting a rash. There’s no Suzuki violin, nobody’s applying for medical school. As long as no one’s hurt and no one’s crying, it’s a win.”
I don’t want to punch down; people who are already having a tough time, why make jokes about them?
Speaking of getting hurt, Phillips felt protective over Olly after Jimmy Carr made a widely condemned joke in 2011 about all disabled children on Sunshine Variety coaches “looking the same”. “I love Jimmy Carr,” she says. “He’s a very nice person. But he did a joke about Down’s syndrome that I found upsetting, because of my son.” Should comedians be called out for offensive jokes? “It depends on whether the thing affects you,” she says. “Whether it hurts you. But the question of should [comics] be allowed to say it to other people? I don’t know. Probably.”
In terms of where she draws the line in her own comedy, Phillips says she is “anxious” not to offend people. “And at the same time, I feel anxious about telling the truth,” she says. “I’m trying to walk those two lines; it doesn’t feel particularly safe but it does feel like the only authentic place to be. I don’t want to make people feel awful. I don’t want to punch down – people who are already having a tough time, why make jokes about them?”
Phillips brings up another example of a comic who has used learning disabilities as a punchline. “Ricky Gervais, a few years ago, he announced that he was going to reclaim the word ‘m***’. You already have all the words, all the words you could possibly need. ‘It’s my right,’ [he might say], well, you know, fine. At the same time, I have neurodiverse children and the language they use with each other is awful. There’s no simple answer to this at all.”
What Phillips is certain about is her direction as an actor. She’s ready for even more edge. And that’s up for grabs with her new role in How to Please a Woman, as the boss of a company of male cleaners who also offer sexual favours. It’s not a world away from Emma Thompson’s new sex-positive sex-worker movie Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. “I’m never going to be Emma Thompson – maybe a pound-shop version,” says Phillips. “But I feel like it’s time to move into this next part of my career, into my fifties, and work out what that’s all about.
“I hope to get a little bit bolder and embrace the things that happen with it.”
All 10 episodes of ‘Breeders’ are now available on Sky Comedy and streaming service NOW