Being public about her Christian beliefs is something Sally Phillips is, justifiably, a bit nervous about. Loud professions of faith have never been the key to success in showbusiness, and most of her peers in the comedy world are clever atheists. She was once one of them as a student at Oxford University, where her career began. Her subsequent conversion story sounds ‘crazy’ to most people, she says, especially the bit about bursting into tears at 3am in a shopping centre after a Pentecostal Christian from Sierra Leone prayed for her. Nevertheless, the actress is not alone as a believer with a successful comedy career.
Milton Jones (well known for wearing loud shirts on TV quiz shows) was instrumental in her faith journey and fellow comedian Miranda Hart is also a committed Christian. Sally admits that she took the part of Tilly in Miranda as a favour to her then-unknown friend, never predicting the show would become such a hit with the public.
The breakthrough in Sally’s own TV career began as corpsing Travel Tavern receptionist Sophie opposite Steve Coogan in I’m Alan Partridge, later followed by her all-female comedy sketch show Smack the Pony with Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan. Film parts have included playing Shazza, the foul-mouthed best friend to Renée Zellwegger’s Bridget Jones (the third instalment will be released in September), while Clare in the Community, in which Sally plays politically correct-but-hapless social worker Clare, is in its fifth season on BBC Radio 4.
Despite initial reservations, Sally is remarkably open about her faith in conversation, recognising that she has had to learn to ‘live a bit more with mystery and uncertainty and reality’ in the 20 years since her conversion. It’s a story that she shares with a good dollop of self-deprecating humour but also an infectious (and slightly daft) sense of joy.
Part of that journey has been the birth of her three children with husband Andrew. Their eldest son Olly, 12, has Down’s syndrome and Sally has been increasingly vocal in speaking for and alongside those with the condition. She is due to front a BBC documentary questioning the ethics of the new Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT). The rate of abortion of babies in the womb detected with Down’s syndrome is expected to rise with the introduction of the test.
Sally and others backing the ‘Don’t Screen Us Out’ campaign believe that prospective parents are rarely presented with the positives of raising children with additional needs, nor do they have the opportunity to hear the voices of people with Down’s syndrome themselves. Everybody is created in the image of God, she says, and Olly has taught her more than anyone could about the ‘topsy-turvy topology’ of the kingdom of a God who ‘uses the weak to shame the strong’ and ‘promises to frustrate “the intelligence of the intelligent”’.
How did you become a Christian?
I tried to become a Christian at school. I decided I was going to popularise Abba and Christianity – grandiose ambitions, aged 14. I used to fortune-tell with my copy of the Bible. I’d ask people to give me a page and verse number and then I’d say, ‘and you will be 4 cubits by 4 cubits…that means you need to go on a diet’. Or whatever it was.
I joined the Christian Union at school. There was a maths teacher called Mrs Fowler who had a guitar and we were five socially awkward teenage girls sitting in a damp basement. She really tried hard to inspire us. But it had the opposite effect on me. I remember praying in chapel and just being overwhelmed by a vast emptiness – there really was nothing there and I was talking into a void.
Then I went to university. God was on my case. The Christian Union focused on me in a way they didn’t appear to focus on other people! They were constantly turning up on my door with Bibles, inviting me places. So naturally by the end of my time at university I was incredibly anti [Christianity]. I was hanging out with people like Stewart Lee who went on to write the Jerry Springer opera, which Christians far and wide condemned as being from Satan.
I remember the reaction to that – it was quite polarising.
I was with that crowd of people, so becoming a Christian was just not going to happen because Christianity was for idiots and everyone knew that! I started researching and writing a sitcom about witches. I thought witches were funny. I had a whole load of books on witchcraft.
I started having really bad nightmares. I thought, ‘Ok, my brain is a computer; I’m feeding it witches. I’m going to stop feeding it witches’. And so I threw all the books away. The dreams didn’t go away. Then I was turning my flat upside down looking for a Bible (which I didn’t have because only idiots read the Bible, obviously).
My social group was so anti-Christian that I actually found it embarrassing, shaming even, the idea that I might go and buy a Bible. I remember standing outside a bookshop for ages, wondering if I had the guts to buy one.
After three months of sleeping about three hours a night and [having] these nightmares every single night, I ended up on a job with Milton Jones and Patrice Naiambana – who is a Sierra Leonean actor. I quite quickly established they were both Christians. Milton was 32 and had three kids. I said: ‘What? Who has three kids at that age?! Are you Christian or something?’
Right…that’s the logical conclusion isn’t it!
Only Christians would have had three kids by then. So he was instantly suspicious.
I was being rubbish in rehearsal one day and I said to Patrice, ‘Sorry I’m being so bad, the devil came to haunt me last night in the form of a chair’, which was my comedy-telling of the nightmare. And suddenly the siren went off! Patrice said ‘That’s why we have Jesus!’
Arrogantly I went up to Milton after rehearsal one day and said [sarcastically], ‘Ok, tell me about Jesus then.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about Jesus, you only want to talk about Jesus because you don’t have a boyfriend!’
So there was Patrice on the hard sell and Milton absolutely refusing to tell me anything! I feel like God was immensely kind, showing me those two different ways of being. If it had been just one person I would have gone home and thought of all the ways I was different to that person. But because there were these two polar opposites, literally black and white…
So the breadth of what it could be to be a Christian was presented to you?
I became a Christian when Patrice prayed for me in Hammersmith shopping centre at 3am. And to everyone’s surprise I became a Christian and still am. But then I instantly went and did a very stupid thing. I went and threw my brain away for years.
There is this tendency in some churches to simplify everything and make it a simple list of rules. So I threw away my brain and said, ‘Oh well, I’ve got doubts but doubts are wrong. Don’t doubt. Don’t doubt.’ Whereas now I feel like I’m learning to live a bit more with mystery and uncertainty and reality. You have to live with your dark side. You can’t pretend it’s not there. You have to honestly communicate with God and each other with the humility that comes from knowing your failings and admitting them.
You often hear people say ‘comedy is a dark place, full of atheists’. Is that true?
Honestly I think comedians are a lot closer to God than most unthinking people in church. After the first few years when you’re desperate for a laugh, you’re searching for truth. Society has many margins that provide great vantage points from which to view it, and comedians are genuinely looking for the truth of who people are, what they want, how they behave and why – and looking to pull back masks and reveal truth. And I think that’s what Jesus was all about.
I often hear preachers ask: ‘What’s your advice for telling jokes in sermons?’
Don’t. Please don’t. Don’t do it! The really exciting thing about preaching is God comes and lights it up. That’s the really wonderful thing, isn’t it? It can be nothing. It can be someone absolutely useless. You can be Moses who has got a stammer and can’t talk. It could be a child. God comes and lights it up and you’re literally just a tube through which God blows. A kazoo. God’s kazoo.
Speaking of God’s kazoo (that great band from the 1970s), I’ve found myself that praying helps me to write. How do you find the creative process when you’re coming up with ideas?
I pray about it all the time. A few years after I became a Christian, I was really struggling to find out how faith played a part and what thoughts I was allowed, actually. That was something I was really bothered by. Am I allowed to think like this anymore? I was self-censoring all the time.
If you’re only trying to write something acceptable to a low Anglican congregation, it’s going to be of practically zero artistic value. I was only good for Alpha suppers for a while, I’ve got to say.
As soon as you second-guess any audience it’s a problem, isn’t it?
I found dirty jokes really funny. It makes me laugh, it’s the first place my brain goes. I’m sorry...Am I sorry? I don’t know that I am sorry. God made bodies and it’s funny! The shame around our bodies is funny. The decrepitude of our bodies is funny. I know you’re not allowed to make those jokes or use those words. So that does become something you have to think through.
I was a Christian when I was doing Smack the Pony and the other two weren’t Christians. And I was coming up with all the filthy material. Our vicar would be saying, ‘I do feel sorry for you, some of the things you have to do’, not knowing I’d written it and I was responsible for it. But I didn’t feel bad for it because it was true. If it’s true, then is it bad?
One of the big quandaries I have is: To what degree are you responsible for words you put out there?
I’ve had a lot of aggro from Christians about playing Shazza [a very swear-y character] in Bridget Jones, but I prayed a lot about how to do it. At the end, the producer said to me, ‘We were so surprised at how Shazza came across so full of love.’ So for me that was a win. I understand it’s an issue for other people and I’m sorry it offends them, but then they didn’t have to go to the cinema.
You’ve been making a documentary for the BBC about the ethics of screening for Down’s syndrome. What’s it like having a son who has Down’s syndrome?
The picture people have of Down’s syndrome is very outdated and based on the Wikipedia entry, which is just a list of potential capabilities. But actually living with someone who has Down’s syndrome is fantastic. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. It’s like living in a sitcom a lot of the time. They say comedy is tragedy played at 120mph. Some people look at us and think we’re sad. We’re not having a sad time most of the time. We go on holiday and Olly disappears on the baggage carousel. Where’s my child? And there he is coming round. It’s funny!
Has your faith helped you in the difficult moments?
Is it that I deal with it better and more heroically because I’m being supported by God? Or am I being particularly blessed by God? I think I am being particularly blessed by God in this family unit.
Independence is the world’s highest aim. But with Olly, we as a family are less independent. And you know what? Life isn’t about A levels. I feel I’ve been given a present. I’ve been given a Narnia cupboard which I can look through and see things God’s way. ‘[I’ve chosen] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise’ [1 Corinthians 1:27]. And ‘the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate’ [1 Corinthians 1:19].
We had these new neighbours move in. They had twins. Olly decided he wanted to play with them. People with Down’s syndrome can’t climb but Olly didn’t get that memo. We’ve got an 8-foot fence and Olly got over it. And got over it. And got over it. We couldn’t figure out how he was doing it. You’d wake up at 6am and he wasn’t in bed, he’d be in just his underpants in their back garden.
I was so ashamed. I didn’t want to get to know the neighbours at all! But these were really, really nice people and they repeatedly didn’t mind Olly climbing over. Now we put ladders up against the fence and the kids come and go freely between our gardens. We only buy one paddling pool. So Olly’s refusal to behave in a socially acceptable way has very literally broken down fences between us and them. My youngest son is best friends with their youngest son.
I really think that is more like God’s picture of how we should be. I feel we’re being specifically blessed through his difference.
Sally Phillips was speaking to comedian Paul Kerensa