Sally Dexter has made a name for herself on the small screen as Emmerdale’s Faith Dingle, but she also has an extensive number of theatre credits built over a 35 year career. She is now playing a female Scrooge at Wilton’s Music Hall. She talks to Liz Hoggard about finding a home at the National and working with Pinter
Many will know Sally Dexter from her TV work, particularly as “naughty granny” Faith Dingle on Emmerdale, who turned up in dark glasses and a Chanel-style coat to wreak havoc on the Yorkshire Dales. On stage, for more than three decades, the actor has built a career playing complex, often damaged characters.
Sam Mendes cast her as Nancy in his 1994 West End revival of Oliver!, which landed her an Olivier nomination. Three years later she played Anna, the married photographer in Patrick Marber’s original 1997 production of Closer at London’s National Theatre. In 2012 she was a chilling White Witch in Rupert Goold’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In playwright Piers Torday’s re-imagining of the Charles Dickens novel, Ebenezer Scrooge dies at a young age. Instead his sister Fan – who dies young in the Dickens novel – is the main protagonist. As a young woman, she marries Jacob Marley and, on becoming his widow, inherits his money-lending business and his reputation as a terrible miser.
True to the Dickens narrative, she goes on a journey meeting the three spirits on Christmas Eve, and discovering how underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit and his family really live. But there are shocks and upheavals along the way, Dexter says.
Dickens has a reputation as a great social reformer but Torday was inspired to create the show after reading of previously unseen – and damning – private letters. They revealed how badly Dickens treated his wife and mistress, along with other women in his life. “It’s quite a black mark against him, of course,” Dexter says. “But he is still a great writer, perhaps one of our greatest.”
The new piece is a feminist retelling of A Christmas Carol, but first and foremost it’s a humanist retelling “because I feel the men get liberated as much as the women. It’s certainly not ‘men bad, women good’. Or, rather, I’d say men and women have equal opportunity to be bad or good,” Dexter explains.
She was drawn to the dry humour of the script. “One of the great charms of Dickens is his wit and Piers has picked up that banner and run with it fantastically. I don’t think there’s any better conduit for humanity than humour.”
For more than 35 years, she has stood out in a mixture of popular and classical roles. But Dexter, a petite figure with a mass of dark hair and deep, expressive eyes, struggled with confidence growing up. “I was overweight and under-confident, though I carried myself as sensuously as I could.”
But talent won through. For her final show at LAMDA in 1984, she played the lead in the musical Babes in Arms, a show that suited her voice. She credits teacher Wendy Toye, “one of the very first woman directors”, with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in acting.
“I think she believed in what I could do,” Dexter says. “She seemed to see that there was something there and she made me see how valuable it was to have that bit of discipline because I’m one for throwing myself about. I like to jump about and try all sorts of things.
“Wendy gave me the ability to see that within structure there’s freedom. It’s a lesson I’m still learning because my instinct is to just go: ‘Bleugh’, and grab a handful of pellets, throw them at the target and hope some of them stick. And Wendy showed me you can be more careful. And I’d say [directors] Emma Rice and Declan Donnellan are very much like that, too.”
After the LAMDA show, 13 agents offered to sign her up, and her first role was in The Devil and the Good Lord at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1984, directed by John Dexter – “no relation” – who had a fearsome reputation. “He was thought of as quite a bully but by the time I met him, he’d been very ill and he was a much mellower character. With all those years of experience, he had an aura that automatically encouraged respect, but he wasn’t an ogre.”
Her champion, Wendy Toye, then cast her in Once Upon a Mattress at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. “And it was my dad’s idea to collect the reviews and send them off to the National Theatre. I did, and I was there for three years. It felt like another drama school, it was fabulous.”
Dexter started out as Judi Dench’s understudy in Antony and Cleopatra in 1987. She spent the run watching in the wings though she nearly went on one night when one of the snakes escaped and became tangled in Dench’s wig. “Bless her, she was so frightened she nearly lost her voice from the panic… And I nearly lost my voice at the prospect of her losing her voice.” (While snakes don’t worry Dexter, she did go on the Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo to defeat her fear of spiders, should she ever have an arachnid co-star.)
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in a canteen for a few weeks.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Devil and the Good Lord at the Lyric Hammersmith.
What is your next job?
It’s going to be absolutely life-changing. But I have no idea what it is!
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Place more importance on what you’re doing than the fact that it’s you doing it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
In the past a dairy farmer. Now I’d like to study physics or the sciences. When I was very young I was rather good at maths, then something put me off and I was rather bad at it. But I do remember having great satisfaction with the way things added up. I’d like to get that back. Especially at this crisis point – how can you possibly think of anything else apart from what is happening to our planet? It would be insane to ignore it. We need to treat the world holistically.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I try not to let myself get obsessed. If you have to touch the same door three times as you pass, you can become neurotic. If I wear a certain pair of pants and the show’s good, I try not to wear that pair of pants for a good long while.
Aged 29, Dexter played an ingenue in Tom Stoppard’s Dalliance at the National, about a young working-class seamstress who falls in love with a military officer. She won the Olivier award for most promising newcomer.
Later she moved across to the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I did King Lear, Troilus and Cressida and The Last Days of Don Juan by Nick Dear, which again, I guess, was a gender-swapping role. The character I was playing was a manservant but Nick turned her into Catalina the cook.”
When she returned to the National a decade later for Closer, it felt like being back with family. Marber had seen her play Nancy in Oliver! and, she laughs, was impressed she could pull off the authentic Cockney accent.
The play opened to ecstatic reviews. Although it’s predominately a piece about male sexuality – Marber later said it was inspired by events in his own life – critics agreed he had written unusually perceptive and sympathetic roles for the two female leads. “It was lovely to play a part that wasn’t bells and whistles,” says Dexter. “Anna is someone who is quite contained. She’s not defined by the partner she’s with at the time.”
She is sanguine that Julia Roberts got to play Anna in the 2004 film version, though she laughs: “I remember at the National, we had a spare half hour before going on and we were imagining who would play us in the Hollywood adaptation and I think Julia’s name did come up…”
Other stand-out stage roles include Cheek by Jowl’s Lady Betty in 1989, in which she played Ireland’s only hangwoman, as well as Yseult in Kneehigh Theatre’s Tristan and Yseult in 2006.
In 1999, she was cast as Lady Macbeth opposite Rufus Sewell as Macbeth, in Thelma Holt’s stripped-back production of the Scottish play for Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre. It was director John Crowley’s suggestion to get Dexter on board.
As he told the Observer at the time: “She is a brilliant actress – that’s the first big draw – but she also has a look which I thought would be great with Rufus – pale skin, dark hair – and they’re both very sexual creatures. And she’s a little older, which helps the relationship; he looks a bit more feckless. Lady M is regarded as being Medea-like, made of granite, but I disagree; I think she’s very vulnerable at the start of the play.”
Dexter reveals she was reluctant to take the part – she had set her heart on more film work and she knew it would be upsetting.
“It was a beautiful production. Rufus was fabulous. But these pieces do affect you. I think they have to. You’re telling your body that you’re going through a set of circumstances and emotions, and I think the body can’t distinguish between real and manufactured emotion, and it does leave you very tired. But it’s also very exhilarating and very cathartic. You’re putting yourself though various stresses, but with the privilege of being removed from the actual situation, so you can sort out in your head what you would do, and how you would cope.”
But she also has a healthy sense of the fun and absurdity of the profession. Working on Simon Gray’s The Old Masters in 2004, she was directed by Harold Pinter. “Simon had been told he couldn’t drink, if he took another drink he’d drop dead. And Harold had been told if he had another cigarette, he’d drop dead. And the two sat side by side, vicariously doing what the other shouldn’t do. Harold would sit there, swirling his glass of dry white saying: ‘It oils the wheels, it oils the wheels’, and Simon would be sitting there in his slippers, smoking a fag. Age had taken its toll on both of them, but they were still very much alive and funny and curmudgeonly and adorable.”
Dexter was born into a modest Yorkshire family. One of her favourite childhood memories is jumping buttercup clumps with her brother and sister on her grandfather’s dairy farm.
Her family moved around a lot for the first seven years and finally settled in Oxfordshire. “It was quite a peripatetic childhood,” she says. And that’s good training for an actor? “You do pretty much accept that the most constant thing in life is change. Although I do think it’s quite natural for everyone to want a sense of stability, a home and a bed, and I do feel that quite strongly.”
At four she saw the film Mary Poppins and was entranced. “After I came out of the cinema, I looked back and almost expected to see Mary flying up in the sky above me.” A teacher suggested she join the National Youth Theatre. “I did two or three seasons with them. It was fantastic to meet other people who wanted to wear lycra and leg warmers as much as I did, and it gave me an abiding love of London. And they set me on the path to LAMDA.”
She still likes to belt out show tunes. She had starring roles in Bad Girls the Musical in 2007, Sister Act three years later, and then as ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot in 2013. “I’m not a conventional singer because my voice is very low. So if I have broken any ground I’d quite like to do more contralto singing. All I can think of is Kathleen Ferrier at the moment. It would be great to be playing someone like her who did break the mould.”
These pieces do affect you, I think they have to, but it’s also very exhilarating and very cathartic
She thinks a lower timbre gives women power. “When you speak, the most expressive part of your voice isn’t necessarily the higher range, but the lower one – that’s where the power is.” She mimes a distraught woman with a high-pitched voice desperately looking for her keys. “That’s the anxiety pitch, which a lot of women sing wonderfully in, I have to add. I’m a great fan of all women’s achievements, but I find it difficult to have a full range of expressions in that anxiety range.”
The Spice Girls musical Viva Forever!, where she played talent show judge Simone, an amalgam of Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, should have put her on the map, but it closed after six months in 2013. Today Dexter says: “It didn’t quite have enough time. The stars were not aligned for it, unfortunately, because potentially it was dynamite.” Though she wore the best wig seen on the London stage since the time of Thomas Betterton, she adds.
Dexter is a charming interviewee – she regularly jokes, though it occasionally feels like deflection, maybe as a way of preserving her privacy. She’s not on Twitter and prefers to live a quiet life. “When I’m just getting over a tech week, I love to lie in a darkened room with a flannel on my face,” she says.
She has a practical attitude to acting. A role isn’t about you, but about what you can do. She explains that the chemistry between actors on stage can change every night, but it can be affected by the fact that you’ve been for a walk, or eaten an avocado earlier in the day.
“For some parts, whatever state you’re in, you can take it on stage and for other parts, no, you just have to acknowledge that’s how you feel. It will creep in but that’s where the discipline thing comes in,” she says. “Your fuel can make the journey slightly different, but you’ve still got to have the same journey.”
She’s been in the game long enough to know that it’s silly to be snobbish about soaps, and TV fame can help a theatre career.
She had guest roles in Holby City and Father Brown and played DS Maureen Lawson, a sidekick for David Jason, in A Touch of Frost. But the role of Faith in Emmerdale, the estranged mother of Cain and Chas Dingle, made her a soap-opera superstar.
She won a best newcomer award at the TV Choice Magazine Awards in 2017 (“aged 57”, she laughs). Dexter relished the big hair and the catty putdowns, but she gave the larger-than-life Faith an emotional hinterland.
In the soap, her character revealed she had undergone a double mastectomy, and later we saw her surgery scars in the mirror. Dexter’s body double in the shots was 67-year-old Brigitte Cole, who had undergone a double mastectomy in real life.
Dexter is proud the episode broke taboos. “It was wonderful to meet Bridget, this sparky, savvy woman. Initially it was written that I had a terrible row with my daughter, I take my clothes off to get ready for bed, catch sight of myself in the mirror and burst into tears. And having met Bridget, I just thought this was not how it should be. And thankfully – they are a very intelligent and sensitive lot at Emmerdale – they listened when I asked them to change it.
“We decided the best thing to do was to film Fay in floods of tears after the row. She starts to get undressed, catches sight of herself in the mirror and stops crying. She looks at her scars, gains strength from them. They are evidence of survival. It was a hugely important shift and gave honour to Bridget and all the women who have been through that.”
Working on a soap taught her “intention and focus”, she adds. “To do what they do with such a tight schedule is extraordinary.” After 14-hour days filming, she thought returning to the stage would be easy. No early morning starts. She’d be back home in London with her long-term partner. But she found the play to be a total physical workout.
She raves about Tom Piper’s immersive set and she loves the faded mid-Victorian splendour of Wilton’s Music Hall. All those ghosts of long-gone music hall performers.
“It’s quite unlike any other performance stage. It’s not exactly a traditional theatre, it’s more primal. There’s a bit at the end where Scrooge says: ‘The spirit of the past, the present and the future shall strive within me.’ And I’m standing there literally feeling the spirit of the past, the present and the future right there in the room with all of us. You can’t fail to respond to the electricity of the place that has soaked in over hundreds of years.”
Born: 1960, Yorkshire
Training: LAMDA, London (1981-84)
• Oliver!, London Palladium (1994)
• Closer, Cottesloe (now Dorfman), National Theatre, London (1997)
• Macbeth, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (1999)
• Bad Girls the Musical, Garrick Theatre, London (2007)
• Sister Act, London Palladium (2010)
• Hamlet, Young Vic, London (2011)
• The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Kensington Gardens, London (2012)
• Viva Forever!, Piccadilly Theatre, London (2012)
• Billy Elliot the Musical, Victoria Palace Theatre, London (2013)
• A Touch of Frost (1994-2003)
• Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007)
• Poldark (2015-16)
• Emmerdale (2017-19)
• Olivier for most promising newcomer for Dalliance (1987)
Agent: Oliver Slinger
Christmas Carol – A Fairytale runs at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until January 4. Details: wiltons.org.uk