Small screen success story

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Although she acted in theatre for years and never imagined herself as a television actress, Sharon Small talks to Matthew Hemley about finally getting comfortable in front of the camera lens

Sharon Small’s television credits may be plentiful today, but there was a time when the actress believed she would never appear on screen.

That time was the mid-1980s, when Small was just an aspiring performer studying her craft at Mountview – and it was a time when training for camera made up a minimal part of the acting course. The tiny part that did, Small recalls, revolved around being filmed by a video camera, which resulted in some footage that left the actress questioning whether she had a future on TV.

“I looked at the footage of that and thought I will never act on screen in my life,” she laughs, adding: “And after drama school I did five years of theatre before I even met a TV casting director. When I did start in television, I found it so invasive and so technical – because the camera is so invasive if you are used to working on stage. Things are filmed out of sequence and there is so much stuff to remember, like hitting your mark. On top of that, the person you are playing opposite is standing next to a camera the size of a window, with four fellas next to it, who are all moving about. And you are trying to focus on that one actor – but there are 17,000 people in the room.”

She exaggerates, of course, but it’s interesting to hear how uncomfortable the experience was for her, especially since she has since gone on to become such a regular face of the small screen.The performer has appeared in BBC hits such as the Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Mistresses, and last year she also appeared in ITV’s Downton Abbey. This month she is back on ITV’s screens, but this time in the second series of Kidnap and Ransom, the show starring Trevor Eve as hostage negotiator Dominic King. In the new series, King is trying to negotiate the safety of a group of tourists who are taken hostage on a bus in Kashmir, in India. On board this bus are the husband and parents of Beth Cooper, the role played by Small.

The actress describes Beth as “gutsy and very real and full of determination”.

“Instead of just sitting by the phone and doing what she’s told, she gets on a plane to India and into a potentially dangerous situation to try and get her voice heard to save her family. I haven’t played a character like Beth before,” she says.

Although set in India, filming actually took place in South Africa. Small had been once before, but only for a few days. This time, she was required to spend six weeks out there. This meant being away from her husband and small children – something she says she found particularly hard.

“The tough bit was leaving my young kids,” she says. “I did come back once, for four days, because we had a family emergency and so I had the chance to get one settled back into school and my other son back on track with his potty training.

“When I was on the plane coming home for good from South Africa, I could not stop the tears coming down. I kept thinking, I am one flight away from waking up with them. There is this amazing connection between parents and their children. You hear parents say it, but I really could not be without them. You ache for them.”

Kidnap and Ransom is made by Eve’s production company, Projector Pictures, and FremantleMedia UK. Small says Eve as both star and executive producer was “a positive influence” and really cared about the production. However, seeing him both appear in and produce a show has not left Small wanting to do something similar.

“I would not want to executive produce something,” she admits. “I have felt the urge to direct something – to unlock actors emotionally. That is where my focus is. But to get something made, I would be crap at that.”

The actress says she is often approached by friends for advice about an interview or audition.

“They tell me I should be a director,” she says. “But directing in TV is a much faster game now than it used to be. I don’t know I have the technical back up to do it.”

Directing ambitions aside, Small bemoans how time pressures making a television show can impact on everybody involved in a production. For actors, she says there is no “space for rehearsal”, adding: “If you do have a meeting about a script it’s not usually about character. It’s usually about ironing out things in the script. The director has not got time to sit and mould everything beautifully for you. You have to be ready and on the job and join the dots emotionally. Quite often you film the last scene first, so you have to have done your homework. There is not that much room for play.”

Theatre, of course, is different, as there will always be a rehearsal period prior to a run. And, thankfully for Small, she is able to combine her television work with appearances on the stage. Just last year, for example, she appeared in Men Should Weep at the National, a play set in Glasgow. This meant Small was able to use her own accent, as she was brought up in the Scottish city. But Small reveals that when she first started out she only ever played English parts, and was actually told to “pretend she was English” when she first left drama school.

“There was no work for Scots and no one thought Scots could do an English accent,” she says. “So all I played were English characters on stage. No one knew I was Scottish.”

Her first job in television was a role in Taggart, and Small says for this she did use her native accent. And after that appearance, she says there was an “explosion of Scottish accents” on screen. But she doesn’t feel there is enough drama being made in Scotland today, featuring Scottish actors and stories. In fact, while complaints in recent years have centred on the fact there is too much production in London, Small doesn’t agree.

“Everything I know is Manchester- based or filmed in Cardiff,” she says. “Loads of drama is being made in Wales. And the last six parts I was asked to do before Christmas had northern accents. They [broadcasters] have moved so much production to Manchester.”

Small also expresses concern about the lack of roles on offer to women over 40, a complaint that is the subject of an Equity campaign to encourage broadcasters to provide more parts for older female performers.

“You get to play these fantastic parts in your 30s, if you’re lucky, and you don’t stop wanting to act in your 40s, but the parts are just not there,” she says. “The roles stay at 40 and under and don’t come back round until you are the battle axe at 65.”

She ponders this for a moment, and adds: “Is that because they are considered less attractive to watch? Or do people think women over 40 don’t have sex anymore? All I know is there is whole sea of brilliant actors in their 40s asking, where are the jobs?”

* Kidnap and Ransom, ITV1, Thursdays, 9pm