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Village Music & Drama

Stage set for Sarah

Posted on September 02 2011 at 4:29:45 0 comments

Sarah Manners

Sally Oldaker catches up with Barnt Green actress Sarah Manners as she prepares to join the cast of fundraising show Survive! at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre.

Best known for her roles in Casualty and The Bill (and, if you read FHM, as number 53 in the Hot 100), Sarah is also an accomplished stage actress, and was an obvious choice for Survive!’s producer Nigel Davey – that is, after she quashed the rumour that she’d retired from acting.

“When Nigel first approached me for the original version of the show, To Cancer and Beyond, someone had told him I’d given it up,” she recalls.

“Strangely, if people don’t see you on TV for a while, they assume you’re no longer acting – but of course many of us are busy doing theatre work in between.”

Having set the record straight, Sarah immediately agreed to participate in the show, which Rednal resident Nigel had created with Worcestershire writer and co-producer Monica Price. Also starring Hannah Waterman and Jean Boht, the premiere at Solihull Theatre in September 2009 was so successful that its creators decided to develop the concept into Survive! Seven Lives – One Journey.

Sarah was just as keen to get involved in the revival, which not only has a new title but also a larger cast (Waterman and Boht are also returning, joined by Les Dennis and young actress Emma Stephens, who recently starred in Grease alongside fiancé Ray Quinn), an extended story and music from the West End Gospel Choir.

With a one-night gala performance at the Alex on Friday September 30, Survive! will raise cash for Macmillan Cancer Support, Teenage Cancer Trust, the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation and The Eve Appeal.

“It’ll be great to see Hannah again, and I’ve worked with Les Dennis several times before,” Sarah remarks. “And of course it’s for such a worthwhile cause – two of my friends had cancer in their late 20s and early 30s, and everyone knows someone whose life has been affected by cancer.”

As well as helping to raise money for the four major charities, Sarah has another good reason to enjoy her role in Survive! – it brings her back to Birmingham and her family. Although she lives in London, and her career necessitates travel across the UK and beyond, she still considers Birmingham and its semi-rural outskirts to be “home”, and says she loves to be offered jobs in the local area so she can stay at “the best theatrical digs in the country - my parents’ house!”

Born in Harborne in 1975, Sarah attended the Blue Coat School and then King Edward VI in Handsworth – she still keeps in touch with many of her contemporaries. The family moved to Barnt Green when she was about 16, and her parents continue to live in the village, as does her sister Kate, whose young twins Florence and Jamie attend school locally (“You must give them a mention,” she insists).

One brother, Tom, also lives in the area, while the other, Guy, is based in London. None of her siblings are involved in acting, although Guy is a TV producer and Tom used to be a radio producer for BBC WM.

Sarah always had a passion for acting and performing, and took the lead in several plays at both schools – including the part of Nancy in Oliver! and also a play performed entirely in French. “I was doing French for A-level, but I can’t pretend I understood every word of what I was saying…” she admits. “However, I was able to learn the lines and deliver them, so that’s the main thing!”

Having always known that she would pursue a career in acting, Sarah went on to attend the Central School of Speech & Drama in London, and settled in the city. But she was thrilled to land a role in the pilot episode of Birmingham-set BBC soap Doctors, which was her first “big break” and in which she appeared for about a year.

“We were filming at Pebble Mill so after a 12-hour day, I only had to drive down the Bristol Road and I’d be ‘home’ in Barnt Green, where my mum would have tea on the table and I could sleep in my old bedroom!”

Sarah had begun her TV career with a one-off appearance in EastEnders and appeared in a handful of commercials and TV movies, but it was Doctors that propelled her towards further stardom – more TV work followed, including a two-year stint on Casualty as well as roles in Hollyoaks: Moving On, Sky’s airline series Mile High, and one-off football drama All in the Game alongside Ray Winstone.

Sarah Manners in The Bill

She was delighted to win the part of PC Kirsty Knight in The Bill, but the casting came at an unfortunate time as the long-running programme was axed just six months later. “That was very disappointing, as I loved doing The Bill and was about to get some really juicy storylines…” she laments.

Perhaps playing women in uniform has helped earn Sarah her status as a sex symbol, as evidenced by the aforementioned listing in FHM and also as one of Zoo magazine’s “Sexiest TV Babes”.

Having spotted this information in her Wikipedia entry (not always a mark of reliability), I bring up the subject by checking if it’s actually true…

“Why? Are you doubting it?” she laughs, mock-offended. “It is absolutely true, and yes, I was very pleased – why wouldn’t I be?”

Although Sarah is undoubtedly recognised by the general public for her TV appearances, she has plenty of stage work on her CV, including Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, The Decorator (with Leslie Grantham), and psychological drama The Watcher – into which she stepped, in true showbiz style, when original star Donna Air really did break a leg.

“When you’re at drama school you train largely for the stage – or at least we did in my day, perhaps things have changed – and really only gain TV experience after you leave, but most actors tend to become well-known through TV rather than theatre,” she muses, adding that acting on TV requires a very different technique from stage acting.

“On The Bill, it was a different technique again – everyone developed a very naturalistic style,” she comments. Sarah did lots of research for her sadly short-lived part, helped by the fact that one of her friends happens to be a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.

“I discovered that coppers don’t give much away, and that they tend to have different communication styles, different facades if you like, depending on whether they’re speaking to the public, colleagues or superiors.”

She reveals that she would love to be a “copper” – I suggest that as an actress playing a policewoman, she had the best of both worlds, enjoying the drama without the perils, but she says the policemen and women she’s met thrive on the danger: “My sergeant friend had just completed riot training when the August riots kicked off and she loved the buzz and the challenge of being sent in to deal with them.”

Sarah says that her role in The Bill involved more than the usual amount of research – normally it’s possible for an actor to bring some of their own life experiences to the role and identify with the character. However, this was not the case when she played the Alvechurch “road rage” murderer Tracie Andrews in ITV’s ‘Real Crime’ docu-drama Blood on her Hands.

“It was a bit weird to be playing her, because obviously I remembered the case very well, having lived in the area at the time,” she says of the infamous incident which eventually saw Andrews serve 14 years of a life sentence before being released last month. “But most of the research was done by the writer, who had actually visited Tracie’s family, so everything was ready for me when I signed up for the role.”

I wonder if it was more challenging to get into the mindset of a “real” person than that of a fictional character, especially a person who has committed a serious crime, but she says not: “It’s still about creating a believable character, whether that character is real or made up – you still have to make them become real.”

This brings us back to Survive!, in which her character is a bowel cancer sufferer – was this a difficult thing to portray? “Well, it’s a difficult subject, and of course it’s not nice to imagine having cancer, but the message of the show is that we can survive it – it’s intended to be uplifting,” she explains.

“Monica Price [the writer] based the characters on the experiences of real people, but a couple of us really wanted to make sure we injected some humour into the script. People deal with cancer in different ways, and many of them cope through humour – so Survive! features plenty of entertainment along with the serious side.”

She goes on to point out that as well as raising money, the show is also about raising awareness: “For instance, most people assume bowel cancer is something that only older people get, but as my character shows, this is not actually true.”

This year is Macmillan’s centenary, and Sarah has obviously done her research into its history. “Did you know this? The founder, Douglas Macmillan, lost his father to cancer and was left £10 in his will. He used the money to start the charity, and one of the first things they did, in the days before much treatment was available, was to provide coal to heat the homes of cancer sufferers – isn’t that amazing?”

It certainly is, and if you want to contribute to this worthy cause and see Sarah in action, make sure you book your seat for September 30.

Tickets start at £15 and are available from the theatre’s box office on 0844 847 2302 or http://www.alexandratheatre.org.uk. Further information on the show is at http://www.surviveshow.com

* In addition to the show itself, Nigel Davey has organised more fundraising activity to boost its total – Survive! is endorsed by Sir Roger Moore and Dame Judi Dench, both of whom backed Nigel’s previous charity films, and none other than Johnny Depp has also lent his support. All three have agreed to sign portraits of themselves created by Sutton Coldfield artist Sue Verity, which will be auctioned off in aid of the four charities at a date to be confirmed.


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