Shakespeare on the BBC
Starts Monday 7 November on BBC ONE
This autumn, the BBC brings Shakespeare and
his stories to audiences with a variety of new
programmes and initiatives across its
services – television, radio, online and interactive.
Much Ado About Nothing - Sarah Parish
Feisty actress Sarah Parish, with her CV of waspish on-screen characters, has put the sting in many a tale – and her latest role is no exception.
Sarah is at her biting best in David Nicholls' adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, in which she stars as Beatrice, presenter of a popular, early-evening regional news show.
Sparks fly when her arch-enemy and ex-lover, Benedick (Damian Lewis), is hired as co-anchor – and their barbed comments as they pick over the scabs of their earlier relationship reveal wounds that are still raw.
Nicholls' script was one of the lures for Sarah. "There are some men who write brilliantly for women – they write so well for women that you can't actually believe they're a man!" she enthuses.
"David is one of those men – he has this wonderful empathy with female characters without making them a bit wet," she adds, conveying a hint of contempt for those who might be afflicted by the "w" word.
"I loved playing Beatrice – I do play a lot of characters like Bea that are slightly waspish and a little bit harsh and don't suffer fools particularly. But I guess I play a lot of them because I like it," she admits with a laugh.
Another attraction was playing opposite Band Of Brothers star Damian, with whom she'd appeared in the BBC drama Hearts And Bones.
"We got on very well and we've been friends, so that was great. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is incredibly important because the writing has that very quick, throwaway style," she explains, snapping her fingers.
"So you need to be with somebody who you know is going to pass the ball all the time; you kind of have to second-guess what they're going to do. It's the joy of the banter and I knew that Damian would be able to do that."
Playing a newsreader was also an important headline for the Yeovil-born star of BBC ONE's darkly comic thriller Blackpool and the passion and peroxide drama Cutting It, in which she played scissor sister Allie.
"I think the way that he [Nicholls] has adapted the original story into a provincial newsroom is a stroke of genius," she declares.
"You often see a man and a woman sat on a sofa and you wonder what they actually really think of each other; what happens when the camera goes off, what kind of relationship do they have. I thought the concept of the piece was great."
Sarah went to drama school in London, then sampled the sweet life as a chocolate seller. It was her role in TV commercials as Boddingtons Bitter girl Vera – who liked nothing better than "a good rub down with chip fat" – that put the first real froth on her career.
She was spotted by producers who thought she was from the North and just what the doctor ordered for the role of receptionist Dawn in the medical drama Peak Practice in 1998.
As part of her research for Much Ado, Sarah spent two days in the BBC's South Today newsroom, under the wing of anchorwoman Sally Taylor.
"I'm a big fan of research – I enjoy the beginning, before the work starts," says Sarah.
The petite, brown-eyed star believes the BBC's four modern adaptations are important in that they may bring people back to the Bard.
"I think there are a lot of people out there that go, 'Oh, Shakespeare'," says Sarah, mimicking a mini-shudder.
"As soon as you hear the Shakey word you kind of go, 'I don't get it, I feel inadequate and thick and stupid and only Dame Judi Dench can do that; only the Dames and the slightly theatrical people are allowed to do it'.
"That's always put me off Shakespeare because what they are, at the end of the day, are very simple stories, and if they're told properly and simply, then most people can understand them.
"But Shakespeare is used for many different reasons. It's used to promote one particular actor, or it's used to show off how wonderful your voice is, or how wonderful you are at speaking verse.
"Of course, all those things are important, but I don't think they should be stressed in such a heightened way that it will put off younger people," she declares.
"When I was younger, I was put off Shakespeare because I didn't want to see a bunch of people in tights hooting these lines at me; I wanted to see a story."
Sarah was won over when she went to the Mermaid Theatre to see a first folio interpretation; first folio, she explains, is how the plays were enacted during Shakespeare's time.
"It was an electric evening," she recalls, "so Shakespeare can be done brilliantly or it can be done very, very badly. Hopefully, these modern adaptations might make young people, or those studying drama or theatre studies, think that they'll go back to their Complete Works and have another look."
On the set of Much Ado, says Sarah, "Every single minute of every single day was brilliant. It was the best job I've every done, funwise - it was such a laugh. Everyone gelled very well, it was cast beautifully – they took a long time to find the people that would really work. And Damian and I have some terrific scenes together," she smiles.
"I think you can tell when you watch it that a lot of fun was had! It was just one of those gems."
One of the main challenges of playing Beatrice was talkback.
"Newsreaders have a thing that they stick in their ear and the gallery will tell them how much time they've got left," explains Sarah.
"So I'll be talking to you, but there will be somebody in my ear and it's like you're going mad.
"They'll be saying, 'OK, you've got to wrap the interview up now, you've got one more minute – oh no, keep going, the other thing's fallen through'.
"So you've got to keep on talking and sometimes you can see it when you're being interviewed – they slightly glaze over," she laughs.
"And of course, when we all first had the device in, we were hopeless. We'd be in the middle of a scene and I'd just stop. It's almost impossible. The way they do it is a real gift.
"It became easier for us because we were doing the same scene over and over again, so I knew I was going to hear it. But the first time, it's just like you've got a fly in your brain!"
Sarah thinks viewers will warm to Beatrice, despite the dripping vitriol from her acid tongue.
"David [Nicholls] shows Beatrice and Benedick breaking up right at the beginning, three years previously to when the actual present action takes place," she says, setting the scene.
"It shows her in an attractive way – an excited girl, on this date with him, and then he doesn't turn up and you see how heartbroken she is. And I think that really helps the character because sometimes Beatrice can be quite hard and a bit unlovable.
"She's got some great lines and they are all fierce and you need to understand why that fierceness comes out, so it was good that David did that and I hope viewers like her."
One of our busiest actresses, Sarah has recently starred in Our Hidden Lives, the centrepiece of BBC FOUR's The Lost Decade season, alongside Ian McDiarmid, Richard Briers and Lesley Sharp.
Based on the best-selling book by award-winning writer Simon Garfield, the drama wove the real-life diaries of four ordinary people, confronting the uncertain years following the Second World War, into a wonderful and evocative patchwork.
She doesn't, however, have an ideal role that she yearns to play.
"I never really know until I see it and then go, 'oh, I really want to play that'," she explains. "I just would like to continue to do things that really interest me and challenge me."
And if there's a hint of waspishness involved, that might provide even more of a buzz…