Sally Phillips interview: Ferdinand, Taskmaster, Smack The Pony, Veep

We chatted to actor and writer Sally Phillips about comedy, European accents, special cuddles, writing films and more...

“I’m quite keen to meet a Finnish shaman, have you seen them?” asks Sally Phillips three minutes into an interview that’s supposed to be about her role in new family animation Ferdinand. Scrolling through her phone, she presents me with a photograph of a fearsome looking woman with Pris from Blade Runner eye make-up, wearing an elaborate headdress and holding a tambourine.

“Look at the expression! Very, very miserable, tambourine, excellent eye make-up” says Phillips, delighted. “I play a character who looks a bit like that in Zapped! and I did something else recently where they painted a black chicken on one eye. I thought, well, it’s slowly, slowly happening, I’m turning into a Finnish Shaman.”

Despite not having visited Finland, Phillips has an affinity with the Finnish thanks to her role as prime minister Minna Häkkinen on HBO comedy Veep. The reactions she’s had from Minna’s countrymen are “mainly good,” she says. “They’re very classy people, Finns.”

Minna, she laughs, might be the reason she was cast against two native German speakers to voice a dancing Austrian Lipizzaner Pony in Ferdinand. “I think it’s because of Veep. I had a year and a half of only playing European characters. I think there was a terrible misunderstanding that I might be [German accent] mitteleuropean.

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“The accents do tend to bleed into each other after a while, especially when you’re leaping around,” she says. “That’s the challenge of doing an animation. A lot of your brain’s taken up with ‘what might I sound like if I was a horse doing a pirouette?’ and then the accent went Finnish, or Swedish or Danish or whatever.”

There are far better reasons for Phillips to have been cast in Ferdinand than her knack for accents. One, she’s very funny, and two, she has a strong personal connection to the 1936 Munro Leaf book on which the film is based. It’s such a perfect junket story, I say, it almost sounds too good to be true.

“Entirely true,” Phillips assures me, “It was my dad’s favourite book when he was a kid. My grandfather fought in the First World War and was injured by a shell—brilliantly, because it mean he was sent back from the front line where everybody else went down, and then wasn’t fit to fight in the Second World War—he was a school master, so he was at home and my father was born in 1942. [Ferdinand] wasn’t that common, but Hitler had banned it so it became a kind of book of the time.”

“I was brought up abroad,” she continues. “My dad worked for British Airways and we moved from country to country and then ended up in Beirut in 1976, just as the war was starting. All the families were sent home but my dad was kept behind to get the rest of the ex-pats out. Weirdly, [comedian] Dom Joly was also living in Lebanon at the time and he always takes the piss out of me for being a coward and leaving, where his family just moved into a basement,” she laughs.

“So we went to live with my grandparents in North London for six months and I remember being quite anxious, because I was six years old and we’d seen the soldiers lining up on the beach. I was back in the UK and the only kids’ book in the house was Ferdinand. This period when I was just starting to read books on my own, this was the only kids’ book to read, so I read it over and over and over again, and was thinking of my dad out in a war zone with sandbags in the office.”

The day before our interview takes place, Phillips took her dad to the Ferdinand premiere. “It felt quite moving to go with him and three kids,” she says. “One thirteen year old with Down’s Syndrome, who enjoyed it, one ten year old who thinks he’s too old for animations, who enjoyed it because there’s lots of fear of death and thinking about the bigger themes, and a six year old who obviously enjoyed it because that’s the age it’s kind of aimed at.”

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On discussion of the film’s “bigger themes”, Phillips takes issue with the party line. “I know the official Blue Sky Studio line on it is it’s ‘just be yourself’ but it feels like all movies are about ‘just be yourself’ and that is a lesson that is perverted often,” she laughs. “As in, Donald Trump is just being himself isn’t he? That’s the authentic him! Brilliant. So I think sometimes there’s a good argument for not being yourself if yourself is… that.”

She likes the fact that the film, about a Spanish bull who prefers flowers to fighting in the ring, is inclusive. “There is a bigger message that isn’t about the individual isn’t there? Even when violence appears to be the only option, if you acknowledge beauty—that’s what the book is about anyway—just stopping and appreciating beauty can change an atmosphere. It’s more powerful. Beauty is more powerful than the sword!”

As the director of a 2017 short film arguably unparalleled in its pulchritude, Phillips is uniquely qualified to talk about beauty. On the most recent series of Dave’s Taskmaster, in which comedians are set weekly challenges, Phillips, for the ‘record the most incredible footage’ task, recreated the miracle of childbirth by wrapping host Alex Horne in cling film and filming him emerging from a hastily improvised birth canal. She’s been stopped in the street about it.

“People either go ‘water cooler!’” she laughs, in reference to her attempt to ‘create the most memorable water cooler moment’ task by, well, shagging a water cooler. “Or they stop me and hold me and go ‘your birth movie was so moving!’” What made the birth movie even more remarkable is the fact that, as a new-born baby, Horne was wearing only cling film and Sally’s knickers. “He needed flesh-coloured pants because he was wearing maroon boxers that were going to ruin it,” she explains, every inch the artist.

Taskmaster was lots of fun, says Phillips. One task involved the contestants having to make Marmite from scratch. On Phillips’ ingredients list was a bottle of absinthe. “That was one of the funniest things that has ever happened,” she laughs. “They didn’t show it, I don’t know why they didn’t show it – maybe it’s because Alex is doing the show in the States and they don’t want this to exist as a piece of footage—when I gave him the absinthe on toast, we both had a bite and he went purple instantly and couldn’t speak for thirty seconds. It was so funny.”

She laughed so much making Taskmaster that the show put together a super-cut. “The absinthe made me laugh,” she lists on her fingers. “Special cuddle [in which Phillips calmly inserted two slices of cake underneath Alex Horne’s armpits and laid atop him like a sky diving instructor] made me laugh a lot. The cat flip-book, but you had to be there. Oh, the Bob shit!” she remembers, even more delighted at the memory than she was at the Finnish shaman pictures.

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The Bob shit, or a first draft of it, numbers among the souvenirs Phillips took home from the series. For the ‘bring in a surprisingly expensive item’ prize task, she presented a human turd—by Sir Bob Mortimer—which was to be freeze-dried and set in resin for display in the National Poo Museum. “Doesn’t it give you deep joy that in a museum on the Isle of Wight there is a snow globe of Bob Mortimer’s poo? They want to have a wall of celebrity shits, but the only celebrity they’ve managed to get is Bob Mortimer.” Would she consider donating a sample? “I think I’d feel a bit shy about donating. I’d have to mind my diet for a bit before I did.”

Phillips wasn’t disappointed not to win her series and take part in the Champion of Champions Christmas special. “The idea of trying to win Taskmaster is a bit weird because I think the best telly is when people have been rubbish. I think the real winner of the last series was Nish, wasn’t it? Glorious failure!” Since appearing on the show, Phillips has been recruiting fellow comics to take part. “I’ve been mounting a campaign for Nina Conti to do it.”

Getting to know fellow contestant and comic Aisling Bea was one of Phillips’ Taskmaster’s highlights. As a thirty-three-year-old comic who was growing up when Smack The Pony, the Channel 4 comedy sketch show she appeared in and co-wrote alongside Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan from 1999 to 2003, Aisling Bea must have been a fan?”

“I don’t know,” says Phillips. “She didn’t mention that. She was looking after me more because I hadn’t really done many of those shows, whereas she’s been a captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats so she’s really used to that kind of audience. She told me, don’t apologise for yourself. You just have to come up with a version of yourself that isn’t embarrassed or apologetic about anything you’ve done. I think your generation are so much better at that than mine. I find it so encouraging in a way, how it’s changed.”

What does she mean? “Well,” she explains, “when I left university, a) there was a massive downturn in the jobs market, but b) there was Loaded magazine happening. So we’d all been equal at university then you suddenly came out and they were like ‘right, let’s see you in your bikini then’. It was like ‘what has just happened?’”

Overly sexualised photo shoots were typical of the kind of press requests Phillips and her Smack The Pony co-stars received at the time. “I remember going into Loaded magazine, because you’re signed down to do various bits of press, and they had all these tiny little dresses and I was going ‘I’m not going to wear those.’ They used a kind of code. They were going [mimes talking into a radio] ‘Henry Nobbs is not in the building’, which meant ‘she’s not going to strip’. That happened with GQ as well. The photographer stood up for me with GQ, he said ‘she’d just look uncomfortable and weird in those clothes, just let her wear her own clothes’.”

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For the Loaded shoot, Phillips ended up wearing a massive fake fur coat and dark glasses, “so you could see practically nothing. Then I thought the fight was done for the day and went down to The Face and ended up leaning over a snooker table without a bra on, because [rolls eyes] ‘that would have ruined the line of the top’, and it being lit in such a way you could see straight through.”

“That’s not the norm now” says Phillips. Now, women have higher expectations and “just ask the questions, you know, why am I not being paid the same?”

Plenty of comedians do tell Phillips that Smack The Pony was a comedy inspiration. “Lots of girls and quite a lot of boys too. I don’t know if they’re just being polite, they’re probably just blowing smoke up my arse!” she laughs. “I’m proud of it. Maybe it was a product of the fact that things were changing anyway, but it’s definitely a marker on the road to women not having to be freakish to be funny. Not that any of us are particularly normal! I think all three of us in Smack The Pony look like children’s drawings of people,” she laughs.

“You didn’t have to be masculine,” she continues, “you didn’t have to be asexual to be funny, or extremely sexual to be funny. It feels like that was part of putting a spotlight on the ways in which ordinary women were funny, ridiculous, stupid, eccentric every day. It sort of opened up, or re-opened up the old ways of laughing at women. It became unsafe to laugh at women in the sixties and seventies. See the Screwball comedies, in the 1930s and 1940s, you were allowed to laugh at women because class was the thing, so as long as the woman was aristocratic or an heiress, she was allowed to be ridiculous. Then in the sixties and seventies people became very uncomfortable and didn’t know how to laugh at women, because women were oppressed and victims, and this was just part of the journey back to being able to ridicule us.”

“Now,” she jokes, an ironic glint in her eye,  “I sort of regret it in a way. Every time I go on a panel show it’s not enough to wear a nice dress and a nice lipstick now you have to actually say something amusing. And I usually come last. So it’s like, shit, bring back the old days when it would have been enough to wear red lipstick…” and bend over a pool table? “Exactly!” she laughs.

Smack The Pony was a kind of apprenticeship on which Phillips developed a taste for “the comedy of vagueness”. Her favourite sketch saw a character stack an entire supermarket with Toilet Duck. “We started improvising it and I would start coming up with comedy reasons why, and then I realised it was much funnier not to know. The temptation is always to come up with a funny word, like ‘granary baps’ or something, but just to say ‘umm’ or ‘don’t know’ or just be neutral, for me those things began to be really funny and more real to experience. It was a new way of being funny.”

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The old ways of being funny had lost their appeal—if they ever had it to begin with—thanks to years of being given the thankless task of playing male characters. The university revues Phillips appeared in “were all written by guys so I was playing boys. Hard for you girls to imagine at your age, but then, 1990, I was playing Billy, the Sergeant, the monster, James… there was just this idea that women weren’t funny.”

“If you wanted to be funny,” she continues, “you had to pretend to be a bloke. Then it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you’re pretending to be a man, there’s another obstacle. Lots of people when they go over to the States say they don’t like doing sitcoms with an American accent, because there’s a barrier between you and the funny, and so if you’re pretending to be a man, there’s a barrier between you and your authentic funny. Of course, you’re going to be less funny. You may manage it. Someone may manage it, but most women are funnier as women I think.”

As a funny woman who’s worked with some of the funniest women around, from the Smack The Pony team to Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Lily Bevan, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Jessica Hynes, Sharon Horgan, Olivia Colman, Emma Thompson… the list continues, Phillips would know.

Would she cite French and Saunders as a comedy influence in her early days? “I think when you’re small you just define yourself as different, don’t you? I was much clearer on the fact that I didn’t want to be like them and guess what, I’m not. I wish I were like them now. Now I go, gosh, if only I were French and Saunders or Victoria Wood, or someone as amazing as that. You know, on a good day, I’m Celia Imrie.”

Celia Imrie would be a good day for anyone! I say. “Celia Imrie is under-sung, I think she’s absolutely amazing, really, really amazing.”

Plans for a comedy feature film with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler have been put on hold due to Louis-Dreyfus’ ill health. “We’ve hit a kind of pause… there are also practical issues with that in that it’s set in a sloth sanctuary,” she laughs, “and there’s only about four. Sloths only eat a particular type of leaf and so they have to be in Costa Rica or somewhere. If you fly them out, they die, so there are all kinds of sloth-care problems with this. Then you’ve got an animatronic sloth…”

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Phillips’ experience writing 2011 romcom The Decoy Bride, a wedding comedy starring David Tennant, Kelly Macdonald and Alice Eve, has also left her wary of executive meddling. The film came about after Phillips had her first child. “When I had my son with Down’s Syndrome, I thought, I’m never going to be able to leave the house again, so I’d better become a screenwriter. No-one I knew had had a film made at that point, so even Graham Linehan had written six drafts and given up.”

She signed with Ecosse and “did absolutely everything they asked me to do, every change they asked me to make, I did. I wrote it with Neil Jaworski and at the end of twenty-five drafts or something—in the middle of it we redrafted the entire film to make it look like it had a male lead, to attract a male lead because we couldn’t—I think I’d proposed to them something not a million miles away from Bridesmaids that came out as a kind of run-of-the-mill romcom with five memorable minutes.”

“I’m not as devastated as I once was,” she says about the film. “I’m not particularly proud of it. It’s fine. It plays well on a telly. I learned, do not write a movie unless you absolutely love the subject matter. It was about celebrity weddings and I don’t really care about that at all. Now I have got a couple of films that I do care about going very slowly and cautiously and not pairing up with anyone yet.”

Television also has its frustrations. “You’re not only dealing with whether or not you can make something good, but it also has to be channel-branded. I’ve been in pitch meetings where they go, we’d really like you to write something for BBC One, say, and you go ‘fantastic, that would be great’ and they go ‘it has to star…’ The last meeting I had, there were six people it was allowed to star because channels very much have their brand identity and they’ve all been advised on that. So it’s just all shutting down creativity.”

One solution is radio, where Phillips and Lily Bevan, who recently took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, collaborated on a series of monologues, and perhaps more work on stage. “I might have a go at stand-up,” she says. “I’d like to do my proper job with Aisling [Bea]. I’d like to act with her.

Perhaps in a sitcom about Finnish shamans, I suggest? “Maybe. Maybe.”

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Ferdinand is out this weekend.