Interview : Julia Sawalha: Absolutely one of the girls
Saturday 03 January 1998
Julia Sawalha is big in Bosnia. Thanks to the huge success of such programmes as Absolutely Fabulous, Pride and Prejudice, Martin Chuzzlewit, Second Thoughts, Faith in the Future and Press Gang, her televisual alter ego tends to track the British Army round the globe like an unusually dazzling camp-follower. A forces sweetheart for the 1990s, she is always getting requests - some more printable than others - from Our Boys overseas.
Despite all the worldwide attention, the 27-year-old Sawalha remains commendably down-to-earth. She ridicules the idea of herself as a glamour puss. "I'd hate to be a sex symbol," she says dismissively, "because you're always having to live up to an image. I haven't got time to sit around doing my nails. In half an hour, I've got to go and get a clamp off my car - you can't do that in stilettos and long nails."
Dressed as a symphony in brown to match her tresses and puffing on a cigarette, she claims never to get offered glamorous roles, either. "Because I've played someone's daughter for so long, nobody's asked me," she sighs. "I love a bit of glamour - who doesn't? - but I probably wouldn't be able to pull it off."
Of even her most obviously alluring role - the spoilt Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejuduce - she concedes: "While I loved getting into period things, at the end of the day, I was pleased to get my jeans on again. It's like coming home from school and being able to take your uniform off."
Sawalha is keen just to be seen as one of the girls, someone you'd be more likely to see down the car-pound than the beauty- salon. Given to generous and spontaneous bursts of throaty laughter, she and her two big sisters (the eldest, Dina, is an artist, while the middle one, Nadia, plays tough-nut Annie Palmer in EastEnders) glory in the distinctly unflattering nicknames of "Big Slapper", "Slapper Number Two", and "Slapperette".
It was just this sort of "laddette" approach that first drew Sawalha to Jennifer Saunders' landmark sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous. In the role that made her, Sawalha played the prim, "adult" daughter Saffy to Saunders' juvenile delinquent mother, Edina. "That part helps me sleep at night, because I know that if my career ended today, I'd have done something half-decent," she asserts. "It had a profound effect on my career. People now have more respect for me in my work."
She reckons Ab Fab worked so well "because it wasn't PC, and everything nowadays has to be so correct. It showed women were capable of being smutty and drinking too much, and it was such a relief to see that. It's so important to be able to take the piss out of yourself, and Jennifer is so good at that."
The actress was also attracted by the thought of an almost exclusively female cast. "Without being sexist about it, there's a different sensitivity in the room when it's just women," Sawalha contends. "You don't have to push yourself forward to make your point; everyone listens to each other. When we're together, we've got a female sense of humour which you wouldn't necessarily see as a man. It's nice to be able to show that in work rather than down the pub. The whole series said that you don't need the man-woman thing to make it work. You don't miss it.
"Ab Fab is also very rich," she continues. "There's so much in it that you miss the first time round. You watch it again and say, `Oh, I didn't see that last time'."
One area where Sawalha diverges from the authorised text about Ab Fab is in her interpretation of Saffy. She sees Edina's daughter not as the ultimate conformist. "You could get sick of Saffy," Sawalha says, "but I reckon she's got her own separate life where she drinks and misbehaves. She only behaves properly to irritate Edina. She's rebellious in that she's not living up to her mother's expectations."
The mother-daughter schtick was also what appealed to Sawalha about Faith in the Future, ITV's long-running sitcom that has evolved out of Second Thoughts, a hit on both ITV and before that Radio 4. This time, though, in contrast to Ab Fab, the parent and child actually hit it off. "A lot of people can relate to the relationship in Faith in the Future," Sawalha observes. "They're more like sisters. They're both useless at holding down relationships, they're both feisty, and they both have a good sense of humour. It's nice to see a mother and daughter getting on in something. On television, they're usually jumping down each other's throats." We need look no further than her sister's soap for confirmation of that.
Sawalha admits that she'd love to take on the great Shavian parts of Pygmalion or St Joan. "I'll do anything that's a challenge," she muses. "The only thing I won't do is Celebrity Squares."
But, true to form, Sawalha is still keen to downplay her star status. "I get clamped like everyone else," she laughs, referring to her impending, doom-laden meeting with the traffic police. "I was in the supermarket the other day, and the man at the checkout said to me, `So the rich and famous do eat, after all'."
She concludes: "It's amazing what people think my life is like. My life is very normal and basic. I had mashed potato and gravy last night. You can't get more basic than that."
`Faith in the Future' returns to ITV at 8.30pm on 9 Jan.
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