Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum review – Illness, addiction and anxiety are given space to breathe in this thoughtful documentary

Smith’s voice affords this tender documentary the vulnerability and candour it needed to succeed

Annabel Nugent
Tuesday 01 September 2020 18:00 BST
The programme follows the actor in the six months before she gives birth
The programme follows the actor in the six months before she gives birth (ITV)

Sheridan Smith is as storied an actor as any. Since leaving her job in a burger van in Doncaster aged 16 to star in a stage production of Bugsy Malone, the multi-hyphenate has starred in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Gavin & Stacey and Benidorm on TV, and in Legally Blonde on the West End. She’s scored two Oliviers, a Bafta and an OBE. But for every superlative appended to her CV, there has been a snide headline written at Smith’s personal expense, or a cruel remark in a tabloid.

Smith has never pretended to be unbothered by the jeers and slurs. For better or for worse, her vulnerability and openness seem to have only deepened in the spotlight – qualities which find a natural home in ITV’s Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum.

The one-hour special by filmmaker Tanya Stephan follows Smith and her partner Jamie Horn in the six months before she gives birth. In Becoming Mum, Smith goes about her normal pregnancy tasks (attends her first scans, builds a changing table, tries out prenatal classes) while doing something much less commonplace: speaking about their exertion on her mental health.

Ahead of meeting with a support group for the first time, Smith suffers a bout of social anxiety; just before a scan, she reveals how her tendency to “catastrophise” has made pregnancy unbearable at times. With other expecting and new mums, Smith learns to verbalise the deep-seated fear that any mental health wobble – or anything less than Stepford-wife levels of motherhood – might result in her child being taken away.

In the background of this intimate vignette on pregnancy is Smith’s recent and highly publicised “breakdown”. In 2016, tabloids documented the actor’s downward spiral with relish: cancelled productions, messy break-ups, an alleged drinking problem. After a performance of her show Funny Girl was abandoned midway through due to proclaimed “technical difficulties”, Graham Norton used the incident as a punchline when he hosted the Baftas: “We’re all excited for a couple of drinks tonight. Or, as it’s known in theatrical circles, a few glasses of ‘technical difficulties’.” Four years later, tears still bubble over when Smith recalls the humiliating televised moment.

The actor may pause to catch her breath at times, but she does not spare details when talking about the events which cleaved the gulf between who she is now and the “young and fearless and open” woman she was when she first moved to London. Her brother’s terminal illness, her father’s death, a sudden hospitalisation, and a debilitating addiction to anxiety medication are all given space to breathe in this thoughtful, slow-paced documentary.

Coronavirus enters the feature much the same way it did most people’s lives: unannounced. The abrupt switch from professionally filmed footage to home videos depicting sweet domestic scenes of the couple, however, works in the documentary’s favour, visually affording a candour and intimacy that Smith’s unfiltered dialogue had been fostering all along. The last 10 minutes are spent exploring the strange and scary challenges that lockdown threw up to a generation of expecting and new mothers.

On set and off, Smith has always been a live wire, her emotions vibrating just beneath the surface in every interview and performance. It’s what has made her a target for the press, and also what makes her so compelling to watch as an entertainer. It’s certainly what has given this documentary on motherhood and mental health the candid, sometimes trembling voice it needed to succeed.

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