Before he died, her father said acting's no way to earn a living. But Call The Midwife's Pam Ferris has spent her life trying to prove him wrong
22:00 GMT, 23 November 2012
Pam Ferris was 17 when her father died suddenly from a heart attack on a Sunday morning.
It was a devastating shock. He was 60, lively and energetic. ‘My father was fine on the Saturday. He painted the roof. Then on Sunday morning he had a minor heart attack,’ she says.
After the ambulance arrived, her father suffered several more heart attacks in quick succession and was dead within four hours.
Pam Ferris is part of a generation that abhors the modern cult of celebrity and rarely speaks out about her private life
Pam has since buried her mother, who died from complications of Crohn’s Disease [an inflammation of the intestine] almost three decades ago, but this is the first time she’s spoken about the enduring impact of her father’s death. It is, as she says, ‘relevant’.
‘I realised that big, solid things are fragile and your interior, physically and emotionally, can be quite different from your exterior, because he just looked so strong and fit. It’s that double thing – that split that I find very exciting as an actor.
‘Grief is a terrible, painful place,’ she continues. ‘You can’t grind away on grief in a solid way and say, “I’m going to work on this until it’s over” because it will be with you for the rest of your life whatever you do. So, you deal with it and move on.
'I didn’t know this phrase until very much later, but what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger if you’re able to use it. There’s a joke among actors on set, where if something has upset you, you wink and say, “Just use it.” That’s what we do – use whatever has stirred us physically.’
Pam rarely speaks openly about herself. She’s part of a generation that abhors the modern cult of celebrity, so much of what we know of her is the emotional intelligence she’s brought to the many parts she’s played on the stage, on television and in films.
Indeed, the day before we meet she was up until goodness knows what hour working on the next series of the BBC’s Call The Midwife. She is, she says, ‘knackered’, but appears fresh as a daisy. In fact, at 64 she could knock many actresses half her age into a cocked hat with her lust for life.
Actually, make that a wimple because that’s what she was wearing in her role as Sister Evangelina when she set about making mischief on set the day before with her co-stars Miranda Hart and Jenny Agutter.
She is 'knackered' from her days in Call the Midwife
‘We were sat on a bench yesterday in a highly religious atmosphere with two of us dressed as nuns, and Miranda’s naughtiness said, “What would be the most inappropriate song you could sing at this point” We had a think. I came up with Sex On Fire. So we sang that.’ Pam roars with laughter. This is the way she is: blunt, funny and wondrously irreverent. Well, that’s the exterior anyway.
‘I’m old and happy to be old,’ she says. ‘I’ve been doing this for 47 years and grew up in an era where we’d rush from the theatre to the pub. Those were very happy days – certainly not celibate. There was probably a bit too much booze. That was before this alien world of celebrity I find myself in today. I’m a professional actor not a celebrity.’
But she is, of course, hugely famous too and has been since she endeared herself to viewers throughout the country two decades ago as the irrepressible Ma Larkin in the ITV comedy drama The Darling Buds Of May, which attracted 18 million viewers and launched the career of Catherine Zeta-Jones. ‘We were a phenomenon,’ she concedes.
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Pam in the Darling Buds of May in 1990
She began acting professionally in monthly rep in Auckland within months of her father’s death, then left New Zealand to return to England at 22, hugely driven and desperate to succeed.
‘I feel bad about that now when I think what it must have been like for my mother to lose a husband and then, five years later, for her young daughter to leave her behind.
'She was always so worried for me heading off to the British theatre. But I never fell into any of the pitfalls she saw – being used in some way. I guess I was Pollyanna-ish and tiptoed through everything.’
And so began her fun, heady years on tour and nights spent drinking with ‘lots of lovely friends’. She didn’t think once about marriage until she was cast to play Roger Frost’s wife on stage at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
‘We met on a Monday morning and discovered we lived near each other so that evening we went home on the number 22 bus together,’ she says. ‘On the third morning he was waiting at the bus stop for me and we were a couple by Friday evening.’
They married in 1986 and an astonishing body of work in television and film followed, but not children, which seems ironic when she made her mark in so many family films, notably as the horrid headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda and nasty Aunt Marge in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.
‘Of course I’ve thought about it but every time I play a part I love it then have to give it away, which is ultimately what you do with children,’ she says. ‘I don’t feel any regret at all.’
Then, apropos of nothing, she says, ‘I remember my dad saw me in an amateur production and I was good. He was so thrilled, he thought it was a fantastic performance, but said, “It’s no way to earn your living.” About three months later I got my first professional job. Maybe I’ve been forever trying to prove to him that I can earn a living.’
Which isn’t really very jolly at all, but goes, I suspect, right to the serious heart of this truly brilliant actress.
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