Judy Parfitt – Lady Luck
by Lisa De Silva
Currently on our screens as endearingly eccentric nun Sister Monica Joan in Call the Midwife, Judy Parfitt has enjoyed a long and proclaimed acting career. Lisa de Silva meets Judy in her Mid Sussex home where they talk acting, family and being an ambassador for Dementia UK.
A doyenne of stage, television and film acting, Judy Parfitt has worked alongside everyone from Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole to Anthony Hopkins and even Madonna, enjoying a remarkable career in terms of both its diversity and longevity. Most recently seen on our screens in the BBC drama, Call the Midwife, as Sister Monica Joan, I met up with Judy to discuss her career, her role as an ambassador for Dementia UK and her love of the Mid Sussex countryside where she has lived for nearly forty years.
To enjoy a career in any profession for over six decades is an exceptional achievement, but to achieve this in the fickle and perfidious world of acting is extraordinary. Yet despite all her success, Judy echoes the advice of Noel Coward to Mrs Worthington, to not put your daughter on the stage. “I would say to anyone thinking about acting as a career not to do it, because it’s too hard and too few people succeed. My American agent once said to me, if you have to choose between talent and luck, choose luck every time, because it’s not just about how talented you are as an actor, it’s how resilient you are, how determined you are and how you can bounce back from constant rejection. To keep going you have to need it desperately and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it unless they feel they would die if they don’t,” she confides.
“There are so many talented actors out of work. The rejection is constant and it’s always personal. You’re not the right person for the part either because you’re too short, you’re too tall, you’re too old, you’re too young, you’re too fat, you’re too thin, it’s always personal and it’s very hard to keep going and deal with all of the unemployment. I often think of actors I know of huge talent, who have simply never had the opportunities, or I watch something on television that’s maybe twenty years old and see a hugely accomplished actor and realise I haven’t seen them in anything since.”
For those still determined to tread the boards Judy advises, “You have to take your acting seriously but not yourself. Always monitor your performance and constantly look for ways to improve and learn. I’m still learning all the time, I see someone do something on the television and think that was amazing. I’d also advise young actors not to believe their publicity. Young actors often get lots of attention from the press because they’re young and fresh and they love a new face. They build these people up but then move on to the next new face and the others disappear, so you need to be down to earth and with lots of common sense so you don’t get carried away. It’s also important to take jobs that may not seem exciting or interesting, because if casting directors don’t regularly see you performing, they forget about you. So sometimes you just have to do things to be seen,” she tells me.
Smart, straight talking and down to earth, Judy was born in Sheffield where she attended a convent school, before moving to London at the tender age of fifteen and a half, to take up a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In retrospect, she admits that maybe this wasn’t a good idea. “My parents were very worried because at that time the Arts were the only place where you didn’t have a pension or a secure job, but I just wanted to act, it was a driving passion for as long as I could remember,” she explains.
It was this driving passion that has inspired Judy’s incredible career in such an uncertain industry overflowing with talent. There is also her belief that drama can help us to better understand ourselves and our lives. As Hamlet says to those about to perform for his stepfather, the ‘purpose of playing’ is to ‘hold the mirror up to nature.’ “It sounds awfully pretentious,” she smiles, “but I think Shakespeare was right when he claimed that drama gives people an opportunity to empathise and identify with others’ experiences of the world and can help us all to realise that we’re not alone in our thoughts and situations. Having said that, a lot of it is just light entertainment to take peoples’ minds off of things, but the very best theatre, television and film, really can reach out and touch people.”
Despite having to contend with long periods of unemployment where she took various jobs, including working in Woolworths, in a nursing home and modelling, Judy was always very principled about not taking unemployment benefit. “It was my choice to act and I didn’t see why anybody else should have to pay for it, so it was very hard at times. I wore hand-me-down clothes and my husband and I didn’t have a holiday at one point for over seventeen years.”
Looking back on her career though, Judy admits to being very lucky at the mix of work she has had the opportunity to pursue. During her younger years she was a regular at the Royal Court and has appeared on stage alongside such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Paul Schofield and Joan Plowright. She has been BAFTA nominated twice, once for her performance in the 1984 television drama, The Jewel in the Crown and again for her part in the 2003 film, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
“For a long time I was associated with playing heroic and suffering noble women and that’s fine, but I was thrilled to be asked to do ER in the US because I loved the programme. That was an exciting and interesting experience. I also did a twenty-two episode sitcom over there, The Charmings, which gave me the opportunity to do comedy which I love.”
Working in America also gave Judy an insight into the US entertainment industry, where top shows, including at that time, The Charmings, are routinely subjected to audience testing. “I remember they came to me and they said, your rating has gone through the roof. The producers were all over me like a rash, but I can remember thinking although it’s nice to hear all of this praise and adoration, thank God I’m a down to earth Yorkshire girl in my forties who doesn’t believe any of it,” she laughs.
“In the US it’s also more egocentric, it’s all about ‘me’ whereas in the UK, it’s more about ‘us.’ So if you take Call the Midwife, the star of the show is the script and we’re just a group of actors working together to bring the drama to life. In America, it’s often more about star power and they get to behave how they like with no consideration for the other members of the cast, or the production team. When I was on Broadway working with Matthew Broderick, he took time off to go to the Golden Globes with his wife, Sarah Jessica, who was nominated. It didn’t matter about anybody else in the company, or the people who had financed the play, it was simply about what he wanted to do. That wouldn’t happen in England.”
One of the great things about her time in Los Angeles though was renting a house in the Hollywood Hills and experiencing life as a movie star. “I’d come home from work, swim in the pool and my husband would bring me a glass of wine and I’d think, this is what it’s all about. I can see how you could get used to living like that,” says Judy, with a flash of amusement in her strikingly blue eyes.
In 2012, Judy took on the role of the marvellously eccentric nun, Sister Monica Joan in the BBC drama, Call The Midwife. “She is a mixture of senility and old age, but only really loses the plot when she’s ill, upset or frightened and she can’t cope. It’s this overload that makes her slightly demented, but lots of times she can handle things in her own strange way, although she’s clearly not playing with a full deck,” Judy explains.
Dementia is a condition close to Judy’s heart as her beloved husband, fellow actor Tony Steedman, suffered from vascular dementia before his death sixteen years ago. “When Tony had dementia there was not the attention given to the condition that there is today. You couldn’t get specialist care and people didn’t know how to react to it, or cope with it. Thankfully, there are now Admiral Nurses who are trained to care for those with dementia, which is terribly important because you can feel so isolated when you’re trying to deal with it alone.”
As an ambassador for Dementia UK, Judy does what she can to raise funds and awareness for the charity, recently giving a reading in St Georges Church, Hanover Square, which helped to raise over £55,000. “I do anything that I can to help because today there are so many families affected by dementia on both an emotional and practical level and the more Admiral Nurses we can help to fund and train the better.”
Judy and Tony moved down to Mid Sussex from Hertfordshire thirty-eight years ago. “We used to go down to Brighton to the Royal Crescent for weekends and as I love being near the sea we decided to relocate. Mid Sussex was the obvious choice as the villages are so lovely and it’s convenient for London and the airport,” she tells me.
Today Judy lives with her endearingly errant toy poodle, Freddie, in the heart of the Mid Sussex countryside close to her son, David and his family. “My two granddaughters are a source of much joy,” she smiles. “They don’t go to drama school and I certainly wouldn’t want to steer them in that direction.” A great lover of art, Judy enjoys oil painting, although since starting work on Call the Midwife, she has little time to indulge her hobby and with the BBC having commissioned a further three series, she has work booked well into the future. “But at my age anything can happen,” declares the 81 year old actress. “You have to go from day to day, but I do realise how fortunate I am to still be here and working.”
Did her family’s worry and concern ever turn to praise? “They’re from Yorkshire and Yorkshire people don’t laden you with praise, you’re simply doing your job. My sister says things like, I watched that programme you were in the other night. You were all right, but I didn’t think much of it. So, you see there’s no way you can get a big head because they soon bring you back down to earth.”
I leave wondering if it’s this wonderful no nonsense and pragmatic approach to her life and acting career that has allowed Judy Parfitt to build and continue to build, such a fine and diverse body of work.
Dementia UK need funds for more Admiral Nurses, please go to www.dementiauk.org to see how you can get involved.