Sara Crowe on comedy, her new life as a novelist and living in Wonersh
- Credit: Darren Bell
She’s one of the nation’s best-loved comedy actresses and now Wonersh resident Sara Crowe is enjoying fresh applause as a novelist. Viv Micklefield gets the inside story on this new chapter in her life
It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them, and Sara Crowe is living proof of that. She may have found her forte as a comedy actress, playing the ditsy blonde both on stage and screen, but behind the scenes she’s also been busy beavering away at her debut book, Campari for Breakfast, described as a ‘heart-warming, eccentric and very British coming-of-age novel’.
On the face of it, her decision to turn to writing fiction might seem an odd one. However, as Sara goes on to reveal, despite only having taken a creative writing course a few years ago, this served to kick-start a long-held ambition.
“I’ve always written; in fact, I wrote long before I ever thought of becoming an actor,” says the 49-year-old. “As a child, I was quite self-contained and lived in my own little world. Later on, acting seemed to fulfil exactly the same criteria of pretending and make-believe.
“Over the years, I’d start writing something and then I’d get another acting job so I had a lot of unfinished projects. I began my novel, Campari for Breakfast, around 2009, and I just got to the point when I thought, I actually want to see something through to the end. I didn’t have a ‘game plan’; I just sat down and started writing, which I don’t know was the best way of going about things, and it certainly isn’t if you have time constraints.”
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And if anyone should know about time constraints then it’s Sara, because acting-wise she remains just as busy as ever. Our interview today is being squeezed in between rehearsals for her current touring show, the comedy musical Crush – a nostalgic schooldays mash-up of St Trinian’s meets Mallory Towers – and she rarely seems to stop. Well-known for her appearances in the West End productions of Private Lives (for which an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress was bagged), Calendar Girls and Hay Fever, she’s certainly no slouch when it comes to hitting the road, with Acorn Antiques: the Musical and last year’s production of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels counting amongst an extensive provincial repertoire.
Not surprisingly then, any opportunity to work within an easy commute of the Surrey village of Wonersh, home to both her father and two older sisters, and the area where she herself has recently moved back to with husband, comedy writer Sean Carson, and their dog, Nelly, is grabbed with both hands.
“What’s really nice is coming back to your own bed, to be with your own family and to carry on with normal life,” says Sara, as she reflects on achieving the work-life balance most actors crave. “Touring gets a bit relentless. You spend the first two or three days working out where you’re staying, how to get to the theatre, where to buy food etc. By the time you’ve got all that under your belt, you’re moving on somewhere else. It’s quite disorientating.”
Tempting as it is to ask her to spill the beans on working with Hugh Grant in blockbuster film Four Weddings and a Funeral, who, she giggles, was “very charming”, or to encourage her to reminisce about her days of stand-up comedy (“even more scary than acting”), there’s the sense that despite Sara’s panache for making us laugh, here’s someone wanting to push themselves in new directions these days - whether that’s accepting gritty cameo roles in the TV soap EastEnders or appearing in The City Madam for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I would love to do some more heavy drama, or even tragedy; it’s just the flip side of comedy after all,” she continues. “A wonderful part would be Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I remember the film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; it runs the whole gamut of emotions – anger, disappointment, bitterness, giddiness…”
By the book
And then of course, there’s her new sideline in writing now too – which will also see her make her debut at this year’s Guildford Book Festival later this month, proving that she’s found her voice in front of a fresh new audience. During her appearance, she’ll be chatting to the audience about the inspiration for Campari for Breakfast and also reading some excerpts.
As she goes on to reveal, this intriguingly-titled story (scratch any memories of Lorraine Chase wafting in from Luton Airport for a 1970s drinks commercial) is set within the crumbling walls of ‘Green Park’, a fictional country house in Egham based on the stories she had heard about a fascinating old property in Devon.
“Initially, I thought it was Agatha Christie’s former holiday home, ‘Greenway’, and although I later found out that it wasn’t, I’d heard all sorts of gossip going around about the elderly people who lived there,” explains Sara. “Apparently, they’d sound a gong for dinner and get dressed up as if it was the 1930s, so that became the basis for my book.
“Since then, I’ve heard so many writers say ‘and suddenly this character came on to the page’, and that’s exactly what happened with me when Sue Bowl, the young protagonist, arrives within this world – where you’d really want to go too.”
The write stuff
Clearly, Sara’s self-discipline in writing each day from five or six o’clock in the morning has paid off, with Harper’s Bazaar describing her novel as ‘a quirky unexpected delight’ and another reviewer suggesting that she’d penned ‘an upmarket Adrian Mole’. “That’s a very nice comment,” she says. “Although I see it just as much about English eccentricity as it is a coming-of-age story.”
Whilst affirming that it’s not autobiographical, she admits that “a few bits” from her personal life have crept in: the sudden passing of Sara’s own mother, Neta, for instance. “I think I wanted to write about the shock of that and how difficult it is to deal with,” she says. And there’s a hint that close friends might recognise some of the fictional characters’ traits in themselves too.
Sara’s own current book choice is intriguing, and it emerges that it’s one that holds a special significance. “I’ve been reading The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy. It’s a wonderful book about these young women’s experience of husband-hunting in the Raj during the early 1900s. There’s a sequel to Campari for Breakfast coming and in it I’ve got an Indian thread, so I picked up this book for research and couldn’t put it down.”
Meanwhile, Guildford’s literati await Sara’s entrance, and she’s excited at the prospect. “I’m looking forward to the festival,” she says. “Not being dressed up in a costume and pretending to be someone else; it’s the first time I’ve done that for a while.”
My favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: Working away so much, I eat out all the time, so when I’m home in Surrey, I often just get my pyjamas on and stay in! When I was growing up, we used to go to an Italian called La Scala in Cranleigh quite a lot as a family, which I remember very fondly. These days, the William Bray in Shere is really nice.
Place to relax: My dog, Nelly, is a stray found in Greece, and she’s a bit of everything: a collie, a whippet and a spaniel cross. We like to walk her in Blackheath and also on Barnett Hill and Chinthurst Hill. I love the Gunpowder Mills at Chilworth near Albury; you just can’t believe you’ve got all this wonderful scenery on your doorstep. I do think Surrey is a beautiful county.
View: I like the view from the top of Smithwood Common. From there, you can see all the way over to Haslemere and this hill, shaped a bit like a shoulder, which I think is Blackdown. You could, almost, be in Tuscany; it’s very quiet.
Place to visit: We really like to go to Winkworth Arboretum near Godalming. I remember when you used to be able to go swimming in the lake there. You can’t do that any more but it’s still a lovely place, especially at this time of year.