Love and laughter

Meet actor and campaigner Sally Phillips. Jen Johnson reports

Sally Phillips, the British actress, writer and comedian, used to be best-known as Bridget Jones’ foul-mouthed best friend Shazza in the hit series of films, or perhaps as Tilly, Miranda Hart’s poshest acquaintance. But these days, the woman who was the brains behind the early noughties’ popular comedy sketch show series Smack the Pony splits her time between acting and campaigning for a cause that’s very close to her heart.
Sally’s eldest son, Olly, was born in 2005 with Down’s Syndrome (where someone has unusual genetics, which normally leads to some level of learning disability). Sally is passionate about speaking out for and alongside people and families with experience of Down’s Syndrome. Any interview she takes part in is likely to feature her talking about her love for Olly, right alongside her thoughts on whichever latest film she’s starred in.

Boarding school

Sally was born in Hong Kong in 1970. She spent the early years of her life moving around the Far East, Australia and Italy, because her father worked as an executive with British Airways. After spending her teenage years in an English boarding secondary school, she went on to study Italian at Oxford University. It was here that she first dabbled in comedy. She then had a number of stage roles, including performing at nine consecutive Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, before stepping into the world of television. Sally played a receptionist in I’m Alan Partridge early in her career, before starring on the big screen, where she became a familiar household face after her Bridget Jones’ Diary appearances. In addition to her acting roles, she’s participated as a celebrity contestant in both Taskmaster and The Great British Sewing Bee.

Sally was married to Andrew Bermejo, a shipping salesman, for 14 years, and alongside Olly, they have two younger sons together, Tom and Luke. Sally and Andrew separated in 2017, and she has since spoken of the strain that two miscarriages and their different ways of dealing with Olly’s Down’s Syndrome diagnosis put on their marriage.

Exploring faith

Andrew and Sally met at an Alpha course (a course run by churches where people are invited to explore the Christian faith). Sally has often made reference in public to her own journey of faith. In an interview with Premier Christianity magazine in 2016, she described her rather uninspiring experiences with Christianity during school and university. ‘The Christian Union were constantly turning up on my door with Bibles, inviting me places,’ she said. ‘So naturally, by the end of my time at university, I was incredibly anti [Christianity]. Christianity was for idiots and everyone knew that!’

Not long later, though, after writing a sitcom about witches, she found herself in quite a dark place – and, unexpectedly, decided that she should perhaps go and buy a Bible. ‘I remember standing outside a bookshop for ages, wondering if I had the guts to buy one,’ said Sally. Then, she ended up working alongside comedian Milton Jones and actor Patrice Naiambana, who were both Christians, but with wildly different approaches to sharing their faith. ‘I became a Christian when Patrice prayed for me in Hammersmith shopping centre at 3am. And to everyone’s surprise I became a Christian and still am.’ But she acknowledges that her faith has shifted over time. After ‘throwing her brain away for years’ and refusing to wrestle with the doubts she often had, she describes how she is now learning ‘to live a bit more with mystery and uncertainty and reality’.


Sally is a fierce believer that the current UK Down’s Syndrome pre-birth screening programme often pushes women into aborting much-wanted babies, because there is a lack of education for families on the reality of life with people who have the condition. She is clear that, for her family, having Olly has been nothing but a blessing.

‘I don’t think of Olly as having a disability,’ Sally wrote for the Metro. ‘He open-air swims whatever the weather and makes people who try to patronise him call him Jeff. He’s brave and persistent and funny. He dances in his pants, sings like a sea lion and believes he can play the piano… He loves us and we love him. We’re not alone.’ Sally has shared a whole host of humorous stories about Olly. She is very open about how he has broadened her world and helped her look at things in different ways. She said to Premier Christianity, ‘I really think that it is more like God’s picture of how we should be. I feel we’re being specifically blessed through [Olly’s] difference.’


She is also realistic, though, about the fact that her journey with Olly hasn’t always been easy. Speaking to Giovanna Fletcher on the ‘Happy Mum Happy Baby’ podcast about the moment she received Olly’s diagnosis, she said, ‘The shock I went into – I was shaking and the actress part of me was like, “this is so interesting!” The way it tends to go is, that it is a tremendous shock, and you do feel devastated for a bit but everybody not only adjusts but quite often their lives are more meaningful and happier for having the person with Down’s Syndrome in it… I think presenting it as a big tragedy stops parents bonding.’

Sally has used her celebrity status to speak out in a number of ways. In 2016, she made a documentary called A World Without Down’s Syndrome, in which she explored the reality of life for many UK people with the condition. At that time, the current screening test had not yet been brought in. Sally argued that it being made widely available, without appropriate education alongside it, would lead to more women feeling forced to end their pregnancies.


In 2019, after the screening test had been introduced, Sally spoke to the Royal College of Gynaecologists’ World Congress, which was attended by thousands of women’s doctors. She spoke passionately on behalf of many parents within the Down’s Syndrome community, about the value of the lives of people with the condition and the need for a better discussion about the ethics of testing. She highlighted the fact that ‘Many women are repeatedly offered terminations even after expressly saying they did not want [them]… saying every time [a woman refuses a termination] “ARE YOU SURE?” is a dead giveaway that you think women continuing are making the wrong decision.’


The core of Sally’s argument is that the lives of people with Down’s Syndrome are precious, valuable and significant – and that testing policies should reflect this. On behalf of families across the world, she challenged that large group of doctors, and perhaps us all: ‘Is it enough, we ask, for a population group to be targeted for screening because another more powerful or more numerous population group has a gut feeling that their lives are crap. Is that enough? We don’t think so.’

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