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'Some hated me, some loved me... that's the kind of drama that I find interesting'

With murder-mystery Bancroft back for another series, Sarah Parish tells Georgia Humphreys about playing the evil policewoman at its heart

Sarah Parish as the title character in ITV’s Bancroft
Sarah Parish as the title character in ITV’s Bancroft

By Georgia Humphreys

When Bancroft aired in 2017, lead star Sarah Parish found viewers were going "nuts for it" on Twitter. "What I liked was the reaction to it was very extreme," recalls the Yeovil-born actress.

"Some people hated me! And some people loved me, and that's the kind of drama I find interesting, that splits people's opinions like that."

In the ITV series, written by Kate Brooke, Parish (51) portrays the ruthless Elizabeth Bancroft; a mother, a dedicated policewoman, and also a killer.

At the start of series two, the anti-heroine is riding a professional high, as she has been made Detective Chief Superintendent of a newly merged police service.

Parish explains we see Elizabeth go on a different journey in the new episodes; thanks to a new case, "she finds herself in a situation she's not in control of".

"The scenario is a double murder and her son is somehow implicated - and for Elizabeth, her son is her Achilles heel," elaborates the versatile actress, known for comedy W1A, drama Broadchurch and fantasy series Merlin.

"She hasn't seen or spoken to Joe [her son] in the last two years; I think Joe has written her off and she's very upset by that. So, it puts her and Joe back together again, but in a very difficult situation. You see her very strung-out in this series, very dangerous. Even more dangerous that she usually is."

Smiley Parish is visibly chuffed to be back as Bancroft; she loves playing a psychopath, she says.

"Remember that movie with Michael Douglas, Falling Down? He's pushed to the limit and goes on a rampage. And there's a tiny part of all of us that goes, 'I want to do that' when you're in a traffic jam. You want to get out and go, 'F*** off!' - and Bancroft does it. She does things to get what she wants.

"She goes, 'That's what I want, and this is what I have to do to that person to get there. And the quickest, most efficient way to get there is to kill them'. Job done."

At this, the amiable star lets out a hearty laugh. But, while she's able to joke about the dark subject matter, she admits it's hard to shut off after filming has finished for the day.

"The whole Bancroft experience is hard, because I've got a lot of lines to learn and because she is quite relentlessly dark, and the stories are relentlessly dark, and you get up in the dark and go home in the dark.

"Everything about it is 'pfffffh'," she continues, miming energy being sucked out of her. "And it's quite a lonely job because there's a lot of her doing stuff on her own."

The star, who deliberately has a little flat on her own away from everybody else while filming, stresses it's an "interesting job and I like it".

Being someone who is "naturally quite bubbly and fun" also makes it a tricky part to play, however.

"She's very different from how I am, so I find it easier to get back into her if I don't go, 'It's Saturday! Let's go to the pub and have a great time'. It's better to stay in for those 10 weeks and then go to the pub at the end!"

Would she agree this is the most all-consuming role she's had?

"Yeah. Definitely. Because I find her fascinating. I kind of love-hate her. Because she's so layered and complex and I'm constantly trying to make her likeable and unlikeable.

"It's a difficult thing to achieve because most characters have a definite agenda and you know what you're getting, but she's always two people at the same time. I can't think of another character who's been as difficult.

"I have to believe in what I'm doing as an actor and, because I don't agree with what she does, I find it very difficult to get into that mindset."

There's no hiding the fact that our TV schedules are full of shows about detectives.

And Parish, who's married to actor James Murray (they met when both starring in BBC drama Cutting It), admits she had her concerns.

"I played a policeman ages ago in something and I really wasn't that good," she quips.

"I remember watching it, thinking, 'Maybe that's not my forte, doing that copper thing'. "And then when I read Bancroft, I kind of thought, 'It's not about her being a policeman, it's about something much deeper than that and you could really take that character and she could go anywhere.'

"Bancroft is not going to become a kind of procedural, 'there's another murder and off she goes'. That's not what this is and not what she is. That's why I liked it."

She doesn't watch a lot of cop shows, either.

"I'm a bit wet. Considering I'm in something like Bancroft, when it comes to what I watch on television, if it's slightly violent I'm like, 'No! I don't want to watch that!'

"I don't really watch a lot of TV anymore. I just don't have the time, or it's what my daughter [Nell, aged 10] wants to watch, so Nickelodeon!

"She likes to watch repeats of Friends or Modern Family. I love spoofy comedy stuff. That's what I'd sit and enjoy watching, or old movies."

Yes, it sounds a long way from her life on the Bancroft set, where she has to throw herself into fight scenes.

"I throw some punches, some chairs, I try to strangle someone, all sorts goes on," she teases.

"There are more stunts in this series than there were in the last one and I think there's way more excitement."

Bring it on...

Bancroft returns to ITV on New Year's Day

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