From the Harry Potter series to BBC One’s Call the Midwife, British actress Pam Ferris is no stranger to a good story. She speaks to Joy Persaud about fear and fairy tales.
The problem with children’s stories today, according to Pam Ferris, is that they’re simply not scary enough. Pam, whose familiar voice brings life to the character of Grandma in Channel 4’s animation of the Michael Rosen classic, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, believes that learning about life’s harsher side through storytelling is an important part of childhood.
In mellifluous tones that reveal her Welsh heritage, Pam recalls her parents telling her stories that she found frightening yet fortifying.
“Nowadays, we clean up fairy tales,” she observes. “We make them not frightening. What’s clever about this version of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is that they’ve added on the expanded story of the family being in a state of grief because their granddad died recently. The idea is that you can’t go over it and you can’t go under it—you have to go through it—and grief is one of those things you really have to go through. You have no choice—and that’s a genius message for children.
“I firmly believe that giving children—in a safe and loving circumstance—a dose of fear and anxiety and later telling them, ‘It’s OK, you can go to sleep now,’ is one of the best life lessons.”
“Grief is one of those things you have to go through. You have no choice—that’s a genius message for children.”
After dozens of screen and stage roles that include Aunt Marge in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Sister Evangelina in Call the Midwife, Pam found working on the animation, which was crafted by the team behind The Snowman and The Snowdog, a refreshing experience.
“One of the differences, unbelievably, is that you get a lot more direction,” she smiles. “You have closer contact with the director and producer than you get on a television set. Shocking isn’t it? The pressure of television has reached a point where sometimes your longest conversation with the producer and the director is in the interview to get the job.
“But you turn up in a sound studio and because there’s so much less technical work to do—no make-up, no costume—it’s all imagination and sound. As an actor, I much prefer it. After you’ve been in the business a while—and I’m coming up to 50
years—you don’t want to fly blind or do things on instinct. You really want to be able to exercise your judgment and fine tune things.”
Pam’s meticulous approach to her art is often inspired by real life. Take her character in Call the Midwife, for example.
“My gardener, Eileen, is a really grumpy kind of lady, and I based quite a lot of Sister Evangelina on her. Eileen has just been diagnosed with pre-diabetes. She’s given up sugar and her moods have improved and she’s got a lease of life. She’s 84. Still, there’s a grumpy response from Eileen, pretty much every time [we speak], but once you get past that, she’s adorable.
“I loved Sister Evangelina—I was really passionately in love with that woman. Knowing that she was a real person. Knowing some of her history, which never made it to the screen…she was dropped by parachute to the front line in the war when she was only 18. The survival rate of nurses dropped was 50 per cent—astounding, isn’t it? What incredible courage.
“She was one of those people who literally barged through. There was a day when Tower Bridge was up and she couldn’t get across to a patient on her bicycle so she whistled up the bargees and she ran across. She side-hopped from barge to barge to get to the other side of the Thames, and she was in her 50s when she did that. She was a very tough woman. I’d love to have shown more of that toughness on screen but you can’t line the barges up on the Thames now.”
Speaking of physically demanding roles, it may surprise Harry Potter fans to hear that her character—the villainous Aunt Marge, who’s seen expanding to great proportions in The Prisoner of Azkaban—was not a result of CGI wizardry but reality, as Pam was strapped into a heavy inflatable suit.
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“It was terribly challenging, physically,” she remembers. “I had a double layer of airtight suiting on and they fired compressed air between the layers to make me expand. That was done in three different stages, so at the end I couldn’t get through a doorway. I had to be wheeled on to the set. It was quite a weighty costume, and there were many days on set where I was simply exhausted.
“Also, you are sewn into your costume so you literally can’t go to the loo. You time it—you stop drinking so you dehydrate, and you get in as much filming time as you can. And because the costume and make-up takes so long, you’d try and get a good five hours work out of yourself and there comes a point where you can’t go on any more. The director Alfonso Cuarón was wonderfully supportive.
“There were days where I was exhausted. There comes a point where you just can’t go on anymore.”
“There were nights where I could hardly stand and he would send a masseur to my dressing room as a personal present. He was a lovely man to work with.”
After so many years performing, Pam is in the enviable position of turning work away. Instead, she chooses to savour the rural home that she shares with her husband, actor Roger Frost, after the couple moved away from London seven years ago.
“I’m very happy to turn stuff down,” she explains. “My philosophy is that there are plenty of women of my age and older who don’t have a loving partner. I have a perfectly good husband here, and I miss him. It’s time to spend time with him, really.
“That’s not to say that if the right thing does come along I won’t do it,” she adds. “Just this morning we had a fast walk with the dogs in the woods as the sun was coming up and I found it absolutely blissful. It’s heavenl after spending years of jumping out of bed at 4.30am, you know? Luxury.”
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