Animal

Sheridan Smith on Pooch Perfect: 'Stanley my cross-breed co-star is a one-take wonder!'


When teenage Sheridan Smith played Annie in am-dram in Doncaster, her own stray was cast alongside her as the orphan’s canine companion. It was the start of a glittering career combining musicals and mutts. Starring as Annie once more in Sheffield, for her first professional role, she brought her dog on stage again. Then, in West End smash Legally Blonde, she and a chihuahua named Bruiser wore matching hot pink sweaters. “If they couldn’t find me they’d know I was in the dogs’ dressing room,” she laughs. Now, Smith is again in “doggy and musical heaven” as she fronts primetime grooming contest Pooch Perfect and hosts a celebration of showtunes at the Palladium.

Pooch Perfect, her first presenting gig, gives her a catchphrase (“Dog squad, release the hounds!”) and an adorable cross-breed co-star, Stanley. “He’s a one-take wonder,” beams Smith. “Me on the other hand?” She giggles. A sort of Great British Bark Off, it brings escapist glee to ease lockdown gloom. Comparing her own topknot to the shih tzus’, Smith observes cordial yet competitive snipping, shampooing and blow-drying. “I was heavily pregnant when the BBC asked me. I thought what a lovely job to go back to. I’ve always just done acting. Before having a baby I’d have been too nervous to do things as myself.”

‘I’m a little nervy thing – until I belt out a song’ … Smith on stage.
‘I’m a little nervy thing – until I belt out a song’ … Smith on stage. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC

Getting back on stage was equally joyful – “and fun to glam up”. The Palladium concert, broadcast on Radio 2 and BBC One, opens with Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl. “I was out of breath afterwards – it’s been a while and I’ve had a baby!” Smith loves the song’s defiant spirit. “I’m a little nervy thing really but when you get to belt out a song and pretend to be someone else, I just love it. It gives me confidence.”

Last year, in the ITV documentary Becoming Mum, Smith talked openly about anxiety during pregnancy. Today she is buoyant, watching the donkeys on her farm outside the window while fiance Jamie looks after eight-month-old Billy. She remembers growing up in a house full of music. Her parents performed as a country and western duo and, from the age of six, Smith joined them at working men’s clubs to sing songs such as Loretta Lynn’s hit They Don’t Make ’em Like My Daddy: “I’d stand on a stool so the audience could see me!” She’s quick to say she wasn’t forced to do it – and that she “won’t be a showbiz mum” – but still cringes at the gingham dresses and cowboy boots her mum chose for her.

A National Youth Music Theatre production of Bugsy Malone took Smith to the West End. An agent spotted her star power among the splurge gunfire. Then she was off, “bopping about London”, sharing a flat with other 16-year-olds. “I don’t know if I’d let my kid do that but thank God my mum and dad did. I would have never been able to afford drama school so I was lucky.” As a teenager, Smith was brimful of confidence. At one audition she was asked if she could do RP or even knew what it stood for. “Right posh!” she fired back.

She made her name in musicals including Sondheim’s fairytale mashup Into the Woods at the Donmar, featuring Damian Lewis as a wolf and prince. When Sondheim visited rehearsals, others were in awe. No such reverence from Smith who bounded up with a simple “Hiya, Steve!” (His reply: “I take it you’re playing Little Red Riding Hood?”)

Lorra songs … Smith as Cilla with Aneurin Barbard as Bobby Willis.
Lorra songs … Smith as Cilla with Aneurin Barbard as Bobby Willis. Photograph: Stuart Wood/ITV Studios

Musical theatre, she believes, has something for everyone and the audiences have a variety of age and class that you don’t always find at straight plays. When she did Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, school groups would visit. “They’d have their feet on the front of the stage. I remember one of the actors saying, ‘Oh, it’s like playing at Alton Towers.’ Something a bit snobby. I thought that’s a horrible thing to say. Anybody should be able to come to see anything they want. I’m playing Hedda Gabler and when I was offered the part I said: ‘Hedda who?’ I’d never heard of it!”

She introduced her fiance to musicals by throwing him in at the deep end with Rocky Horror. Surrounded by an audience in fishnets, hollering “Asshole!”, he asked her: “Are they all like this?” The BBC concert highlights the genre’s range, from warhorses such as Les Mis to Dear Evan Hansen, which Smith praises for its treatment of mental health issues. Part of a three-day BBC celebration of musicals, the concert showcases the West End’s phenomenal performers, who have been hit hard by the pandemic. “It’s mad how many talented people are out of work,” she says.

When theatres closed last March, Smith had just announced a stage tour reprising her TV role as Cilla Black. It’s now delayed but she recently performed as Cilla on the Royal Variety Show. Billy, used to hearing his mum sing lullabies, watched rehearsals for the big night: “Bless him, he just sat there in his little seat.” She ran through Cilla’s numbers, including You’re My World with its belter finale. What was his verdict? “I think he thought I was in pain or something. He started crying!”



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