Nicola Sanderson is an incredibly versatile British actor with a record of success on stage, screen and radio – from thrillers to soap operas to comedies.
I was lucky enough to see her as Auntie Lou in the stage production of Agatha Christie’s Love From a Stranger last year  and have thoroughly enjoyed her performances in the hilarious radio shows, Ed Reardon’s Week and Dave Podmore.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen her on TV too, as she’s been in some of the UK’s most popular series. So I was delighted when she agreed to answer some questions for the blog.
Let’s start at the beginning: How did you become an actor and where did you train?
NS: Like lots of people who become actors I had an inspirational drama teacher at school. Graham Hale produced and directed wonderful productions with very few resources at my 1970s comprehensive. I loved performing in them and the camaraderie of a company. Also if you’d been performing in the school play the night before, you got given the morning off school the next day which seemd a pretty good deal to me.
I went to Manchester University and did a drama degree which was very much not an acting training. I didn’t have the confidence to apply for drama school and went with the ‘you’ll always have something to fall back on’ idea of a degree.
It took me a long time after university to get my Equity card and start working as an actor. I set up a theatre company with Sarah Frankcom, who went on to run the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and we put on a lot of fringe theatre. One show, Confetti by Nicola Baldwin, won the George Devine Award and a Time Out Best New Play Award, and from industry people seeing me in that I got my first agent, a TV job and cast in a play at the National Theatre.
You certainly made an impact early in your career, then. Of your many stage performances since then, what are your most memorable? And do you have any favourite theatres?
NS: I’ll always be proud of Confetti because we produced it ourselves when no one wanted to employ any of us because we hadn’t folllowed the accepted drama school routes. More recently I’ve been very lucky to work for Cheek by Jowl playing Putana in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, directed by Declan Donellan. We toured the show all over the world to some incredible theatres. If you’ve seen any of Declan and Nick Ormerod’s work you’ll know the production was not ‘traditional’ and it was thrilling and exciting to be in the company. Declan’s directing also stretched me as an actor and has influenced my work ever since.
I’m a fan of performing in ‘found’ theatre spaces too. I’ve worked several times for Northern Broadsides, who used to tour to ‘non-velvet’ spaces including Skipton cattle market where we performed Henry V and whose home theatre space is a huge stone cavern underneath an old carpet mill in Halifax.
That sounds like a contrast with your TV work, which has seen you in some of the UK’s biggest shows. How did your roles in Law and Order:UK, The Bill, and Coronation Street come about, and how did you find the experience?
NS: I was originally booked to do only one episode of Law and Order:UK and then kept getting asked back. All my scenes were with Bradley Walsh who is a wonderful actor. He was very smart on the script, tweaking lines and checking inconsistencies which inevitably come up in long-running series. He’s also lovely to everyone on set so it was a joy to work on the show.
I did a few episodes of The Bill early on in my career. It used to be a joke that every actor had at least one episode of The Bill on their CV, so I can remember being ridiculously pleased to have got my first episdode so that I could join the club.
I’ve played three different characters in Coronation Street. It’s always nerve-wracking guesting in a long running show where everyone knows each other but the quality of work on ‘The Street’ is very high, so it’s always a pleasure to get an opportunity to work on it.
You must sometimes be recognised from your TV roles in those shows? How do you cope with fame?
NS: I wouldn’t know really! Sometimes I get recognised from Law and Order:UK as it’s repeated a lot but it’s generally audience members after seeing me on stage, so that’s not too difficult to cope with, unless they’ve not enjoyed the show of course.
Dave Podmore and Ed Reardon’s Week are among the funniest shows on radio. I hope they’re as enjoyable to work on as they are to listen to.
NS: We do have a laugh recording them. There’s never much time to record radio so we work very hard and very fast on recording days. What’s great now is that we’ve all been working together for a long time so it’s become like a repertory company of actors and writers.
There’s a shorthand between us because we all understand the style of the shows and hopefully know what it takes to serve the scripts as best we can. But we do have a laugh.
How does acting on stage, TV, and radio compare? I imagine there are big financial differences! But are they also different disciplines?
NS: There are, of course, financial differences. Nobody does theatre to get rich. I’ve been lucky and had some nice TV jobs but I really love theatre. I enjoy getting an immediate reaction from an audience, how audiences differ every night and how an audience can educate you about a play by their reactions to it. I’m a company person and I get a lot out of the team effort aspect of theatre. It’s down to you to get your bits right but you can’t (generally) do it on your own and you’re only ever as good as the people around you.
Radio is a wonderful medium to work in. Actors often underestimate the demands of it. You only have the words so you have to make every single one count and that means a lot of preparation. As I mentioned there’s never much time to record so you need to hit the ground running. The radio audience is large and sophisticated so it’s gratifying when your work as a performer or writer resonates with them.
And how about comedy versus ‘straight’ acting? What are the different demands and rewards?
NS: I absolutely love comedy. I’m not the first person to say it’s harder than tragedy but you certainly know when an audience doesn’t find you funny. You can sometimes deceive yourself when it’s a straight piece that the audience are quiet because they’re ‘listening’. Ideally, I like a combination of both. As in real life, people can say the most hilarious things in the midst of a crisis or tragedy and I enjoy writing that reflects that.
Talking of writing, you’re also an award-winning writer yourself. How and why did you start writing, and do you have any plans in that direction.
NS: I started writing when things went a bit quiet for me as an actor. The Almeida Theatre ran a new writing competition and my one-act play, along with two others, won it. The Almeida staged them, giving us a couple of weeks’ rehearsal, Paulette Randall directed mine and Marion Bailey starred in it. So that was quite encouraging. I’ve since collaborated with Christopher Douglas (writer of Ed Reardon’s Week and Dave Podmore) on three series of Beauty of Britain for BBC Radio 4, written three plays for young people and another BBC Radio 4 pilot.
I’ve really enjoyed the writing I’ve done and would like to do more. Unlike acting, where you’re just a cab on the rank, no-one can stop you writing. Now there are so many platforms and ways of getting your work out there, it’s a way of taking back creative power – however, like all areas of artistic life, it’s harder and harder to get anyone to pay you.
So, whether it’s writing or acting, what’s coming up for you?
I don’t know what’s next. There are a couple of writing projects that I’m going to return to and see if they’ve improved with age or whether I’ll be pressing ‘delete’ and starting again. I’ve had a busy year  with lots of theatre work so that’s been wonderful but it’s meant a great deal of time away from home. I’m very happy to stay put for a bit.
But not too long.
There’s more about Nicola’s screen appearances on her IMDb page.
Headshot credit: Claire Grogan