Life & Culture

Sarah Solemani - A passionate woman


"She's the love-child of Kenneth Williams and Helen Mirren", says actress and writer Sarah Solemani. She's describing her latest TV role as Detective Superintendent Christine Lickberg in Paul Abbotts anarchic police drama No Offence.

The critically acclaimed drama returning to Channel 4 focuses on an unorthodox, crack team of police in Manchester.

We meet on the set in a disused youth centre at the rough end of Manchester. It’s a million miles from the red-carpet glamour and Hollywood glitz of Solemani’s role as Miranda, Bridget’s new BF in Bridget Jones’s Baby, a key supporting role in this year’s biggest comedy.

“It was great fun to do and my mum was a great Bridget Jones fan so it was special for me,” she says.

She reveals they filmed three different endings to the film and were sworn to secrecy: “I can’t remember signing anything but there is an implicit understanding that if you carelessly leave a script lying around or tweet a spoiler you would be shot and dismembered by Eric Fellner, the producer,” she laughs.

As we speak, though, it is plain that she is fully immersed in her latest role. “I’ve never played a cop before. Actually, I am obsessed with Channel 4’s 24 Hours In Police Custody so that’s given me all the education I needed to play her!”

Despite the surname, and for those of us hoping for the first female Jewish cop on TV, Solemani confirms that DS Lickberg is definitely not Jewish:

“She has no faith other than her work, no principles other than her sense of banging up the ‘bad guy’, no family other than her colleagues. If being Jewish means having some sort of work/life balance, she hasn’t got it. She would definitely go out and arrest crackheads on the Sabbath.”

Solemani grew up in London, the daughter of a Persian Jewish father, Akiva and a Northern Irish mother, Rachel who passed away when Solemani was 16. Now 34, she is married to financier Daniel Ingram, and has a three-year-old daughter, Soraya, 

As you talk to Solemani, bearing in mind she is largely known 
for comedy, passion is what strikes you. She has an intensity that emanates about whatever she 
is talking about but especially about Judaism:

“I was lucky in that I had a fantastic education in later life, at New London Synagogue. My teachers, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, Angela Gluck and Elaina Rothman taught me about scripture and practice but also about the Jewish obligation to the wider community. Angela taught me the duty Jews have to refugees, and how the Torah is a testament to the wandering [people] of the world everywhere, and she leads by example, dedicated her life to helping them.

“She also taught me the true meaning of tzadakah, which is often translated as ‘charity’ but its true meaning is ‘justice’. And social justice, be it civil rights or workers’ rights is something that Jews have a long history of fighting for.”

She cites Rabbi Gordon’s work uniting faith groups with London Citizens on the Living Wage Campaign as a project she really admired:

“It was about providing a living wage for Londoners. Now this is being taken seriously in parliament and people in poverty are being helped not just through handouts, but through legislative change to their wages.”

She hopes her daughter will embrace not just the practical traditions of Judaism but broader global implications:

“I’m so proud I belong to a synagogue that holds these views of universalism and openness, a sense of questioning and challenging and a duty and care to the world beyond your immediate community. These are the things I want my daughter to grasp and will try my best to pass down.”

Solemani’s campaigning side recently appeared on the red carpet for the Bridget Jones premiere when, wearing a stunning gold-beaded floor length dress, she brandished a banner with the slogan “Budget The Baby”.

“It’s very simply a campaign to get child-care funded on sets. It would make such a difference for cast and crew to have some sort of child-care provision. Long hours and faraway locations mean that families are often split up, and sometimes don’t ever recover. It would create a happier and more efficient production if this was provided.”

Solemani studied at Cambridge and became vice president of the then male-dominated drama group, Footlights. Her big break came in 2010 with BBC3 sitcom Him & Her, written by her Footlights contemporary, Stefan Golaszewski. The comedy ran for four series, and won Solemani a Royal Television Society award for Best Comedy Actress.

She went on to have huge success in the BBC3 comedy, Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education, playing the long-suffering biology teacher Ms Gulliver, She wrote a one- off script The Conversation for BBC1’s drama series The Secrets in 2014.

As a writer herself, does she ever yearn to tweak someone else’s script when she is working as an actor?

“Ah well,” she says with an air of conspiracy, “Working on No Offence, I mean it’s Paul Abbott, you know, how could you? I did once suggest a tiny rewrite of a couple of Lickberg’s lines. The producer said he would check with Paul Abbott and then came back and said ‘Yes!’” She punches the air. “Can I put that on my imdb profile? Really, though, you have to trust the writer you’re working for as I hope people would trust me.”

She’s aware of the differences between American and British TV drama: “America doesn’t have such strict divisions between ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’, where as we have completely separate departments. Comedy often look for ‘joke counts’ and drama looks for ‘cry counts’. That’s why I love No Offence because it breaks all those rules and just does what is dramatic or funny and doesn’t follow convention. In fact, I don’t feel like Paul Abbott has ever followed convention his whole life which is why he is such an important voice on British TV.”

Now she and her family have moved to Los Angeles, Solemani is writing again:

“I’m working for HBO writing with Bill Hader for a new show called Barry. It’s a completely different experience to what I’m used to, sitting around on my own at a computer. This is a group of seven writers, seven hilarious, brilliant brains to help solve problems and come up with ideas. And seven people to convince your idea is a good one,” she says.

Her new friend, Renée Zellweger may also be a future collaborator: “She lives in Los Angeles and has been very welcoming to me, which has been wonderful. If the right project comes up, I’m sure we’ll work together again, she’s the best actress and I adore her.”

In the film, the chemistry between the two is evident.

“When I went for the audition, Renée could not have been nicer, giving me the thumbs-up from behind the camera.’

Solemani clearly enjoys working with women. No Offence is a female-led cast with Joanna Scanlon, Elaine Cassidy and Alexandra Roach making up the quartet

“Yes, it’s a totally female ensemble but not about female issues. All the characters are powerful, even macho. It’s a different working environment because usually there’s only one woman on set and she’s playing somebody’s girlfriend, wife, sister or whatever! To have such a dynamic of females is great. No wonder we are having such a good time!”

We get back to talking about Judaism and what she likes about it. Interestingly, she sees Judaism as a woman.

“I love that she’s a matriarchy. I love the respect for women my husband, father and father-in-law have. I love that the most spiritual place is not the synagogue but the home, I love that our ‘cathedrals’ are in the calendar, I love that she is not evangelical, and wishes no harm to unbelievers, I love the practicality of the practices; fully resting one day a week, a private space for the bride and groom after their wedding, regular fasting, observing the moon, the mourning rituals — they are all so useful in coping, and run in harmony with the ebb and flow of life, not against it.”

Her ambition would be to write a hit comedy about motherhood. “I’d love to do something really dark. I don’t think we’re quite ready yet to see something about incompetent mums!”

Her own choices have changed since she became a mum.

“It has changed what I do because I think: ‘Is this worth missing six or eight months of being around my child who I enjoy being around? Do I really want to do it?’”

She then answers herself: “Actually, it’s made my work better because I know if I’ve chosen to do it, it has to be good and I have to be good.”


‘No Offence’ returns on Channel 4 Wednesday 4th January at 9pm

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