It’s very much part of an actor’s lot to have to spend time “resting” between engagements so it’s gratifying for a Sheffield mother and daughter to find both of them working this month on prime-time television.
Philippa Howell is currently playing Maggie, a dementia patient in eight episodes of Yorkshire soap Emmerdale, while daughter Letty Butler is filming at Elstree Studios a guest role on long-running BBC hospital drama Holby City for transmission in the spring.
They are at different stages of their career, though not in the way you might expect. It is perhaps the younger of the two who is more established.
Letty has a recurring role in CBBC’s Wolfblood series for young adults following a part in the same channel’s Young Frankenstein. Other recent TV appearances include Father Brown, Doctors and Horrible Science.
Philippa is returning to acting after 20 years as an actor’s agent. “Since closing down the business last year I have played a judge in three episodes of Hollyoaks (and will back in the spring), worked at Leicester Curve Theatre on a new play, and done lots of voice overs. I also offer my services as a coach to young drama school hopefuls,” she reports.
“I trained at Central School in London in the Seventies, worked in lead roles in TV and rep before joining the National Theatre company in the 1980s, and moved up to Sheffield in 1990 after doing a show at the Crucible.
I wish they wrote better parts
“I then ran my own theatrical agency in order to get my two kids through school and as a single mother.”
“As an actress I started at the top and worked my way down,” she laughs, citing her start on TV in Softly Softly: Taskforce as WPC Betty Arthur and then becoming one of the three leads in ITV sitcom Backs to the Lands, while on stage going on to work at the National Theatre.
In 1990 she came up from London to appear in Born Yesterday at the Crucible and decided to stay in the North. “I had fallen in love with the Peak District and by then I was separated and I thought it was a good place to bring up two young children.”
She continued to act in northern-based TV such as Heartbeat, Band of Gold, Hetty Wainthrop and Corrie, of course. As a member of the actor’s agency co-operative, Otto Personal Management, based in Sheffield, she became involved in its administration and in 1996 decided to set up on her own.
From representing 25 largely unknown actors she built up Philippa Howell Personal Management until by 2010 she was able to open a London office in the Strand.
Among her discoveries was Eleanor Tomlinson who has found fame as Demelza Poldark. “I secured her first job as a 14-year-old in the movie The Illusionist, and her career took off from there. And she soon moved on to a bigger agency.
“That, unfortunately, happened all the time. Every time I landed someone I would lose them before long,” she reflects. “You can’t blame them. I was seen as a northern-based agent, and they see the opportunities in London.”
She says you can’t afford to be bitter, especially as her own daughter, Letty, went the same way, to United Agents.
It was that sense of frustration which was one of the factors in her deciding to give up being an agent. But mostly it was that it is an unrelenting job, taking up time and energy attending performances and showcases all over the country, trawling the internet for auditions, fixing them up for clients, wining and dining producers, chasing up payments, managing accounts and all the rest.
“I just decided one weekend last June to close the business gradually but after 16 years of administration there is still a backlog to attend to.”
As for Letty you might think going into acting was inevitable for someone growing up in that background. Evidently not. Her brother chose to pursue golf.
After Sheffield High School Letty studied English and Drama at Leeds University “I always loved going to the theatre and wanted to be a writer and director but I did act in three shows at university.
“While I was there I got a part in the ITV production of Jane Eyre but it was only when I got a job at York Theatre Royal that I realised I wanted some formal training and I got into LAMDA where I trained for two years.”
Since then she has built a solid cv on stage and screen. “Now I’m at a funny stage,” says the thirtysomething. “I’m not going to be a young leading lady or a young mum. Being a princess on horseback is not really where my skill lies.”
She is attracted to character and comedy roles and accordingly played waitress Jacinta in a Miranda Christmas special and was in BBC Radio 4’s sci-fi comedy series My First Planet, starring Nicholas Lyndhurst and Vicki Pepperdine..
“I wish they wrote better parts,” she laments which prompted she and drama school chum Lucy Pearman to form a double act called LetLuce and write their own material. They have stormed the Edinburgh festival, made a couple of short films, featured in ads for Truvia and Malteasers, and are working on a comedy series pilot.
But she will be keeping a straight face as she checks into Holby City.