TV star Joanna Scanlan lived on £39 a week while she struggled to make it as an actress – signing on and busking in London’s Covent Garden to make ends meet.
Scanlan, 58, known for her roles in TV series The Thick Of It and No Offence, set herself a goal of earning more than £100,000 a year. Although she has now met this target, she says most people would be astonished to learn how little most actors get paid.
She lives in a four-bedroom Edwardian house in London’s South Croydon with husband Neil and dog Millie who she got from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. The charity, which has been welcoming strays since 1860, spends £50,000 a day caring for its animals. Donations can be made via donate.battersea.org.uk
Support: Joanna Scanlan with her dog Millie from Battersea Dogs Home
What did your parents teach you about money?
That it’s not the most important thing in the world – there are other matters in life that are more important, such as being charitable, kind and putting other people first. They wanted me to understand there were people in the world less fortunate than myself.
My father worked as a brewer for Threlfalls in Manchester and then, when that was taken over, he bought a hotel. My mother was a stay-at-home mum – she gave up a promising career in the law when she got married. We were a well-to-do family. My parents sent me and my brothers to private school. They believed in spending money on education. But my father’s hotel business went through ups and downs, so sometimes money was tight.
What was the first paid work you ever did?
I was five when I got my brother, who was three, to go and ask for donations of stuff we could sell in a ‘shop’. We then laid out all the goods on a table on the farm track outside our home in North Wales and waited for passing trade. For sale was a tin of baked beans, a packet of chewing gum, some picked flowers and pebbles. We were in the middle of nowhere – I think we had to wait two or three hours before someone came past. We made sixpence profit – 2.5p.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Yes. The worst was after I left university. I applied for some 80 jobs as an actor but didn’t get any of them.
Luckily, in those days, you could sign on to get something called the ‘Enterprise Allowance’. This allowed me to do unpaid work for my local community theatre. Sometimes I would also do street acting and busking in Covent Garden in London.
I lived with two friends, one of whom had a council flat in South East London. My weekly rent was £10 and my income from signing on was £39, so I had little money.
I struggled like that for four years. It was tough, but I loved what I was doing and at the end of it I was offered a full-time job as a lecturer in drama. It was several years later before I started to get acting jobs and consistent work.
Have you ever been paid silly money?
No. I came into the industry about 15 years too late. The fees you now earn as an actor are nothing like the astonishing money paid in the 1980s – and I missed the boat on that. People would be amazed to know how little most actors now earn. Movies in particular seem to pay less.
What was the best year of your financial life?
It was 2015, the first year I did No Offence. It was better paid than anything I’d been in before. I don’t remember exactly what I got paid. I do remember, ten years before, saying to myself that one day I would earn more than £100,000 a year. I even wrote it down. In 2015, I fulfilled that goal.
What is the most expensive thing you bought for fun?
It was an abstract painting of a Welsh landscape by Peter Prendergast. It cost £2,500 three years ago. I have it hung in my home where I see it every day. I would very much like to buy another of his paintings one day.
What was your biggest money mistake?
Buying a house with a 100 per cent mortgage in the late 1980s, just before the housing crash. At the time, such deals were commonplace. The property was in Leicester and it cost £32,000. Then interest rates went up and house prices fell. By the early 1990s, its value had fallen to £12,000.
I needed to move out of Leicester, so I rented it out for a few years, but I found that a hassle and decided to sell. I had an endowment policy, but even cashing that in still left me with a deficit of £15,000.
So I made a deal with the mortgage company that I would carry on paying the loan. At that time, people were just handing back their keys to lenders. I should have just done that. But I wanted to be a responsible person who paid back the debt I had incurred.
It was a silly move – honourable perhaps, but I ended up paying £50 a week for ten years for a mortgage on a property I had sold for less than I had paid for it. If I had just held on, it would now be worth at least £200,000.
The best money decision you have made?
Getting a good accountant who can help with long-term financial planning so I will not be destitute in old age. I’ve been incredibly naive about money in the past.
Do you save into a pension?
Yes. I try to save as much as I can into my pension. I started late – only a few years ago – after taking my accountant’s advice. I chose a pension because I didn’t want to get into buy-to-let.
I had been a landlord with my house in Leicester – and I know you always get that call from the tenant about the boiler just when you are about to walk on stage to perform Hamlet. Plus I am concerned about people being priced out of the property market, so buying a second home didn’t appeal.
I also have a stocks and shares ISA that I try to save into every year.
Do you own any property?
Yes, my home in South Croydon. It’s a nice four-bedroom Edwardian house. We bought it two and a half years ago. I don’t think it has gone up in value much. I would rather not say how much it is worth.
What is the one luxury you treat yourself to?
Expensive bars of smelly soap. I don’t like liquid soap and I’m trying to reduce my use of single use plastic. My favourite brand is Santa Maria Novella. A single bar of its soap costs about £12.
I also like expensive utilitarian knickers from Hanro – plain cotton pants that cost £25 for a pair. They last ten years before you get holes in them.
If you were Chancellor what would you do?
I would incentivise landlords to provide longer tenancies by offering them a tax break. So the longer the tenancy, the less tax they would pay. I think it’s important for tenants to feel the place they live in is their home and that they have security.
Longer-term tenancies would also allow renters to paint and decorate their homes as they would like to.
Do you donate money to charity?
Yes, the main one I support is Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. I do a lot of work for them – and my dog Millie came from there.
I also donate to Guide Dogs for the Blind, Born Free Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and Plan International UK that sponsors children all over the world.
I also like supporting smaller charities, particularly those which pay for the upkeep of historic buildings and churches.
What is your number one financial priority?
Ensuring I do not have any debt. When I was younger, I always had an overdraft and owed money on my credit card. It affected my self-worth and who I thought I was.
Then one day, when I was in my 30s, I thought that’s it, I’m never again going to have an overdraft or unsecured debt.
I’ve been true to my word. It has made a huge difference – psychologically – to how I see myself.
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