THE UNASSUMING SALLY KINGSFORD IN SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH
The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Network, not the US American Broadcast Company) series “Summer Heights High” is one of the most successful comedies in the country’s history. It’s funny in an uncomfortable way, or perhaps uncomfortable in a funny way; regardless, Sally Kingsford is happy about her inclusion in the cast as the overly nice and eager Ashley. The tone of the show presents the life of high schoolers with the ridiculousness, and sometimes self-centred opportunism which they can possess. The storyline resonated with Australian and worldwide viewers. “Summer Heights High” was nominated for four Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, Australia’s most prestigious screen awards (the Australian equivalent to the Academy Awards - winning for Best Television Series and Best Performance in a Television Series), won two Logie awards (for Most Outstanding Comedy Program and Most Popular Actor), and broke Australian DVD records as the biggest selling Australian TV series DVD in the country’s history. Beyond domestic popularity, it became the first Australian show to be sold to a major US network, and has become available in numerous countries like the US (HBO), Canada (Comedy Network), the UK (BBC 3), and others. It is currently available on Netflix. Needless to say, all of this international attention for “Summer Heights High” added to Kingsford’s global fan base (coupled with her recognition worldwide from “Neighbours”). Although she admits that she has never forced the comedic side of herself, Sally concedes that others find her naturally funny. Whether cultivated or naturally present, her portrayal of Ashely in this acclaimed and beloved program is undeniable.
“Summer Heights High” is a mockumentary that is the creation of actor Chris Lilley. The three pivotal characters of the storyline are Jonah, Ja’mie, and Mr. G. Ashley (Kingsford) introduces Ja’mie to Summer Heights High and helps her make friends with the “cool girls.” Ashley is an incredibly nice girl who can be both admirable and off-putting in her all-encompassing excellence. She’s definitely an overachiever. Top of the class in academics, proficient on numerous musical instruments, involved in school government, and nice to a fault, Ashley is chosen by the teachers to be Ja’mie’s guide into the school community. Ja’mie’s perception of Ashley is not so benevolent, referring to her as “fugly” and “boring.” The narcissistic/bitchy temperament of Ja’mie can vacillate between justification and mean spiritedness, enabled by Sally’s portrayal of this endearing and yet grating character. Kingsford remarks, “Ashley is super nerdy and nice. She’s one of those people who are good at EVERYTHING. Occasionally she can be a bit of a wet blanket. Ja’mie is pretty horrible to her and she never says or does anything about it. She is incredibly loyal to the school and this is part of the reason she puts up with Ja’mie’s ridiculousness. She is very selfless and is incredibly concerned with the wellbeing of everyone around her.”
Show-creator and star Chris Lilley knew that he wanted Kingsford to audition for the program from the minute he saw and approached her at a popular Vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne. The audition lasted only ten minutes, confirming Lilley’s presumptions. This speaks to the endearing quality that the actress is able to convey in the character. Fellow acclaimed actress Fiannah de Rue declares, “Before having the opportunity to meet her in person, I had admired Sally Kingsford’s work on screen in my favourite Australian television comedy series Summer Heights High as the lovable school nerd Ashley. She performed with such honesty and vulnerability. Mixed with Sally’s gift for comedic flair, Ashley became a crowd favourite. She is a highly gifted actor and her dedication to this art form makes her a true asset to our industry.”
There’s no question that the casting choices were made with a confidence in Kingsford and her co-stars abilities. While the show was scripted (in terms of a basic structure), Lilley and director Stuart McDonald created an environment on set that was highly supportive of improvisation. As a cast member of numerous scripted films, Kingsford quickly found that her memorization of lines and plot points was something she would need to reject being tied to. Spontaneity and playfulness were the touchstones during filming. Lilley wanted to see how far the characters could be taken in their ridiculousness and the audience reacted very positively to this. The variety of personalities exhibited in “Summer Heights High” offers someone for everyone to connect with whether they recognize an adversary or themselves in the story. By giving each actor the opportunity to personalize someone and something that was present in such a vulnerable part of their lives, both those making this program and those watching it were able to experience a humorous catharsis.
The outcome for an actress involved in a show this big means more work and more fame. Acting is what Kingsford does and the deluge of opportunities that follow an acclaimed program like “Summer Heights High” means she continues to do what she is passionate about every day. The recognition from the public reinforces to her that she is also adding something to their lives that is appreciated. She notes, “I’ve had people from all over the world tell me how much joy the show has brought to their lives and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of a production that has had such a positive global impact. I’ve never been recognized more in public for the work I’ve done. Being approached took a little while to get used to but hearing first-hand accounts from people all over the world was very heartwarming. I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of such a successful Australian show. I think it was something very special we were able to create. The people that are presented are really often quite awful but what’s wonderful is that they’re recognizable people we’ve all met. Mixing this uncomfortable humor with moments that are incredibly heartfelt is what the show does so well and is why I think it has had such success here and overseas.”