Since Series 1 of the Enid Blyton screen adaptation of Malory Towers released during the pandemic in 2020, Sienna Arif-Knights has been playing Sally Hope in the 1940s-based series, and has recently returned to set to film the announced Series 4 (due next year) and the two-part Christmas special, which is set to air in December. With Malory Towers being shown on CBBC and BBC iPlayer in the UK, as well as by broadcasters overseas, Sienna films in both the UK and Canada, and during her time playing Sally so far, she has been a guest on Blue Peter and, alongside her cast members Ella Bright (as Darrell Rivers), Danya Griver (as Gwendoline Mary Lacey) and Beth Bradfield (as Jean), Sienna attended an event at BFI Southbank earlier this year. For her training, Sienna attends The BRIT School and, as a dancer, she is part of Twiin Dance Company. We talked to Sienna about filming as Sally Hope in Malory Towers, being a guest at a BFI Southbank event and her training at both Twiin Dance Company and The BRIT School.
You play Sally Hope in Malory Towers, what originally drew you to the role and how much did you know about the Enid Blyton stories before auditioning?
Sally, as a character, is perceived as shy and introverted and, as a person, I can be quite bubbly and outgoing. One of the main reasons why I wanted to play the role was because of how opposite Sally is to myself, I knew it was going to be a challenge, which is why I believed it would be good for me to try something different. Before auditioning, my mum and grandparents used to read the books, but I personally hadn’t read them.
Can you tell us about Sally and what was it like preparing to film a 1940s-based series?
Initially, Sally was an extremely introverted girl who observed from a distance.
In season 1, Sally was very quiet and only talked to a few girls in her form. She is very honest and sincere. One of the main things she values in a person is trust and kindness and her best friend showed that to her. Throughout all the seasons, Sally shows a completely different side and becomes the new head of form.
We see a more authoritative and mature side to her as she takes on this role. No matter the circumstances, she always continues to be a loyal friend to Darrell and we get to see their friendship bloom. In conclusion, I would say Sally has a heart full of joy and kindness, who cares about her friends deeply and is willing to do anything to protect them.
How was it meeting the rest of the cast for the first time and getting into character?
When meeting the cast, I was initially nervous and very worried that I wasn’t going to fit in. This was my first show that had a huge cast. I honestly don’t believe in signs but meeting the cast felt like fate. As a group, we instantly connected with each other and couldn’t stop laughing and having fun. Getting into character for the first time was genuinely the scariest moment of my whole experience. This was because I was in a room with eight incredibly talented girls, our director, three producers, our production and our parents all watching. However, as the scenes were performed, I understood my character more and was able to bring Sally Hope to life.
With filming taking place in both the UK and Canada, how do you find the experience working on set?
As a cast, we were extremely lucky to have such a wonderful crew in both Canada and the UK. When receiving the good news about getting the part, I was very apprehensive at first to leave my family for two months and go to a completely different country, however, a week into filming, the crew and cast made me feel at home and created such a comforting atmosphere for me.
What was it like having Series 1 released at the start of the pandemic and how does it feel having Malory Towers shown internationally?
I believe as a show we were extremely lucky to have the release of Series 1 in the pandemic. The circumstances of the lockdown were quite tough and a lot of people turned to their TVs for entertainment. Malory Towers is a show full of hope, friendship and pure happiness and I believe it touched many hearts – it was a show that uplifted people.
When hearing the news that our show had become international – I was in complete shock. At first I didn’t believe it and was extremely proud of my whole cast. I think it’s a huge achievement to have gone international. It also feels very surreal that our work is being shared with the world.
What is Sally like to play and how is it reprising the character for each series and seeing her storylines progress?
Playing Sally is one of the best things in my life that I got to experience. Sally is a character that has a complicated personality, she can be very shy and introverted at times yet very adventurous and bold. For me as an actress, I believe I created a bond with my character and I think it’s so beautiful, as she grows up to see her life develop and flourish.
Is there anything you enjoy most about working with the cast and filming the series and how is it seeing the viewers’ response to the show?
Working with the cast is a dream come true for me. I am very lucky to have such a wonderful cast who are extremely supportive and have become my family. For me, I think it’s important to have such a strong bond with people that you’re working with because all the love we have for each other shows on camera and makes our scenes more genuine and authentic. Our show has a lot of adventures and dramatic events that happen throughout – this made my acting experience so much more fun and exciting.
As a cast, we were so lucky to have such amazing supporters, who enjoyed the show and showed so much love and support throughout. One of my personal favourite moments was when I was at the BFI interview and our supporters came outside after the show to congratulate us and take pictures. One family came up to me and told me that my character has brought them so much joy, and they thanked me for putting a smile on their faces. This honestly will stay in my heart forever.
Have you had any stand-out highlights from playing Sally and working on a CBBC series so far?
Two of my favourite moments for Sally was when she was ill with appendicitis. This was a good challenge for my acting skills because, as much as makeup and hair can make me look unwell, acting sick is another level of difficulty.
I thought it was fun to be able to play this because I took the audience on a journey. Starting with the stages of my sickness, simple cramps and agony, ending in surgery with a doctor. Throughout Season 1, she had shown a more tough and introverted side, I think for the audience it was nice to see Sally in a vulnerable place and helped them connect with the character better.
My second favourite moment was when Sally became head of form. She got to be more authoritative and strict with her classmates. Due to my relationship with the girls, these scenes were more fun to film because I got to boss around my friends and pretend I was a teacher. It was also very intense because there were lots of scenes where Sally, Alicia and Darrell had to fight and yell in each other’s faces and to do this it required a lot of emotion and strength. At one point, the scenes felt so real that I thought I was in an actual argument with the both of them.
One of the best moments with CBBC has to be when I went on Blue Peter and showed the audience a step by step on how to make cookies.
Why do you think Malory Towers has stayed popular over the years and why would you recommend watching the already-released Series 1, 2 and 3 of the screen adaptation?
The Enid Blyton books were very popular and I believe lots of people were excited to see the screen adaptation. The show has a heart-warming feel to it and also educates lots of young kids, it shows them the qualities of genuine friendships. However, I believe the show keeps people on their toes due to the intensity of it and the mystery. I would 100% recommend the show.
Earlier this year, you attended the BFI Southbank event as part of the cast, how was the experience?
The BFI Southbank interview was an amazing and humbling experience. I was extremely nervous to see so many supporters all in the same room, but the day was filled with pure love and kindness and I can’t thank our supporters enough. It was so fun to meet everyone and take lots of photos. However, I thought it was incredible that everyone in the room got to experience our genuine reactions watching our new episodes.
Having also been a guest on Blue Peter, can you tell us about this?
This was a very scary experience because the show was live, however, the crew were so lovely and I had a lot of fun.
Is acting something you always wanted to do and how did you start?
At the beginning of my performing arts experience, I trained in singing, acting and dancing, but for the last nine years I’ve been solidly training in dance and continue to pursue this profession.
I started acting four years ago and fell in love with it. However, I have a deep love for animals and wanted to be a vet for many years. In 2018, I joined an agency called Twiin Agency and booked my first job in an advert with First Choice. This job was one of the biggest highlights in my career because I got to dance and rap, which are two of the main things I love the most. I then continued to act and booked another job with BT Sport then Malory came along.
Can you tell us about your dance training with Twiin Dance Company?
Twiin Dance Company is one of the best dance schools I’ve come to. I’ve danced with them since I was ten years old and have created a family within the school. They have pushed me to thrive and I have them to thank for everything. At Twiin, I train in acrobatics, street dance and contemporary. We’ve been doing gradings in dance since we were young and have performed all across the country in many competitions.
How is it attending The BRIT School and was there anything that encouraged you to train there?
At Twiin Dance Company, there is a certain authenticity that they withhold, however, when joining The BRIT School, it opened up a new chapter in my life. My school is full of charismatic, determined students, who have so much talent and versatility. Every student has their own identity. My dance teachers at The BRIT School have pushed me to learn a variety of styles such as jazz, urban, contemporary, tap and ballet. We have trained daily to become better dancers and people as a whole.
What are some of your favourite TV shows and films to watch?
Currently I love to watch Stranger Things, Split, The Vampire Diaries and 10 Things I Hate About You. Also, any Marvel movie and any Disney movie.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
One of the main things I enjoy is spending time with my family and friends. I find it very important as a person to have such a beautiful foundation and I love spending genuine time with the people I love.
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