Weekend has been spending a lot of time with Rebecca Front recently. Chances are you have too. The Bafta-winning actor has just finished her stint as the shrewd matriarch Anna Drubetskaya in the BBC’s lavish adaptation of War & Peace. On New Year’s Day, she played a spiky teacher in David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy (and was promoted to headmistress in a Christmas screening of The Horrid Henry Movie). Shortly before that, she was eerily convincing as an android called Vera in Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, and kicked Zygon butt as an army colonel in the most recent run of Doctor Who. She’s also currently narrating the fifth series of The Supervet.
‘The trouble with being an actor is you never know when the next job is coming up, and you have no control over when they come out,’ says Front. ‘War & Peace and Billionaire Boy were filmed almost a year apart, yet they came out within a week of each other, which creates the impression that you’re **always** on the bloody telly. But it’s just scheduling. That’s my apology, if I ruined your Christmas!’
On the contrary – Front’s inclusion in a cast list always feels like a quality Kitemark. Take War & Peace, in which she more than holds her own among the likes of Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and James Norton. Weekend wonders if she had read the – famously not underwritten – book?
‘No, but I have read Anna Karenina,’ she says. ‘So I felt vindicated that I’ve at least done one Tolstoy!’
Screenwriter Andrew Davies, Britain’s literary sexer-upper-in-chief, has made no bones about his mission to lavish extra sauce on the Russian saga. Does Front think Tolstoy missed a trick by being so coy?
‘Well I have read enough of the book to know there’s a lot of implied sexuality and lust and passion in it,’ she says. ‘But the mores of the day meant none of that could be articulated. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make more of it on-screen. And clearly it makes it more appealing for the audience.’
Front’s Doctor Who episodes, filmed during a break in her War & Peace schedule, saw her reunited with her Thick of It co-star Peter Capaldi. ‘I’m really, really fond of Peter,’ she says. ‘He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with – and I’ve never seen anybody more like a kid in a sweetshop than Peter playing Doctor Who! He was just bubbling with excitement about the whole thing. It’s lovely.’
In 2010, Front and Capaldi both picked up Baftas for their roles in political satire The Thick of It – she for playing gaffe-prone minister Nicola Murray, he for the volcanic, potty-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker. Murray was the recipient of one of Tucker’s most memorable tirades, when he famously branded her an ‘omnishambles’ – a word that has since found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary (‘a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations’). ‘I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or not!’ laughs Front.
Her working relationship with The Thick of It’s creator, Armando Iannucci, goes back to the early 90s when, along with Chris Morris, Steve Coogan and her Oxford University contemporaries Patrick Marber and David Schneider, she was part of the seminal radio news spoof, On The Hour, and its TV offspring, The Day Today. Two decades on, those shows – which, among other things, gifted the world Alan Partridge – are as revered by people of a certain age as Beyond the Fringe or That Was The Week That Was were by the previous generation. They also proved uncannily prophetic, as rolling news networks enthusiastically aped their absurd mix of self-regarding bombast and vacuous time-filling.
‘I would have put money at the time on it dating,’ says Front. ‘But in fact TV news has become even more like that, which is odd because, given the number of journalists who must have watched it, you’d think they’d be a bit more self-aware.’
While continuing to ride the wave of the 90s comedy boom, Front began calling on her drama school training for more serious roles, appearing alongside John Thaw in the legal drama Kavanagh QC, more than a decade before assuming command of his former co-star, Kevin Whately, as detective inspector Lewis’s chief super, Jean Innocent. Her ideal career, she says, would be a 50/50 split between comedy and drama – which, happily, is sort of where she seems to have ended up.
Front was born in Stoke Newington to Sheila, a teacher, and Charles, an illustrator who designed the logo for The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album. ‘It was a great way to chat up boys,’ she recalls. ‘To tell them that my dad had met The Beatles, and designed this iconic bit of lettering. My husband [producer Phil Clymer, with whom she has two teenage children, Oliver and Tilly] still says that’s the reason he decided to marry me.’
When she was 11, Front witnessed her father almost drown while on holiday. The trauma of the incident, combined with losing her grandfather a couple of days later, led to her withdrawing from school for a time, and she believes she can trace at least some of her ongoing battles with anxiety back to that summer. ‘It did have a big impact on who I am, making me quite anxious and aware of mortality and all these quite heavy-duty things,’ she says. ‘All these things shape us.’
In recent years, she has turned to cognitive behavioural therapy to help with the claustrophobia she has suffered from since the age of 7. ‘I’m using lifts more often now,’ she reveals. ‘Not as often as I should, but I do use them. I’ve slightly written off the Tube – you’re not meant to do in CBT, but I can’t quite imagine myself ever using the Tube, if I’m honest. I can do loads of things I couldn’t do before, though, so it has made a massive difference. But it’s work in progress: you have to keep challenging yourself and not avoiding the things that scare you.’
At 51, Front has come to the conclusion that everyone is largely bluffing their way through life, and that the moment when everything suddenly makes sense is ‘a vanishing point’. ‘I think most of us, if we’re honest, feel like everybody else knows what they’re doing better than we do,’ she says.
‘At work, I feel immensely confident. But in many other ways I feel like a kid who’s pretending to be this grown-up. I think that’s true with a lot of actors,’ she adds. ‘We come to acting because we feel more comfortable being other people.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 18, 2016
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