By Kerry Potter
From The Thick of It to War & Peace, REBECCA FRONT’s talent for portraying powerful women has won her legions of male fans. She tells Kerry Potter about body confidence, her (teenage) fashion mentor and what she’s got in common with Theresa May.
Rebecca Front is fixing me with The Look. Even the most cursory of TV viewers will be familiar with it: stern and authoritative, as seen on Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent in ITV crime drama Inspector Lewis (three years on from Rebecca’s departure, her co-star Laurence Fox still calls her ‘ma’am’).
She also deployed it in her role as cabinet minister Nicola Murray in the BBC political satire The Thick of It, as well as in her matriarch roles in period dramas War & Peace and Doctor Thorne. And now The Look is back for Rebecca’s turn in Kay Mellor’s new register-office-set BBC One drama Love, Lies and Records. She plays Judy, an awkward, jobsworth registrar who is furious when she gets overlooked for promotion in favour of her nemesis: gregarious, chaotic working mother Kate, played by Ashley Jensen.
Right now, I am nervously witnessing an impromptu demonstration of The Look up close. We won’t call it ‘resting b**ch face’ because Rebecca doesn’t like the word b**ch: ‘We wouldn’t call a man that.’ We settle for ‘resting angry face’.
‘It’s useful to be able to look quite scary,’ she says. ‘I’m really bad at complaining about things in shops or restaurants because I don’t like confrontation, but sometimes I don’t need to complain because you can just see it in my face.’ And with that, The Look is gone as she breaks into a grin. ‘I am quite a smiley person; I’m actually not stern enough. I’m quite soft and woolly by nature.’
She’s also a million times sexier than many of her characters. ‘I’ve got much more body confident as I’ve got older. I’m fitter and more muscly. I go to the gym three times a week. My teenage daughter [Tilly, 16] has given me more self-assurance. We shop together a lot and I pick up clothes and say, “I don’t think I can get away with that.” And she says, “What does that mean? You’re setting yourself a rule and that’s ridiculous. You tell me not to do that, so why should you?” So I’ve upped my game: I dress more confidently, I carry myself more confidently. You only live once.’
She’s about to get her ears pierced for the second time in recent years, egged on by Tilly, having previously been too scared. That’s the only needle she’ll tolerate though – cosmetic surgery is a big no. ‘Women are under so much pressure: the thought that you have to change your body to be accommodated in society seems wrong to me. I’m hesitant to say I hate it because I don’t want to judge people for doing it – I understand the impulse – but it worries me.’
At 53, Rebecca is happy to look her age. ‘It bothers me that people aren’t allowed to grow old naturally because there’s a beauty in that. I know it’s a cliché but confidence is the sexiest thing and if more women felt confident about the way they looked, they wouldn’t need to have those procedures. It takes guts to say, “I’ve got wrinkles and crow’s feet and I’m not bothered about it. I quite like them, actually.”’
Her tendency to play powerful, brusque characters has won her a legion of male fans. ‘Some men are really drawn to authoritative women, aren’t they? I occasionally get messages from men asking for photos of my shoes because they probably imagine I’m wearing really scary stilettos. I mean, I am today, but usually I think, “Erm, do you want a picture of my trainers?”’
Her turn as Chief Superintendent Innocent especially caught people’s imagination, reportedly inspiring erotic fanfiction about the relationship between Innocent and Laurence Fox’s character DS James Hathaway. ‘I try not to engage with that stuff,’ Rebecca hoots.
Kay Mellor, creator of big-hearted, women-centric dramas such as Band of Gold and Fat Fighters, had the idea for Loves, Lies and Records when she attended a register office to record the death of her mother, noting how the location was a microcosm for life’s highs and lows. Accordingly, the first episode is a rollercoaster of emotion, as sad as it is funny, taking in births, deaths and marriages.
Despite appearances, Rebecca says she’s not made of stern enough stuff to work in that environment. ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve too much for a job like that. With all the deaths and babies, I wouldn’t last more than five minutes. I cry very easily since having my children.’ (As well as Tilly, Rebecca and her TV producer/writer husband Phil Clymer have 18-year-old Oliver.) Being a cry baby does have benefits though: ‘I’ve become a much better actor since I had children. It’s made me less self-conscious and opened up a fast-track to accessing my emotions.’
Creating Judy was a welcome challenge: ‘I thought, how on earth am I going to play this woman as I have nothing in common with her? She has no sense of humour, she’s antisocial, she’s judgmental. We would not get on at all. But I didn’t want to play her like a cartoon villain. She’s just complicated. She’s a human being and it’s my job to understand why she does what she does and find a way into her head.’
The careers of Rebecca and her co-star Ashley Jensen have bloomed in a similar way, with both making the successful transition from comedy to drama. On graduating from Oxford, Rebecca began her career in radio comedy in the early 1990s, working with Armando Iannucci (who went on to create The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan.
Moving into TV, Rebecca starred in the Alan Partridge canon, with shows such as The Day Today, and later in Nighty Night, Queers and The Catherine Tate Show. Ashley, meanwhile, made her name in Extras and Ugly Betty as well as, more recently, in Catastrophe.
‘I’m in awe of Ashley – those shifts she makes between comedy moments and moving moments are effortless,’ says Rebecca. The two bonded so well off-camera that at one point they had a giggling fit so epic, crew members filmed it on their phones.
The current state of politics, however, is less of a laughing matter for Rebecca. Does she wish they were still making The Thick of It? ‘Things have gone so mad it would be hard to find fictional ideas that were crazier than what we’re going through,’ she says. ‘Even Armando couldn’t top this.’
Having played Nicola Murray, she says she has more sympathy for politicians, especially female ones. Indeed, she’s more charitable about Theresa May than you might expect a left-leaning actor to be: ‘We judge women in public life in a different way. She gets criticised for her hair, for what she wears, for being unemotional – I don’t think that would get levelled at a man. I suspect she’s probably a very nice woman. I don’t know her but I don’t look at her and think, “She’s evil.” It’s not a job I’d want in a million years in this toxic political environment. She’s doing an incredibly difficult job.’
And the two women share one characteristic: being a bit square. When asked to share a secret, Rebecca pauses: ‘I’m hesitant about saying anything that will sound like May admitting that running through a wheat field was the naughtiest thing she’d ever done. After she said that, my children said, “Mum that’s you! That’s the answer you would have given!” I’m such a square. I was head girl at school and I’m so law-abiding. If I saw a wheat field I would only enter it if there was a sign saying, “Please run here.”’
Having suffered from anxiety since she was a child, growing up in Northeast London, Rebecca now campaigns on mental health issues as an ambassador for the charity Anxiety UK. Her claustrophobia was written into her role in The Thick of It in a scene where Nicola refuses to get into a lift and is memorably blasted by her spin-doctor colleague, the legendarily vitriolic Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), as an ‘omnishambles’ (a word, she notes with glee, that’s now in the Oxford English Dictionary).
How did Rebecca feel about her private, real-life issues becoming the butt of a joke? ‘I’ve found humour is the best tool to deal with anxiety. You can’t afford to take it too seriously because it just gets worse,’ she smiles. She still struggles a little with lifts and can’t see herself ever travelling by tube. ‘These days I check in every so often with CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], maybe once or twice a year if I feel I need a reboot.’
With the tube off limits, she often travels to and from her North London family home by bus. ‘I find them very relaxing and you get great material on buses: people do and say funny things. Nobody expects to see actors on the bus so fans often tweet me to say, “I saw your lookalike on the bus today.” No, it was me!’
She is heartened by Princes William and Harry speaking out about mental health issues. ‘I thought it was great, bless them for doing that. I don’t think the stigma has entirely gone, but it’s really improved.’
But back to business. When it comes to work, Rebecca has never been busier. She’s just finished Down a Dark Hall, a supernatural movie starring Uma Thurman; she’s filming a TV comedy pilot next week, and she recently delivered the draft of her second book of personal essays, following 2014’s Curious. What’s left? ‘Oh, I’m still hugely ambitious,’ she says. ‘There’s loads of stuff I want to do: some Shakespeare, a lot more theatre and drama that will really stretch me as it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve really started to use my drama chops.’
What about playing a femme fatale? ‘I’d love to do that,’ she sighs. ‘But I don’t know if that’s going to come up because there’s still this ageist culture. People don’t think of you like that when you’re over 40. We had a lunch party at our house the other day and I was the youngest woman there. I looked around the table and thought, “Just look at all these fabulous, well-dressed, attractive, funny women in their 50s and 60s.” Why don’t we see that on TV very often?’ I can imagine she’d only have to give a room of casting directors The Look and that would change.
And regardless, she’s blazing a trail as the thinking-man’s sex symbol. ‘I’d be flattered to think that. I’ve still got it going on!’ she grins, slinking out of the door to her waiting car. The Prime of Ms Rebecca Front? You had better believe it.
Love, Lies and Records will be on BBC One this autumn.
Hair: Nadira V Persaud using Maria Nila Stockholm.
Make-up: Justine Jenkins using Nude by Nature.
Styling: Alexandria Reid.