It's hold the Front page as actress gets Curious

Rebecca Front opens up about her new candid and personal collection of essays

By Gerald Jacobs, June 19, 2014
Bunny girl: Rebecca Front in Curious mode

Bunny girl: Rebecca Front in Curious mode

'I've been writing - for the Guardian, Independent, Observer - almost as long as I've been acting," says Rebecca Front, recalling the genesis of Curious, her newly published collection of gently candid, personal essays. "I'd had approaches to do a book but probably, subconsciously, I wasn't sure I could do it."

Such unaffected self-deprecation pervades what are described on the cover of the book as the "true stories and loose connections" inside. These are all conveyed in an informal, sympathetic tone, whether Front is reflecting on fame (about which she is ambivalent), claustrophobia (from which she suffers), panic attacks (her own), or a bizarre visit to a hypnotherapist.

As can be inferred from these examples, while each of the 23 stories stands perfectly well on its own, the theme of mental health, and the inadequacy of society's attitude to it, does form something of a thread. Yet "this was not the intention", says Front. "I didn't realise until I submitted the book quite how much of it was about different types of neurosis.

"One-in-four of us will have some kind of mental health issue yet there is still is a stigma attached to it and there shouldn't be. I suppose I'm in quite a good position to talk about it. People expect actors to be a bit neurotic."

Now one of our brightest comic performers, Front was set on an acting career from the age of seven, with the full encouragement of her artist father and teacher mother. The reason she went up to Oxford to read English, she recalls, was simply to take "three years doing something different from what I'd be spending the rest of my life doing".

Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray in The Thick of It

Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray in The Thick of It

Not that Oxford was exactly a performance-free zone. Front duly appeared in (and became president of) the Oxford Revue, where a close contemporary was playwright and film-writer Patrick Marber. Also at Oxford at the time was a man who, as a future writer and director of pioneering satirical comedy on radio and TV, would be a significant influence on her career. This was Armando Iannucci, prime mover of television's most politically excoriating comedy, The Thick of It.

"That," Front says of her own eventual appearances in the show - for which she won a Bafta - "was a dream come true. I'd seen the first series and loved it. I dropped huge hints to Armando that if there was ever a part going, whatever it was, I'd love to do it. I never seriously thought for a minute that there would be any kind of regular part in it." But there was - that of Nicola Murray MP, who, like the rest of the characters, feels the force of the ingeniously scatological harangues of actor Peter Cap-aldi's Malcolm Tucker. Amazingly, Front practised her lines with her mother. "She's a frustrated actress and really went for it. She does a great Malcolm Tucker."

After Oxford and Webber Douglas Drama School, Front "drifted into comedy", piling up a range of credits from Knowing Me, Knowing You to the Radio 4 series Incredible Women with her brother Jeremy. But there have also been straighter dramas such as Lewis and Death Comes to Pemberley. She even sings and appeared in Sam Mendes's celebrated production of Stephen Sondheim's Company at the Donmar in 1996.

Memorably, Front played Tanya, comedian Simon Amstell's mother, in the brilliant and sometimes painful Grandma's House. The fact that this most Jewish of TV sitcoms was set in Gants Hill, where Front grew up, gave it extra flavour for her. As did her inhabiting an exquisitely written role that she saw as part of a trio of archetypal Jewish women.

"Samantha Spiro, the pained aunt, was a bundle of anger and fury. Linda Bassett's Grandma was the typical passive-aggressive Jewish mother. Tanya didn't really do the passive-aggressive thing - she was just aggressive." In real life, Front, who is married to TV producer Phil Clyma, says she hardly ever goes to synagogue. "But being Jewish really matters to me.

"I love the festivals and I love lighting candles on a Friday night." Her two teenage children are also, she says, "very aware of their Jewishness. We do Seders and Chanucah and so on at home and there are aspects of their personalities that seem to me very Jewish."

There are odd moments of Jewishness in Curious, none more intriguing than the first sentence of the first story: "Shortly before my brother's barmitzvah, a stranger took over our home." The ensuing pages describe an extraordinary period in which her "lovely, too nice" parents were taken advantage of by the most brazen of con-men. And, she says, she has inherited their "too nice" qualities.

"I'm aware quite a lot of the time I'll let people walk all over me. I'll put up with very bad service in restaurants and I can't send anything back unless it's really bad. If it's crawling with maggots I might conceivably, but even then I'll probably say 'I'm really sorry, I seem to have put some maggots on this plate'.

"My parents and my family in general were the sort of people who, even in that very safe environment, would say the word 'Jewish' in an undertone. You can understand that in the generation that's lived through the Second World War and I wonder how much of that impacts on Jews of my generation. I'll just keep my head down, be nice so nobody can object to me, call me mean or make assumptions about my being part of some global conspiracy.

"I once had a very funny photo session with somebody who spent an inordinate amount of time telling me how much she loved Jewish people. If she was ever going to go into business there was no question she was going to do so 'with somebody from the Jewish people. I want you to know,' she told me, 'I don't have a problem with your being Jewish'.

"Humour is an essential part of Jewishness, puncturing pomposity, demystifying things, at the same time as thinking deeply about the world. And you can never swear as well as you can in Yiddish.

"I tend to laugh at comedy that's very like drama. I like to believe in the person. I'm not big on gags, physical humour, slapstick. Watching Seinfeld, I don't laugh so much at Kramer as I do at Elaine. And George."

Yet her original ambition was to be a serious classical actress. "A little bit of me still wants to," she says, "though not at the expense of comedy".

And when I suggest that her turn as a formidable headmistress in an episode of BBC1's Outnumbered showed something of the steel of a Lady Macbeth, her eyes light up.

"I would absolutely love to play her," says the versatile, talented - and curious - Front.

'Curious' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £16.99

Last updated: 1:04pm, June 19 2014