She might look cool and collected, but Rebecca Front has her demons to battle, says Pam Francis
Rebecca Front is the first to admit that she is a bit of a workaholic, which explains why she’s barely been off our TV screens over the past year.
Those of you who have been watching ITV’s Doctor Thorne – the first period drama written by Julian Fellowes since Downton Abbey – will recognise her as Lady Arabella Gresham, a woman intent on saving her family from financial ruin by marrying her son Frank off to the highest bidder.
But that’s just the latest in an eclectic history of TV roles that has established her as one of the most ubiquitous actresses around. From playing the impoverished princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya in the BBC drama War & Peace, to strait-laced DS Jean Innocent in Lewis and running around shooting aliens in Doctor Who, Rebecca’s done it all. In 2010, she won a BAFTA for her role in the BBC’s political satire The Thick Of It. Is there anything this woman can’t handle?
Surprisingly there is, for underneath that cool, calm and collected exterior is someone who has suffered with a series of phobias and anxiety for many years. It started at the age of seven, on a family visit to Durham Cathedral, when she became trapped in a spiral staircase.
‘I remember thinking: ‘I’ve got to get out of here now!’’ Strangely, the affliction has never affected her acting work. On stage and screen, Rebecca feels completely at home. ‘It’s getting to the place of work that can be stressful,’ she says.
Trains, planes and lifts are all sticking points for the actress, who has been undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy to help control her phobias.
When she was away filming War & Peace, she received help in the unlikely form of heart-throb, actor James Norton, who played Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. ‘My therapist had given me a challenge to try and use a lift with somebody and not tell them in advance about my phobia,’ says Rebecca.
‘You usually warn people as a safety device, as a way of minimising expectations. It takes the pressure off. But she said to me, ‘I want you to get in the lift with someone and just chat to them.’’
As luck would have it, on the last day of filming Rebecca found herself waiting for a hotel lift with the actor. ‘I’ve worked with James, so I got to know him quite well. Even so, that moment of getting in and the doors closing behind us and me thinking, I’m not going to tell him anything was terrifying. When I arrived at my floor, I thought, ‘yes!’ I was so proud. I couldn’t help but tell him.’
It’s a surprising revelation from somebody who didn’t bat an eyelid at prancing around as Björk on live TV for the Let’s Dance For Comic Relief in 2011. In fact, nervous isn’t the word that comes to mind when I meet her in a London hotel.
It could be due to the recent period dramas, with their stark hairdos and lack of make-up, but in the flesh, dressed smartly in a floral blouse, black jacket and trousers, she appears so much younger and prettier than on TV.
‘Oddly enough, I like the way I look now more than I used to,’ she says. ‘Obviously, I’m not immune to looking in the mirror and thinking I can’t remember that chin being there before, but I feel more confident than I have done in many years.’
And so she should. At 51, Rebecca seems to have struck the perfect balance of professional success and at-home harmony. She’s married to TV producer Phil Clymer; the two met in the late 80s, when Rebecca auditioned for the English drama department of the BBC World Service.
Twelve producers listened to her audition tape, but just one vetoed it. That person was Phil. So not exactly a fairy-tale beginning, but they soon bonded over a shared sense of humour. ‘Phil really is a funny man,’ she says. ‘I could never imagine being with someone who couldn’t make me laugh.’
The couple live in North London with their two children, Oliver, 17, and Tilly, 14, for whom Rebecca proves a constant source of embarrassment. ‘I am quite awkward and gauche. It’s something we laugh about as a family. Both of my kids are very cool. Very self-assured and the kind of people I wanted to be as a teenager. But it’s the role of a mum to be embarrassing and I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly!’
Given her comic credentials, it’s no surprise to discover she grew up in a family where laughter played a huge part. She has co-written multiple shows for Radio 4 with her older brother Jeremy. Although they aren’t the first ones in their family to work together, as Rebecca’s father used to illustrate the children’s books written by her mother.
Rebecca went to the University of Oxford, where she became involved with the Oxford Theatre Group. It was here that she first discovered her passion for comedy.
She got a foot in the entertainment industry door through the Radio 4 comedy series On The Hour, where she met Steve Coogan.
When the show transferred to TV, it gave rise to career-making spin-offs, such as Knowing Me, Knowing You. From there, Rebecca later reunited with fellow Oxford alumni Armando Iannucci for The Thick Of It, where he wrote her claustrophobia into the role. So believable was her portrayal of the naive MP Nicola Murray that politicians often asked her whether the character was based on them.
She describes the day when she won the BAFTA for her performance as the best in her life. ‘I never thought I’d even be nominated, let alone win. And when we arrived home my parents had allowed the children to stay up to make these lovely banners saying ‘Well done, Mummy. You’re a winner!’. which they’d hung across the hallway.’
She’s currently reprising her role as Fiona, a snobby ex-banker who falls in love
with another member of her Alcoholics Anonymous group in the BBC Radio 4 drama Love In Recovery. ‘Acting is such an exciting job,’ she says. ‘I just look forward to the next challenge.’
Doctor Thorne Season 1 is available now on DVD from Amazon
Dealing with anxiety
According to Anxiety UK, almost one in five people feel anxious all or part of the time. A quarter of cases of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) occur in people over 55.
While anxiety is a healthy response to some situations, when those feelings of worry or fear take over your life, simply telling yourself to ‘snap out of it’ won’t help.
As a patron of Anxiety UK, Rebecca says talking is the key. ‘Talk to friends, talk to experts. Most importantly, talk to people who will understand what you are going through. It is something you can get help with.’
For more info, call 0844 477 5774 or visit anxietyuk.org.uk