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Back to Front: Interview with Rebecca Front

30 May 2014 Charlie Kenber

“I tried to write a novel years ago and it was awful.”

We caught up with Rebecca Front – best known for playing Nicola Murray MP in The Thick of It – ahead of the launch of her debut book, Curious…

London Calling: You’ve written plenty of newspaper columns in the past, but what made you want to write an entire book?

Rebecca Front: It was really my agent Charlie Campbell. He was quite keen on me writing a book. He persuaded me to write a sample chapter, and once I’d done that I started to think “yeah actually I could maybe do that”. I just really enjoyed doing it and it suddenly seemed a possibility.

LC: Were your experiences in comedy the starting point?

RF: I suppose the starting point was I knew what I didn’t want to write. I knew I didn’t want to write a book about being an actor, the famous people I’ve worked with, or a standard autobiography because I thought what would be the point? So I had a whole list of things – I had also tried to write a novel years ago and it was awful.

Having whittled it down I then started to think about what I liked. I like short stories, fiction and non-fiction. I like anecdotes and things that are quite neat and encapsulated, and I thought maybe that’s what I’d try. My starting point was taking incidents from my life that I like talking about: funny things that have happened but also traumatic things, and turning them into something that was more like a fictional short story but was actually based in truth.

LC: How much licence have you taken with the stories to elaborate them?

RF: A little bit of licence, but generally if I’ve said it happened then it happened. I certainly tied stories together that weren’t necessarily chronological – I’ve put things into packages.

The only real licence I’ve taken (very sensibly I think) is to change people’s names. I’ve made them quite hard to identify – certainly if I’ve said anything negative I’ve made them as close to impossible to identify as I can!

LC: Did the writing come quite easily?

RF: Because they’re all standalone chapters – there’s no linear story to it – sometimes it came really easily and I just sat down and wrote an entire chapter and it just worked and it hung together. Other times it really felt like pulling teeth, and it was hard to concentrate and hard to get it all into some kind of shape.

LC: You’ve acted in plenty of comedy and satire, most notably The Thick of It. Why is laughing at something like politics so successful?

RF: I think that’s something that we do as a nation. It’s our default to take the mickey out of things, to puncture pomposity and satirise stuff, it’s something we’re very comfortable with. So as soon as something achieves any kind of status we automatically deflate it, it’s what we do.

LC: Do you think it does something quite important too, in terms of ensuring accountability?

RF: Yes, I think that’s right. I think people  – politicians certainly and anyone in authority – are very aware that they’re going to get satirised and so they have to be a little bit circumspect. I think the downside of that is that it’s one of the many things that makes politicians wary of speaking their own minds, and that’s not a good thing. I think like most voters I’d rather hear what the politician genuinely thinks, rather than just hearing the party line regurgitated again and again.

The reason they do that is partly for the sake of unity within the party, but also because they think that might make them unimpeachable – that nobody can criticise them if they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I would rather hear what people genuinely think. I think they are very wary of having the mickey taken out of them on Have I Got News For You. But generally I think satire in public life is a very helpful thing.

LC: Do you miss Nicola Murray?

RF: Yeah I do a bit. I liked her a lot. She was in some ways quite like me. I really loved playing her, and I loved the change from the first series I did to the second. How she’d gone from being very optimistic and can-do to being strangely miscast in this rather powerful role and gradually getting more and more depressed. I just loved the transition they gave her, it was really brilliant.

LC: There was a whole load of satirical and darkly comic shows coming out in the 1990s and 2000s, led by the likes of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci who you worked with. What shows do you think are at that cutting edge today?

RF: I think – ooh that’s a really interesting one… I suppose the most cutting edge in some ways is Stewart Lee, who I’ve also worked with a lot, but not recently. He and Charlie Brooker are most willing to just say whatever the hell they want to say and put it out there. But then things like Have I Got News For You are continually flying the flag for satire. There is a lot of satire still around, it’s still quite a healthy thing.

LC: Is there something you look for in particular when taking on a project?

RF: In acting terms it’s usually – I’m always interested in things that feel like I haven’t done them before. So something that feels like there’s a part that I haven’t just played. I’m looking for a bit of variety.

I always look for good writing. I think I’m quite a good judge of scripts, so when a script comes in I always want to read it myself before making any decision.

Beyond that it actually comes down a lot of the time to whether it’s going to be fun! So I’ve just finished filming Psychobitches for Sky. Part of the appeal was it’s just one person after another who I love working with. There wasn’t a single person who came in I didn’t like – you can’t say no to a job like that, you just know it’s going to be a blast.

LC: Is there another book in the works?

RF: Well, hopefully. I think ‘in the works’ might be an exaggeration! I’ve sort of dipped my toe in: I’ve got a couple of chapter headings and I’ve written a few sections here and there so it’s not definite at all. My publisher said the other day that if you mention it to people then you’ll be more likely to do it! So if I say there might be another book then I’ve kind of got to do it!

LC: Finally, why should people pick up Curious?

RF: It’s not what you might think it’s going to be. It’s not an actor’s autobiography – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is different; it’s a book of short stories. Hopefully they’re quite funny, and it’s also very honest!

Rebecca will be talking alongside Michael Simkins at a National Theatre Platform on Friday 13th June at 6pm. Tickets from £3, available here. ‘Curious’ is out on 12th June.

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