Front and centre

From The Thick Of It’s Nicola Murray to a registry office superintendent in Kay Mellor’s new series, Rebecca Front relishes playing complex characters who are unintentionally hilarious

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As a teenager, Rebecca Front toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in politics. Little did she know that her future career as an actor would be defined by one of British comedy’s most beloved characters, the Rt Hon Nicola Murray MP.

It has been five years since the last episode of Armando Iannucci’s Bafta-winning satire The Thick Of It aired on the BBC, and the political landscape has shifted significantly since. With Trump’s election, failing Brexit talks and government U-turns at every corner, you could say the current situation is beyond parody.

“Why are we still talking about the way women dress and the way their voices are?”

“Politics is so bizarre and unfathomable at the moment,” says Front. “I don’t just mean in this country, I suppose more in the States. It’s its own satire, and maybe something like The Thick Of It wouldn’t be properly placed if we did it now. I think what was brilliant about The Thick Of It was its behind the scenes aspect – the feeling that everything was jogging along relatively calmly on the surface but underneath it all there was chaos. At the moment in politics everything is not jogging along calmly on the surface, so The Thick Of It wouldn’t be the best response to that.”

Front says the upheaval in politics is “very unnerving and a bit scary” but not without its benefits. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to break out of the two party system and have something that’s shaken up a bit. It is making people think about individual issues and what matters to them, so in that sense it’s quite exciting.

“For a long time we have sort of sleepwalked through the idea that you’re either a Conservative or you are Labour or you’re Lib Dem, and we all know what that means and we don’t have to think about it too much and we just vote for it.”

Front never seems to be short of work. Earlier this year she starred in the fifth instalment of live-action Transformers series The Last Knight. This month she returns to the BBC in new drama series Love, Lies And Records, written by Kay Mellor and set in Leeds.

“The show is set in a registry office,” says Front. “My character is the acting superintendent at the beginning of the series and then she gets passed over for promotion and, to put it mildly, doesn’t respond very well. She becomes a bit of a baddy for the early part of the show.”

In the six-part drama Front stars alongside Scottish actor Ashley Jensen. Although the pair got on fantastically off screen, their two characters share a complicated relationship.

“My character Judy is quite different to any character I’ve seen before and that’s what attracted me to her because she is such a curious woman and I was really intrigued by Kay’s vision of her,” says Front. “She’s not an out-and-out baddy at all – she’s just somebody who does a terrible thing in a situation where she just doesn’t think it through, and reacts in a knee-jerk way and it’s actually awful. It’s really devastating to Ashley Jensen’s character’s life and her own life. She is a very flawed, complicated character.

“Kay’s writing lends itself to comedy. I think all of our characters have a little bit of comedy in them, but my character is not a woman with a sense of humour. She takes herself and life very seriously. People who aren’t self aware lend themselves better to comedy generally. I’m always drawn to characters who are different to characters I’ve played before, and Judy is different from any character I’ve ever come across.”

Love, Lies and Records
Love, Lies and Records

Front, 53, was born in a “creative household” in London. Her dad was an artist and her mother was a teacher who also wrote children’s books. She wanted to be an actor when she was a child and got into comedy while at Oxford.

Collaborations with Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan proved fruitful, with radio shows like On The Hour and The Day Today sneaking in almost under the radar some biting satire aimed at politics and the media. Her collaboration with Iannucci continued, eventually leading to The Thick Of It and the hapless Labour minister Nicola Murray, for which she won a Bafta for best female comedy performance in 2010. She might not be a household name, but Murray remains one of the finest comic characters of recent years.

“The inspiration for Nicola was that I fear that’s probably the kind of politician I would have been – going in with strong intentions but then being a bit easily swayed and easily scared by Malcolm Tucker. I think I would have given way on too many things and then dug my heels in about other things and got shouty and a bit shrill.”

In 2015 Front was reunited on screen with Peter Capaldi, who played Tucker, when she guest-starred in series nine of Dr Who, Capaldi by then having forsaken dystopian politics for time travel. Married to screenwriter Phil Clymer, she’s also had more serious roles recently in the likes of War and Peace, when she played Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya, a wily politician with a small p who schemed hard to get the best for her son in Russian society.

Front believes that people go into politics believing in causes and wanting to effect change for the better, but can be easily thwarted.

“It must be very dispiriting when you realise that you can’t afford to do that thing that you really believe in and you think is the be-all and end-all, so you have to do something that’s a watered down version or not do it at all. Or worse than any of that you might have to speak out against it and go for the completely opposing idea. That must happen to people in politics all the time. It’s one of the many reasons I’m delighted I don’t work in it on a daily basis.”

Earlier this year Theresa May ordered an inquiry after scores of female candidates reported receiving death threats and harassment in the run-up to the general election. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott delivered a powerful speech describing the abuse she has been subjected to, including racism and rape threats.

“Women in politics definitely get a harder time of it and that’s just so wearisome. You just think, why are we still talking about the way women dress and the way women’s voices are and the way women look? It’s just the same old stuff again and again.

“As a feminist it drives me crazy. If you want to be a politician you’re putting your views out there and they’re going to get knocked down from time to time, but that’s your views. It’s not you as a person. And it does happen to male politicians as well, but it just does seem to be really tough for female politicians.

“On the one hand the democratisation of comment is a great thing – that everybody now has a voice and everybody can now reach an audience. Of course in many ways it is a wonderful thing, but it is also a double-edged sword because it means that very often people are just firing off stuff just to be aggressive and unpleasant.

“I’m on Twitter all the time. I love Twitter and I am mildly addicted to it, I would say, but it is so dangerous. I don’t think people have fully understood the power of it yet.”

Front’s Twitter account boasts more than 100,000 followers. “Touch wood I have never experienced any online trolling over Twitter. I have a very draconian attitude to being on Twitter, which is that I am very polite to other people. I might disagree with you, but I will disagree with you politely. When people are impolite to me – and when I say that, I mean just slightly impolite – I block them. I have absolutely no tolerance for it.

“If that person met me in the street and was rude to me I wouldn’t talk to them. I would walk away and have nothing to do with them again, so I’m not going to on Twitter either, so I block left, right and centre. I just don’t engage with it at all.”

Episode one of Love, Lies And Records is available on BBC iPlayer 

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