THIS is how it works in the 21st century: stepping into Frances Barber’s Clerkenwell loft feels like a reunion with an old pal, though it’s our first physical encounter.
It’s not just that the petite actress is so familiar from her numerous stage roles, memorable performances in films such as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and television programmes, including the recent remake of Great Expectations, and, memorably, as Doctor Who’s eye-patch wearing baddie Madame Kovarian. But it’s thanks to Twitter that we’ve been trading wisecracks for months.
Unlike some celebrities, Barber doesn’t use Twitter as a promotional vehicle: she’s there for real, and gives good tweet, whether sharing the saga of changing energy providers, engaging in political debate – she’s a staunch Labour supporter – or making jokes about what’s on TV. Those of us who aren’t in show business have discovered just how sharp and funny she is.
Face to face, her booming voice is dramatic in the best possible way, conjuring the voices of fellow thespians with uncanny accuracy. She’s bursting with joie de vivre, and minutes into our conversation we’re playing with home-made Kovarian dolls crafted by fans.
“It’s opened a whole new world. Obviously I’ve been aware of Doctor Who and really wanted to be in it. I thought I was invited for just one episode. When it became more and more I was absolutely over the moon. The reaction, that’s what I couldn’t get over. I’ve never had so many letters. I have been sent eye patches, little dolls. How sweet that they spent their time.”
She reveals two endings of the season finale were shot, one in which Kovarian dies, one where she lives. “In the one they showed they kill me, and I thought, ‘Oh well,’ but Steven [Moffat, showrunner] said, ‘No, it’s another timeline.’ I don’t know anything about timelines. Can I come back then? Who knows. But if [Steven] just says, I’ll come back with two eye patches, I don’t mind.”
You can see Barber tackling another meaty role as a recurring character in the second series of Silk, which she was filming when we met. “I didn’t miss a single episode of the first series,” she says. “It’s right up my street. My favourite things on earth are political and legal dramas, and dramas with strong women. I was thrilled to be invited into it. I love my character. I am called CW – Caroline Warwick – and I am a barrister and have silk. I have been in the business for years. I am in another chambers but I want to go into Shoe Lane, and I am willing to try... anything.”
CW tries seducing everyone, starting with Martha Costello, played by Maxine Peake, up to and including Neil Stuke’s clerk, Billy Lamb. “I bow to Peter Moffat, who wrote it. I think he’s a genius. I really hope I do his creation justice, and I’m not saying that to be pretend humble. He gives CW this wonderful speech about why she believes in barristers. Something like, ‘I believe in the law because we’re allowed to go to work every day and glory in the beautiful resonance of the English language and if we don’t, we’ll become dull and flat, like solicitors and advocates, and management consultants.’ That is music to my ears. I nearly wept with joy at his saying what I believe with all my heart. I hate the way this world of jargon has erupted.”
With zealous enunciation, she recreates a scene with Rupert Penry-Jones: “I’m trying to seduce him and tell him I can get him silk if he prosecutes. I say, ‘There’s nothing I love more in the morning – I brush my teeth and I spit out into the sink all the flaky little bits of defendants that can’t hold their own.’”
It’s clear why she’s loving the gig, long before she says, “It’s proper drama, which any actor my age is going to bang on about, because we miss them.”
Television, like everything else, moves in circles, and a genre that’s unfashionable one year, is hot the next. Drama’s currently having a moment, and I wonder how much she thinks Britain is feeling the influence of America’s recent, high-quality output? “Absolutely. In my humble opinion, we have learned from America and have seen that if you give it a little bit of proper writing, people love it. To see and listen to actors deliver great dialogue is so beautiful – there’s nothing better.
“My biggest bugbear, and I’m sure this is tedious because everyone says it, but people who watch television are my age group and older. They’re not the kids who, if they’re not out, are on the computer. And yet we were given a diet of young people’s programmes. Even on Coronation Street, everybody was suddenly young. They’re not watching. It’s mainly women in their 50s, 60s, and 70 watching the telly at this time.”
Anyone monitoring Barber’s Twitter account would notice that after Newsnight, she’s addicted to reality TV. We traded snarky messages during Strictly Come Dancing, and she can be relied upon for a stream of cheeky remarks throughout MasterChef, The Apprentice, I’m a Celebrity, and their ilk. This, from a woman who’s worked at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company?
“I do love reality television. When I first started acting I was at the RSC playing Ophelia to Roger Rees’s Hamlet. It was 1984 and I was 25. In those days we had three television channels, maybe four. I remember this distinctly: Roger would come in the day after giving a massive performance of Hamlet and say, ‘Did you see Blankety Blank last night?’
“Because I was young and political, I’d been watching Newsnight and doing pamphlets. I remember saying to someone, ‘What? I can’t believe this?’ Now I understand. You are so subsumed in what you are doing. You’re tired and come home and just want to flop. You want to watch rubbish. There’s room for stargazing on BBC2, and for that moment where you go, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I just want to watch … a cooking programme. I don’t want to bother to think.’ It is part of unwinding, which is what Roger Rees taught me all those years ago, when I was too young to understand.”
In 2007 Barber had a terrible accident when she was knocked off her bike and into the path of an oncoming lorry by a zealous fan. It wrecked her knee, and during her recuperation she moved in with her friend Sir Ian McKellen, who did everything from helping her dress to taking her to the loo. The accident was physically traumatic – “My leg hung like a puppet’s, it just didn’t work. I snapped the ligaments and tore up the cartilage” – and took its toll emotionally, as well.
“Apart from anything else, I’d never been ill and never had an accident. I’m so sturdy. Two things happened at the same time. I have a scar from a dog bite on my face – it wasn’t my dog – and now I have a scar on my knee. I sort of wear them with pride. They remind me: that was a time of my life when it won’t get darker. Any psychological problem I’ve had in the past, depression or whatever it is that everybody goes through, I’ve always been fine. When you’re actually physically disabled and disfigured you go, ‘Wow, I can’t actually get up. I can’t go for a swim or a walk, I couldn’t even go to the loo.’
“I was in a relationship and it kind of ruined that. He couldn’t cope; he didn’t want to cope. All at the same time, to realise the person I thought was forever just wasn’t going to be there. That’s really horrible, so it was a dark time,” she says, tempering the memory with a sardonic laugh.
After a fortnight in a wheelchair and a month on crutches, she returned to the stage where, with McKellen, she was performing King Lear and The Seagull in rep. “I had a walking stick, and I was frightened that someone would bump into me and I’d be back to where I was. On stage I had to wear this massive brace, and both plays were extremely physical, particularly The Seagull, because I was supposed to fling myself around and be weeping and Russian. All the things I had done in rehearsal I found I couldn’t do on stage, and that was really upsetting. I felt I was letting everyone down.
“You have to tell yourself: ‘Look, I could have gone under that truck.’ I saw the whites of the guy’s eyes. It wasn’t my time, but I don’t know what lesson I was supposed to learn. What great big orchestra are we in that the conductor says, ‘It’s your turn to take stock.’ Of what? It was a stupid, senseless, idiotic accident, as simple as that.”
Barber thought she’d paid her emotional dues decades earlier, when her mum and brother died in the span of a year. Deeply depressed, she went to ground. “Nothing is worse than bereavement. I thought I’d had my dose of the world going, ‘You think it’s OK, well it ain’t.’ I keep thinking of that Kirsty MacColl song, You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby. When do you earn it? When do you know enough so you don’t have to go back to square one? Never. That’s what I now know.”
Our talk turns to being single, and being independent. “Our generation kind of lost out. I’m too young to have been part of the proper feminist movement, and too old to have appreciated that there’s a younger generation now who want to get married, commit, have families and do what my parents did. I went to university when everybody took drugs, everybody slept around, and nobody ever got married because it was so naff and that’s what your parents did. I think if I was 26 now and proposed to, I’d say yes, but when I was 26 and proposed to, I said no.” She laughs. “I’d say yes now, because it must be wonderful to go, ‘Will you take the dog out? Will you do this?’ I’ve never had that.”
In fact, even when living with boyfriends, she recalls, “I always seemed to be the one who did it.”
I commiserate, having often bemoaned the downside of self-sufficiency. Barber says, “It’s partly because I was the fourth of six children. We were encouraged to be independent – certainly myself and my younger two sisters were encouraged to do well, to better ourselves and to be independent. I’ve never been a girly girl, and it’s never entered my head that someone should financially look after me. Ever.
“As I’ve got older, it’s more and more impossible to change that attitude – it’s in my DNA now. I have friends that have been together for a very long time, and I’ve often found that they have made emotional compromises – are still making compromises – that I wouldn’t be able to make. I can’t decide whether I could never make them in the past, or whether I’ve just become so accustomed to not having to, that it seems anathema to me now. I probably didn’t ever make compromises. I’m not suggesting that’s particularly a good thing. It must be fantastic to be able to sit back and go, ‘We weathered it.’”
Emboldened, I admit how confounding our encounter has been. I’d imagined Barber was a femme fatale, and expected to find her recumbent, surrounded by candles, eating wine-soaked dates. But she couldn’t be earthier with her naughty laugh, her lumberjack shirt and jeans. I mostly blame Inspector Morse. I can never un-see her as an opera singer wandering round in a shirt cut low enough to threaten full disclosure with every exhalation.
Cackling, she retorts, “And my boobs looked awful and saggy – it haunts me, too. The truth is that top was backless and should have been worn the other way around. I was asked to wear a jacket with it, and [together] they didn’t look nice. The poor hapless costume supervisor, who I don’t blame for one second, said, ‘Let’s turn it the other way around.’ I went ‘Oh, yes let’s because I’ll be in the jacket.’ Then we got to the scene, where I’m walking through the vineyard with Morse, looking lovingly into his eyes and he’s supposed to be fancying me. They said, ‘take the jacket off’, then went, ‘Gulp, that’s so low.’ But for continuity I had to wear it that way. It became a little bit of a cause celebre. I’m half naked walking through a vineyard with dear John Thaw, who said, afterwards, ‘I never even noticed.’ A gentleman.”
Over my protests, she resists any notion that she’s a babe. “My theory, for what it’s worth, is that you’re cast early on as a certain role and never really shake it off. I was never a beauty; I was never Juliet. I was playing mothers when I was 29. I’ve done character parts. On television you’re not allowed to look your age. Helen Mirren is a one-off, in that she carries on looking more beautiful the older she gets. So does Judi Dench. There isn’t anybody I know, of my age and older, who hasn’t had something done. I’m not going to name names, but not anyone. If it’s a bit of Botox, or filler, or Restylane. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had their teeth done.”
Presumably that un-uttered list of names includes hers? “I’ve had a little bit of help, though I haven’t for about a year. I haven’t had my eyes done or anything like that, but I know I will if I need it because it’s part of the work. We’ve got to the point, and politicians know this better than anyone, where you have to look good. So I’m not against it.
“But I am a normal human being, and the last person on earth who I think is a femme fatale is me. When I die, I would love people to say, ‘She was a laugh.’ That’s more important than anything else on earth. I take humour seriously, if that’s not an oxymoron. We should all laugh more. Even through all the knocks and ghastly things that happen to all of us, the only thing left is a sense of humour.”
Trust me, dear readers, she is a laugh, and much more, besides.
• The second series of Silk starts on BBC 1 at 9pm on Tuesday.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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