Elevated position: the original Selfridges lifts, now installed at the Museum of London. Photo: Getty
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Rebecca Front: “When I’m filming, I feel more relaxed than at almost any other time”

The star of Nighty NightThe Thick of It and Lewis on literary competitiveness, the cameraderie of the make-up truck and learning to cope with lifts. 

My first book was published the day the World Cup began. I wasn’t bothered by that; they’re hardly rival events. Even in my most solipsistic moments, I don’t regard my literary debut as a matter of global interest. And I like to think that there’s nothing to stop lovers of the Beautiful Game from dipping into one of my short stories at half-time.

What did worry me, as someone with virtually no interest in football, was the level of competitiveness I began to feel about the book. For the first few days after publication I was checking online sales rankings, trawling through the more arcane backwaters of the bestseller lists, searching for reviews, and punching the air if they were positive. It was a pretty undignified display, if I’m honest, and some time in the early hours of one morning, as I looked for the umpteenth time to see if anyone else on Twitter had given it the thumbs-up, I realised I had to stop.

I have no idea how the book is going to do. Maybe it won’t get out of the group stage. Maybe it’ll surprise me and make it through to a quarter-final. I wish it well, and wave it on its way. Though I reserve the right, should I come across it hidden on a bookshop shelf like a frustrated player on the bench, to pull it forward into a prominent position and give it its chance on the pitch. 

 

Joy in the dressing room

Meanwhile, it’s back to the real world, which for me means pretending to be someone else. I’ve just spent a very happy few days filming the crime drama Lewis. We’ve been at it now for seven or eight years, so it’s by far the longest-running thing I’ve ever worked on. Consequently, although I’m only actually on set for a few days per episode, there is always a sense of coming home. I love the camaraderie of the make-up truck; I love disappearing into my dressing-room hutch (think cubicle, more than Winnebago), changing out of whatever I threw on in my pre-dawn bedroom and into some glamorous frock that John, the wardrobe designer, has picked out for me, rolling my eyes as Laurence Fox teases Steve the long-suffering boom operator yet again, and reminding Kevin Whately’s eponymous detective that the chief constable is breathing down my neck and this time I need results.

There is a rhythm to a filming day: an ebb and flow of action and inaction, an orderliness to the repetition of each scene from different camera angles.

During recent interviews I’ve been asked a lot about anxiety. A couple of chapters in my book deal with my experiences of panic, so it’s understandable that people have singled that out, I suppose. But one of the recurring questions has been: “How do you, as an anxious person, cope with the pressures of filming?”

There was a moment, during one of these Lewis days, when I suddenly became aware of the answer. In the few seconds between the first assistant director announcing that we’re running up to record and the director shouting, “Action,” I feel more relaxed than at almost any other time in my life. At home, there are always things that I really should be doing; when I’m out, there are places to get to, deadlines to meet. But here on set – with nothing to think about other than who I’m pretending to be, what she’s about to say and why – here I can and must wipe everything else from my head and relax. It’s completely intoxicating. 

 

An empty lift is a happy lift

I take my daughter shopping. It’s her favourite way to spend a day, and since my favourite way to spend a day is with her or her brother, that suits me fine. But this time there’s a catch. As part of my latest attempt to deal with claustrophobia, I’m trying to use lifts again.

You might be surprised by quite how difficult this process is. Ultimately, of course, my aim is to be able to get in a lift anywhere I need to, regardless of its size or the number of people in it. That’s the advanced level. I’m still at the beginners’ stage. So, for now, I’m allowing myself to be picky. I will use it only if the conditions meet my approval. I explain to my daughter that this could take some time but she volunteers to stay with me.

“OK,” I explain as we approach a row of lifts in a department store, “here’s how this has to work. If it’s empty or quiet, and not too tiny and scary, I’ll get in. I’ll probably just do one floor, but we’ll see how it goes.”

She listens patiently and agrees to this overcomplicated plan. A lift arrives but it’s full. The next one is emptier, but then a couple run towards it with a pram and a crying baby. I look at my daughter and shake my head. We wait. The next one is full again. All this time, my stress levels are increasing. A woman comes and waits next to us.

“Have you been waiting long?” she asks.

“About thirty years,” I think to myself.

The next lift is empty. The woman gets in and so do we. I take a deep breath. The doors close. We go up a floor. The doors open and my daughter gives me a fist-bump and tells me she’s proud of me. The woman steps out of the lift, a little bemused by this display. But it’s worked wonders on me.

“Let’s do another floor,” I say, and press the button again.

“Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections” by Rebecca Front is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses