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
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit