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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. 

Elevated position: the original Selfridges lifts, now installed at the Museum of London. Photo: Getty
Elevated position: the original Selfridges lifts, now installed at the Museum of London. Photo: Getty

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)