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?

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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