She’s played a Secretary of State in The Thick of It, and Simon Amstell’s mum in Grandma’s House, and tonight there’s a double helping of Rebecca Front as she stars in Jessica Hynes’s BBC4 Sufragette sitcom Up the Women and Sky Arts Playhouse Presents spin-off Psychobitches – in which she’s an “astral therapist” dealing with famous females from throughout history.
But even after that little lot, Front is not satisfied, revealing she’d also love a role in Sherlock or Doctor Who…
What is Playhouse Presents… Psychobitches all about?
“There’s a slightly odd therapy room somewhere out there in the ether where a therapist sits all day and sorts out the problems of dead women from history. It’s never explained whether she’s dead herself or how they all manage to come to her. It’s like some kind of astral therapy room.”
What was it about the project that appealed to you?
“I really liked the scripts and I wanted to work with Jeremy Dyson, whose idea it was and who directed it. But the appeal of it was that it was predominantly female – there are lots and lots of women in it playing lots of amazing parts. It’s just quite an unusual project. I’ve never done anything quite like it…”
You play the straight-laced therapist. Were you ever jealous of the costumes or how silly your co-stars were allowed to be?
“There was a part of me that wanted to be one of the women coming into the therapy room and doing some of the characters but it was nice to just be there all the way through and to be able to respond to all of them.”
Did you ever find it hard to keep a straight face?
“I did actually. There were only one or two where I really properly laughed out loud and found it quite hard to control it, one of which was Francis Barber’s Catherine the Great which was just hilarious. But generally I would laugh a lot in rehersals and when they first came in – it was an effort but I just about managed it!”
Do you have a favourite sketch?
“The Bronte sisters are my favourite. I really love that it’s incredibly foul-mouthed. The whole look of it was brilliant and all the women playing the parts were great.
I also loved all the ones Julia [Davis] did. Her Enid Blyton is kind of scurrilous and quite wicked but she just does it brilliantly and it’s very funny. Sam Spiro’s Audrey Hepburn is so great, too – she looks amazing.
Really it was an odd thing where we’d rehearsed one sketch and start filming it and I’d sit there thinking ‘This is the best one’ and then that person would go and the next person would come in and I’d think ‘Oh no, actually, this is the best one’. It just got better and better…”
Did you have any reservations that ardent fans of the historical figures might react badly?
“I was slightly concerned about some of the more recent women, that people who knew the more recently deceased might look at it and say ‘That’s not what my grandmother was like’. But it’s a sketch show – it’s big and bold and clearly not a realistic representation. It has not been thoroughly researched. Generally it felt to me like the heart of the humour was in the right place.”
Who else would you have liked to have had in your psychiatrist’s chair?
“There are loads! I was saying to Jeremy at the end of filming, ‘This could just go on and on and on and on…’
There were some actually that we did for the pilot which I’d have liked to see more of. Katy Brand did a brilliant Joan of Ark as a teenager. Katy had this lovely idea of using the chainmail hood on her armour as a sort of hoodie. Elizabeth I would be a good one to see a bit more of because you just see her fleetingly.
But in terms of entirely new characters, maybe somebody like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or some female political figures.”
Maraget Thatcher perhaps?
“I’m sure she wouldn’t be ruled out because the show doesn’t shy away from things. But the more recent women have been done in a really sweet, rather safe way. When it’s a very raw thing you’d have to handle it with kid gloves…”
While we are on the subject of strong female figures. Who has inspired you during your career?
“There are a whole load of women I hugely admire: Judi Dench and French and Saunders were a big influence when I was starting out in comedy. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters I wanted to be and still admire massively.
When I was younger, I loved people like Beryl Reid and Irene Handl – really strong actresses who could also do comedy.”
You’ve been quite involved in the campaign to get rid of the stigma attached to mental illness. Did that influence your decision to take up the role of a psychiatrist?
“I was slightly wary at the beginning – I wanted to make sure Psychobitches wasn’t trivialising mental health issues. And I don’t think it does because we don’t go into any kind of diagnosis at any point. It’s quite clear that I’m a bit of a rubbish therapist! At no point do we say ‘Here is a person well known for being bi-polar’ and take the mickey out of it. It’s very clearly a cartoon version of therapy.”
As well as Psychobitches, you star in BBC4’s Up The Women (tonight, 8:30pm). What’s it like working with such a strong casts?
“I’m almost always drawn to ensemble pieces – I like being surrounded by people. I did a one-woman play a long time ago, which was actually a very good play and very funny, but I just didn’t enjoy it. I don’t want to be on stage on my own. That’s not why I went into this business. I really like being surrounded by good, funny people or good, clever people depending on whether I’m doing comedy or drama and working with them and reacting off them.”
What projects have you got in the pipeline?
“I’m co-writing a sitcom script with my brother and I’m writing a book – on my own, very frightening! My brother and I have been writing together on and off for years and we’re about to start writing a third series of our radio show Incredible Women too.”
You must have a very creative family…
“Lots of creative impulses – but no money! My dad’s an artist, my mum used to write children’s stories and my brother writes. We all did that when we were growing up. My mum used to teach me to tap dance in our family kitchen. There was lots of that kind of stuff going on… lots of singing around the house!
My daughter is a really good dancer actually. She’s a good singer too, and a good actress – it’s kind of annoying! My son is funny because he’s really laid back and he appears not to be that interested in acting and then he does it and he’s actually really good.”
Do your children watch you on the telly?
“They do now. For a long time they didn’t and couldn’t. I was filming Nighty Night when my son was about seven – and he really couldn’t sit at home and watch that! They still haven’t seen Nighty Night actually…”
They must think your job is pretty cool…
“I’m sure they think I’m embarrassing some of the time! But I think there’s a little bit of the cool thing because I work with a lot of cool people. That’s where I really score.
At the moment I’m working with this guy called Doc Brown, who is a comedian, rapper and actor, and my son thinks that is brilliant. And I’ve worked with Al Murray and, you know, I might go to a party and have a chat with Dara O’Briain or someone they know might tweet me. That’s the kind of thing my kids get really excited about… so it’s not me that’s cool, I just happen to know some cool people!”
Talking of cool people, Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss appears in Psychobitches as Joan Crawford (click here to see him for yourself…)
“My kids love Sherlock – as do I – so they were very impressed to hear I was working with Mark Gatiss. God, I’d love a role in Sherlock.
Or maybe I could play a Doctor Who monster or something. That’d be brilliant. I’ve done a couple of audio Doctor Whos and it’s got an enourmous fan base. People know it inside out. It’s brilliant. I get people tweeting me about it and it’s so nice.”
Sherlock aside, what other programmes would you like to get your teeth into?
“I really want to do more drama, in addition to comedy – I don’t want to stop doing comedy! I’d love to get a part in a really good, chunky drama. I love period dramas and I do like gritty dramas, but if it’s too relentless I get a bit weary of it. I like things where there is a bit of light and shade. I can take a whole lot of grit as long as there is pearl in there as well!”
What kind of telly do you sit down and watch?
“I love Mad Men. I’m a bit behind but very excited about catching up with all of that. I was about to say I’m not a fan of reality TV – and generally I’m not, I disapprove of them! – but I do really love the Apprentice.”
Are you in charge of the remote control at home?
“Of course not! I’ve got a teenage son. I never even get to hold the damn thing!”
Rebecca Front stars in Playhouse Presents… Psychobitches (tonight, 9:00pm, Sky Arts 1) and Up The Women (tonight, 8:30pm, BBC4)