Rebecca Front Takes Centre Stage

Rebecca Front

Looking back over a multifaceted career, the BAFTA Award-winning actress talks about her path into comedy, working with Armando Iannucci and being on the end of a Tucker-bashing.

After 30 years in the business, Rebecca Front has found herself firmly ensconced in the league of comedy icons. Quite literally, in fact – on new show Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy, she’s joined on a sofa by fellow panelist Barry Cryer and the eponymous host, alongside guests like Hugh Dennis and Tony Robinson. Front pitches it perfectly as a “curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea showâ€?. A celebration of mainstream television’s comedic pantheon, it is precisely the sort of show to relax to at the day’s end.

It is also the sort of unchallenging fare that, until recently, you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the star of critically-acclaimed classics like The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, Nighty Night and The Thick Of It. So what how does the BAFTA and British Comedy Award-winning actress think her younger self would react if she knew that three decades later all her effort would be so very worth it?

“I think I would have been very chuffed that I was going to get the chance to do those things, because inevitably you only go into this sort of job if you have a certain amount of self-belief,â€? Front explains. “But equally, I don’t know a single performer who isn’t lacking self-confidence and I don’t think I’ve changed that much from how I was when I started out. I’m still quite insecure but equally there’s a bit in the back of my mind that thinks ‘I could do that part’. So I don’t think I’d be very different.â€?

Although her much younger self grew up with comedy-loving parents and caught the performance bug after they took her to recordings of Spike Milligan’s seminal Q Series, Front reveals that she “didn’t really set out to do comedyâ€?. Hoping to get into acting, she made the pragmatic choice to go to Oxford University. But after repeatedly being relegated to auditions for minor roles by “the tall, willowy, beautiful girls who were getting seen for the leadâ€?, frustration soon set in.

With one path obstructed by the questionable judgment of Oxford’s drama society, Front found herself welcomed by the institution at which so many of the UK’s most respected comic performers cut their teeth. “I went to an audition for the Oxford Revue and there were hardly any women there. I thought: ‘Hang on, this might be a chance to shine and do something different.’ Coupled with the fact that I wrote songs anyway it just seemed like the obvious thing to do.â€?

Rising to become the Revue’s president, it was here that she formed a double act with close friend Sioned Wiliam (who herself went on to become controller of comedy at ITV), which was commissioned for a show on the BBC’s Radio 4. In need of a producer for its second series, Wiliam suggested a former Revue colleague who Front had only met a couple of times at Oxford. His name was Armando Iannucci.

Thankfully, their third meeting would produce a long and fruitful partnership. After the series ended, Iannucci asked Front to do a few sketches on The Mary Whitehouse Experience radio show, which led to memorable roles in the early 1990s in On The Hour (the radio show that became The Day Today), The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You, alongside the likes of Chris Morris and Steve Coogan.

Today these shows are revered by seasoned comedy fans, but Front says that while everyone involved at the time knew they were onto something good, she never considered the legacy being established. “When you look back you tend to think: ‘The Day Today was a bit of a classic.’ The critics seemed to like it but the viewing figures were quite low, so it didn’t feel like it was making a massive impact. It didn’t feel earth-shattering; it just felt like we had made a really good show.â€?

Despite working alongside some of comedy’s strongest male personalities in an era when comedy offered women fewer opportunities, she never felt denied a voice or that her ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously. This was partly down to equal environment that Iannucci encouraged, she says. “He’s got quite a unique ability to bring out the best in everybody. I don’t think it even occurs to him that it’s a man and a woman – he just thinks in terms of characters and people’s abilities.â€?

Iannucci certainly knew how able Front was when selecting her for the prime role of Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It. Though when he called to offer it to her, Front admits it took a while to realise what was being proposed. “I was co-writing something for Armando, and I was half-expecting some notes on the script we’d just delivered. I was quite surprised he was talking about the next series of The Thick Of It. He knew that I loved the show, so I thought he’d rung me up to tell me there’s another series. Then he said: ‘Do you fancy it?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said he was thinking the new minister should be a woman and what did I think? I still didn’t know if he was offering it to me or asking me my opinion so I said it sounded like a good idea. He thought I was being incredibly cool and stand-offish, when actually I was thinking: ‘Oh my god, that’s brilliant!’â€?

Of course, accepting meant taking the full force of a foul-mouthed evisceration from Peter Capaldi’s scabrous Malcolm Tucker. Having already collaborated with many of the big beasts of comedy, rather than flinching from in the face of a Tucker-bashing, Front reveled in it. “I think I might have liked it slightly too much, because I’ve mentioned it to other people and they all found it quite intimidating. In the context of the show it’s hilarious, but there’s something even funnier about it when you’re in a room and it’s Peter, who’s this really gentle, softly-spoken bloke, suddenly transforming with all the veins popping and his eyes bulging.â€?

Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy begins Sunday June 16 at 7:30pm on Gold.