Rebecca Front on life with chronic claustrophobia: 'When I'm in a lift all I'm thinking is, I hope I can get out alive'
She's terrified of confined spaces and hasn't used the Tube for 20 years. Bafta award-winning actress Rebecca Front, best known for roles as a cop or MP, tells Hannah Stephenson how she learns to live with chronic claustrophobia.
You won't generally find actress Rebecca Front in a lift, on a Tube train, in a windowless room, basement or tunnel. For years she has suffered from claustrophobia, which could have been pretty catastrophic for her career and blighted her life in general, had she not sought therapy.
The Bafta-winning actress, best known for her roles as MP Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It and DCS Jean Innocent in ITV's Lewis, has tried hypnotherapy (unsuccessfully) but now has cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which she says helps her through difficult moments.
"When I'm in a lift it's completely terrifying, but irrationally so. I'm shaking from head to toe waiting for it to arrive, standing with other people queuing to get in the lift and thinking, 'You have no idea how terrified I am'. Everybody else is just thinking of what they're going to do when they get to whatever floor they're going to. All I'm thinking is, 'I hope I get out of this alive, I hope I don't have a heart attack'.
"I haven't used the Tube for over 20 years. I can't ever envisage getting on the Tube."
Several traumatic events when she was 11 – a family picnic during which her non-swimmer father nearly drowned in a river, followed by the sudden death of her grandfather from a heart attack two days later – made her terrified of letting her parents out of her sight for fear of another near-death encounter.
"It was what now would be referred to as post traumatic stress. I did genuinely think that if I didn't keep a close eye on mum, then she was going to be next. I like to think that nowadays, there might be a bit more guidance for kids and a bit more psychological help, but at the time, no one understood that sort of stuff."
She was sent to an educational psychologist and was home-schooled for a short time before changing schools, where her mother, a teacher and children's writer, managed to secure a job. The thought that her mother was in the same building went some way to quell her anxieties and the young Front soon settled in.
Her various phobias are highlighted in her latest book, Curious: True Stories And Loose Connections, among a collection of random, extremely amusing autobiographical anecdotes and yarns, giving her thoughts on everything from learning to swim and unwanted visitors, to the pros and cons of fame and her take on cosmetic surgery.
"The claustrophobia has always been there, so in that sense it's made a significant impact but, by and large, I don't let it impact on my life most of the time. So I don't let it affect my work hugely," she says.
"I remember doing a TV series years ago, set in a magic theatre, and the producer asked if I would be sawn in half, which – of course – involves getting in a box. I said, 'There's no way in a million years you're going to get me into that tiny box!'
"But generally, I'm probably at my most relaxed when I'm working. I love acting and being on set and I'm very chilled about all that."
When she first met her husband, TV producer-turned-writer Phil Clymer, a keen traveller, she realised her fear of flying was going to be a problem.
"Flying stayed every bit as hard for me for the first 10 years or so of our relationship, but the point is, I did it. So in that sense, it was a triumph."
When their children, Oliver and Tilly, came along, her fears eased even more. "We flew long-haul to New York and Los Angeles, and because I was adamant that they shouldn't see my anxiety, I smiled and watched films and read stories to them as if I was a normal, relaxed traveller, rather than someone who'd spent the night before praying for fog to ground all flights so that we could just stay home."
Today, Front (50), is known largely for her comedy, having guested on panel shows including Have I Got News For You? and Radio 4's The News Quiz, where her natural humour shines. She also appeared on Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge.
"Humour was a big part of growing up," she reflects. "It was a valuable currency in our household to be funny. We were always trying to make each other laugh. My dad's a very funny man when he gets going. I remember clearly, from a young age, thinking, 'I want to be able to do that, to be in a room full of people and just have them laughing their heads off', because he does it effortlessly."
Brought up in a middle-class Jewish household in Essex, Front's mother Sheila was a teacher who wrote children's books while her father Charles, an artist, illustrated them.
She studied English at Oxford University and was the first female president of the Oxford Revue, their equivalent of Cambridge Footlights, which gave Front her first taste of her future career. Her brother, Jeremy Front, is also a writer.
She's never been pigeonholed or typecast in a role, for which she is thankful.
"I've always thought of myself just as an actor, whether it's straight or funny. I've never thought of myself as a comedy actor."
As for fame, she tries not to think about it.
"I never use the F-word, because I don't think I am [famous]. I am aware that there are certain situations where people recognise me and certain situations where people don't recognise me, so I can go through 70% of my life without anybody giving me a second glance.
"For the other 30%, people turn around and stare at me. It's an odd mixture.
"It's best if you don't think about it too much, because you can start to screw yourself up, worrying about if you are as famous as you were before."
In everyday life, she and her husband often work in the same room in their house in London.
"It's a hive of industry. Very often we sit in our living room opposite each other with our laptops, chatting away. I'd love to tell you that he's a distraction, but we've been together a long time. I run things past him. He's very honest so it's really valuable. He's very tolerant."
She's currently filming a new series of Lewis alongside Kevin Whately, and will be appearing in the second series of Up The Women, the suffragette sitcom on BBC Two, and in a new series of the Sky Arts 1 sketch show Psychobitches. Her career goes from strength to strength but she's quick to play it down.
"When you're an actor, you are always assuming that every job is going to be your last, so it never feels like my career has gone from strength to strength," says Front. "It feels like, 'I've just finished that job so I'll probably never work again!'
"I'm only too delighted if I can keep earning a living and do what I love doing."
- Curious: True Stories And Loose Connections by Rebecca Front, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99