Caroline Quentin: 'Mum was bipolar and I think there's elements of it in me'
Actor Caroline Quentin's become one of the country's best loved TV stars, with appearances in a string of hits from Men Behaving Badly to Jonathan Creek. She talks to Gabrielle Fagan about marriage and losing her sister and mum
Caroline Quentin's rarely been off our screens since she found fame in Nineties BBC comedy Men Behaving Badly, alongside roles in dramas from Jonathan Creek to crime series Blue Murder, and presenting roles on series such as Restoration Home.
Yet, in spite of her ubiquitous presence on television it is hard to believe that she is celebrating 40 years in showbusiness.
Married to Sam Farmer, the couple have two children, Emily (17) and Will (14) and live in Devon.
Currently as president of Coeliac UK she is helping to launch the charity's drive to make gluten-free food more readily available to sufferers of the condition when eating out.
As someone who has coeliac disease she is well placed to explain the embarrassing problems that it can cause and she does in a typically candid way.
She says: "I have so many embarrassing moments because I have coeliac disease. It's a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and I was finally diagnosed two years ago. Symptoms can include vomiting and diarrhoea to nausea and bloating, but worst of all the urgency of needing a toilet.
"Most recently on stage in a play, The Hypocrite, I realised, 'Oh my God, I have to get to the loo right now!' and I literally raced through my lines, shot off stage, trying to rip off my period costume as I went, and hurled myself into the toilet. It was terrifying to think I might have an embarrassing accident in front of an audience at the Royal Shakespeare Company!" she adds tongue-in-cheek.
"There have been countless times in my career that it's interrupted work - I've been filming scenes and had to run off - not to mention the regular occasions in my everyday life when the only option's been to use a supermarket car parks, lay-bys, or motorway verges. It feels humiliating, and you get used to feeling vaguely panic-stricken a lot of the time.
But it is not just the humiliation that worries her: "Even a minute trace of gluten can make me very ill - it's poison to me - which makes eating out a nightmare. Food's easily cross-contaminated if the same utensils are used to prepare normal food and a gluten-free dish. I've had so many meals in fabulous posh restaurants and then had to rush out and be sick afterwards."
Leaving those problems aside we wonder if - having spent four decades in a notoriously image-conscious profession - she would every consider having a facelift or other cosmetic surgery.
It is certainly not something on her to-do list: "I don't like the idea of anything like that, although I know my face is going to get older and saggier. That's just life and, luckily, I'm not someone who's made a living out of being glamorous.
"I love changing my hair colour though and I've gone from a redhead to a blonde because I couldn't face going grey. I'm not into my appearance particularly and rarely look in a mirror when I'm home on our farm in Devon."
While she accepts that her appearance will change with the passing of time, she does have one great dread - her children leaving home.
She makes the point quite forcibly: "Sam and I can't bear the thought of it. We're such a great unit of four and get on so well - the kids are always taking the p*** out of us! We joke we may be forced to lock the kids in their rooms until they're 30 or perhaps stalk them wherever they go.
"Emily wants a career in show business - probably musical theatre - and it will be so weird when she's away at college and there's no hits from the musicals blasting out. Luckily, friends tell us these days children are like boomerangs - they keep coming back. Motherhood's definitely the best role I've ever had."
But she admits that there have been trials in her life too.
"I've been pretty lucky, but had tough times, like everyone, including a couple of miscarriages and losing my eldest sister and my mother. I can have quite extreme swings of mood - my mother was bipolar - and I think there's elements of that in me.
"If I get low, I go walking or busy myself gardening as I'm a firm believer in the healing power of open spaces and recognising the enormity and beauty of nature. A sense of humour's vital - I always try to see the funny side of life."
It helps, of course, that she is in a strong marriage, which she admits is vitally important to her.
"It means everything. It was love at first sight when we met on the set of Men Behaving Badly and we've been together 18 years. I'm 56 and he's 44, but the age gap's never bothered us - we take it in turns to be grown-ups! We swapped roles when we had the kids, quite unusual then, and Sam stayed at home and brought up them up, while I was free to go on location or tour."
She is eternally grateful for his help in allowing her to keep going with her career and says she would be willing to swap roles to help him with his new venture if he asked.
"I don't know how he coped on his own with a tiny baby and a toddler in those early years. Sam's retrained as a cosmetic scientist and created his own unisex hair and skincare range for teens, SAMFARMER, and I've vowed that if he ever wanted to expand his workload, I'd turn down a part to free him up more.
"It would be a sacrifice, but he's made plenty for me in the past and now it's his turn."
Caroline Quentin is patron of Coeliac UK and is helping to launch the charity's 'Gluten Freevolution' to expand the options for safe gluten-free food when eating out. Visit www.coeliac.org.uk