'When I was a kid, I remember my dad having people in fits of laughter ... I thought, I want to be able to do that'
As her new book is published, actress Rebecca Front talks to Hannah Stephenson about managing anxiety and the importance of humour in both life and work
Rebecca Front - best known for playing MP Nicola Murray in hit political satire The Thick of It and Chief Superintendent Innocent in ITV's Lewis - is a great observer of the oddities of everyday life. It's a skill that's given her a bank of material for her latest collection of stories, entitled Impossible Things Before Breakfast, charting a myriad aspects of her life, from being Jewish, to dinner parties, sitting watching the stars with her son, and visiting the dentist who had "the chairside manner of a torturer".
Yet, behind the humour, anxiety has featured heavily in the world of the Bafta-winning actress and comedy writer, whose credits also include Nighty Night and Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, among other comedy gems.
London-born Front (54) is a self-confessed hypochondriac. Visits to medical experts for a variety of treatments, including a colonoscopy and a troublesome ankle, coupled with her obsession with self-diagnosing on the internet, make for highly amusing reading.
And while she's a great believer that laughter is the best medicine, the very real anguish of her witnessing, aged 11, the near-drowning of her father in a lake on a family holiday in Yorkshire left her traumatised. He was paddling when his legs got caught in the roots of a tree, he tripped and was dragged under the water.
It was a close call and the trauma led to Front staying off school for a while to look after her mother. She recalls the story in her previous book, Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections.
She is now an ambassador for Anxiety UK, although she doesn't know where her anxiety came from.
"I think anxiety is a learned behaviour. My mum is very anxious and I sort of reference that in the book. My grandmother, her mum, was very anxious and probably my other grandmother was, with hindsight."
She's been claustrophobic since childhood and has occasional panic attacks, doesn't travel on the Tube and tries to avoid long-haul flights.
"I am very fortunate that I don't get random panic attacks, which a lot of people do," Front explains. "Thank God, I kind of know when one is coming, because it's always triggered.
"For example, if I've got to go on a long-haul flight and I haven't done one for a long time, it will just make me very anxious the night before. Then I do it and I'm fine."
She says she can hide her symptoms from most people. "I usually get very hot, either I hyperventilate, or I am just holding my breath. I get quite shaky. I just look scared."
She manages it through deep breathing and cognitive behavioural therapy.
"I've had a lot of cognitive therapy, so I've got a lot of strategies for dealing with it. I do lots of breathing exercises. I also do yoga. I can control it and I know what's going to trigger it."
Some of the amusing anecdotes in the book are written against a backdrop of hypochondria, although she stresses that hasn't had an impact on her career.
"Health anxiety doesn't really impact on my career in any way and, again, it's something that probably, growing up, the kids were not really aware of. But it just means there's a low background rumble all the time that I hope the symptom isn't what I think it is.
"There is always something that I am worrying about. Most of the time, nobody would be aware of it, but I know and in my quiet moments that little bit of my brain starts going, 'You ought to have that checked out' and then I don't get it checked out, because I think I am being ridiculous. Then the fact that I haven't had it checked out worries me even more." Her husband, producer Phil Clymer, whom she met at the BBC, tries to stop her from self-diagnosing, she says. They've been together 30 years, married for 20, and have two children, Oliver (19) and Tilly (17).
For much of her life, humour has been the great reliever of all stress. "I think I probably knew quite early on that humour was a good way to win people over and defuse difficult situations.
"My first performance at school was playing a comedy character like Hilda Ogden. I remember getting laughs and my mum rolling her eyes afterwards. I was always drawn to playing those parts."
Born in Stoke Newington, north London, to Sheila and Charles - her mother wrote children's books and her father illustrated them - both parents, who are still alive, are very funny, she says with a smile.
"My dad, in particular, is very confidently funny in a room. He is just a great raconteur, very quick, and funny holding court, but in a lovely way. I remember being a kid and just watching him having people in fits of laughter. I was thinking, 'I want that, I want to be able to do that', because it felt like it was a lovely, warm way to be able to make people cry with laughter."
She went to Oxford University, becoming the first female president of the Oxford Revue. While she says sexism must have existed in that generation, she didn't experience it personally, although she recalls one episode in her career after Oxford which made her feel uncomfortable.
"I remember the first photo-shoot I ever did and the photographer had me perched on a little stool. I was doing funny faces, it was a comedy thing. Then he said, 'Can you lift your skirt slightly higher above the knee?' I asked, 'Sorry, why?' He said, 'Just for a better shot.' I didn't do it."
She's currently playing the "formidable mother" of lecherous cleric Osborne Whitworth in the new series of Poldark.
"I am drawn to strong female roles in the sense that they are often more interesting, but actually I quite like playing vulnerable women as well, or strong women who are also vulnerable," Front says.
"I think it's possibly an age thing, that people tend to think of a woman in authority as an older woman, so the fact I am middle-aged makes people think I can play the boss."
For all her anxieties, one place she really feels at home is in front of the camera.
"I love being on set. I am more relaxed when I've got the camera pointing at me and we are recording," says Front.
"The thing that most people would probably find really terrifying, I love."
Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Rebecca Front is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99