INTERVIEW: Caroline Quentin on her time at the RSC and Stratford… and her desire to return

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Caroline Quentin pictured outside the Swan Theatre by Mark Williamson

Caroline Quentin is currently playing the outrageously vain Lady Fancyfull in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s must-see production of The Provoked Wife (which ends 7th September), the 1697 comic drama. Here she tells Gill Sutherland all about it.

Before I’ve even met Caroline Quentin I feel like I know her. She’s one of those actors that I seem to have grown up with – like many women I related to her as Dorothy, the long-suffering girlfriend in hit 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly, and later as the wise-cracking investigating journalist Maddy Magellan, helping Jonathan Creek to solve crimes. We’re also a similar age (she’s 60 next year) and have teenage children. She’s married to Sam Farmer, who she met when he was a runner on the set of Men Behaving Badly, shortly after her divorce from her first husband, the comic Paul Merton.

In real life Caroline is as chummy and relateable as the characters she plays on screen: she’s chatty and funny as she tells me about the ridiculous fun she is having playing Lady Fancyfull as we sit and talk at the RSC.

Your family home is in Devon – how is life in Stratford?

Great! I’m staying in a cottage on Waterside. I’m mostly on my own but my daughter is with me at the moment, as is my dog, a little Jack Russell. I’ve got four dogs and if I could bring them all with me I would.

Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull

Lady Fancyfull is an absurd and juicy character and your performance is hilariously brilliant. What did you think when you first encountered her.

I read her and I thought “brilliant” because she’s a female fop in a restoration play and there aren’t many of them. I suppose Mrs Malaprop [from Sheridan’s 1775 comedy-of-manners The Rivals] comes under the same category but she’s not quite as outrageous. Lady Fancyfull is a narcissist and I think what Vanbrugh’s done really brilliantly is to write someone who is so narcissistic that she’s become isolated, she doesn’t understand anything about the world. Her servants say nice things because they are paid to or because she’ll lose her rag if they don’t. She’s a real tragic-comic figure.

The cast of The Provoked Wife is very impressive – RSC favourites Jonathan Slinger, Alexandra Gilbreath and John Hodgkinson also star – there is a tremendous energy on stage… how is the vibe backstage?

I’m sure all actors always say “we’re great friends” but we are a stupidly happy company. We’re a dear company and everyone’s so sweet. Some of the guys are doing their first jobs and they’re so committed and so adorable. Then you’ve got people like Jon Slinger and Alexandra Gilbreath who are just at the top of their game. For me to work with people like that is just a thrill. I met Alex before but never worked with her and always wanted to. I always thought she looked like a nice woman and she is! Then Jon [Slinger] I saw in a play called Absolute Hell at the National Theatre about a year and a half ago and to my own embarrassment I didn’t know who he was. I asked my friend “Who is that? He’s a brilliant actor.” I just love him. Those people will now be in my life for ever. I feel very lucky. Companies don’t always gel – I think it helps if you’ve got a good play.

Tell us how you got involved in the production.

When director Phil Breen sent the play to me and asked if I was interested I thought it was one of the best roles I’d ever read. She comes from such a lot of money but you never hear of any other relations. I think she’s a dear. She reminds me of one of those people that you meet that have never quite entered adulthood; they’ve got stuck around the age of 11 – she may even be slightly younger than that! In my invented story for her she was probably bereaved of her mother at that time and raised by a father that just gave her money. I really feel for her because she’s really lonely and basically pays her French maid to be her friend.

You obviously have a lot of affection for Lady Fancyfull… By the end of the play she is rather cruelly exposed, how is that?

All the characters are so flawed in the play. She’s laid bare by the end of the play because of the carelessness of the other characters as she’s a figure of fun, so they don’t think she can feel anything. Playwright John Vanbrugh is very clever and was ahead of his time and a man of the world. I think he really liked and rated women and saw women as flawed as men – not to be idolised.

Of course this isn’t your RSC debut – you were in The Hypocrite in 2017…

Yes, director Phillip Breen invited me to meet him and Richard Bean [who wrote the hugely funny political period romp] up in Hull, where the play was first performed. Sometimes you find people who are just easy to communicate with and I feel that with both Richard and Phillip.

When this play came up Phil just phoned me and asked if I wanted to do this part. So I read it and told him I really did. It was that simple. I’m so glad I did it because I’ve never been a member of the RSC until The Hypocrite – apart from Les Miserables [Caroline was in the chorus of the original 1985 RSC production].

Would you be tempted by a Shakespeare play at the RSC?

I’ve never done a Shakespeare play and I’m nearly 60 and I want to because he’s our greatest writer. I’ve always wanted to come to Stratford to do one. Last year I was offered a role but I wasn’t available but now I’ve got my feet under the table you’ll never see the back of me. I emailed Gregory Doran and I said “Dear Greg I really want to do a Shakespeare play. Please can you think of me. Love Caroline.” I just thought there’s no point in not telling him!

Has he replied?

He just sent a big kiss – you know the kiss emoji. So I think that’s a good sign!

So the 64 million dollar question: which Shakespeare role would you want to play?

Do you know what’s really embarrassing? I don’t really know the plays very well. I shall have to wait to be offered something and then read the plays as I do with everything else!

I like Stratford. It’s a nice place to be. I’ve got to be honest, part of it is when you’re shopping in M&S and people come up to you and say “I really enjoyed the play last night”. It doesn’t really happen anywhere else. It feels like being part of a theatrical community because even if they didn’t like the play they still want to talk about it.

Have you got plans after this?

I’m in negotiation for a musical at the moment – actually two musicals. So I will be singing next but I don’t know where. They’ve both literally come up in the last ten days so I have to think about what’s good and also about my son, because he’s still at home and is 16 and has two years of school left.

Working in the theatre is more demanding than taking on screen roles. What makes you keep treading the boards?

I’m never happier than when on stage. I love meeting an audience every night, I think it’s what I was put on this earth to do – to communicate. I like writing. I like to see how we can send the words out to people and get a reaction back. I started out as a dancer. I was a hoofer with Bernie Clifton who’s still going and is as adorable as ever. Les Dennis [who plays Colonel Bully in The Provoked Wife] and I both grew up doing variety and that’s all about your audience: how do we make them happy? Whether that’s at summer season when they go back to their caravan park or panto when they’ve traipsed out to see you on a winter’s night. Working with Bernie – who promoted me to do bits of comedy and stuff – it was always about that.

That’s what’s great about being in a Restoration comedy – that you can actually talk to the audience and then turn back and get on with the play again.

I’ve just done an episode of Doc Martin and I’m going down to film in Cornwall again tomorrow – it’s great because I’m with my best friend, Martin Clunes – but then it’s like coming back to my home again once I’m on stage. I started stage work the minute I turned 16 and I’ve been there ever since. There was a block of time in my career when I was mostly doing telly stuff but I still did theatre in between that – big or small. It’s always really been about the audience for me. With telly you do it and then you have to wait. You can smell it in the theatre if they’re having a really good time. If they’re not you know it too because they start to move about in their seats. I just love that.

Do you see any restlessness in The Provoked Wife audience – it is over three hours!

I’d take 10 minutes out definitely and Phil knows that! On those seats in the Swan I think three hours is too much and a lot of our audience are closer to my age than they are to 20. I think your legs start to ache and then you’re not watching the play any more you’re thinking about wanting to move your body about. Phil’s only bloody 40 so he has no idea!

Do you have any anxiety about performing or getting criticism?

I am anxious, I get nervous every night. I’m always quite fearful until I get on. The minute I’m on stage I feel as though I’m in the right place. As for criticism I haven’t read a critic in 30 years. When I use to read them when I was in my 20s if someone said something nice about me like “I love that speech” every night before that speech I’d think “I’m super in this bit” and you get completely distracted. If they don’t like you that’s even worse because you think “Oh God! They hate the way I do this!” Then your head is full of someone else’s thoughts really because it doesn’t really mean anything. So I’ve just stopped reading them and that goes for everything – I don’t look at social media.

Obviously you’re really well known since the 1990s. Is that something that’s ever a burden when you’re out in public?

It’s interesting I’m less well known now than I was when I was doing a lot of telly stuff. But what’s really weird about how telly works now – I don’t watch much television – all the young people can watch these things that I made four million years ago which I can’t remember and they’ll come up to me and say “It’s funny that thing when you went to that thing with Jonathan Creek” and I’ll think “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” It’s nice because they like it. So I guess I’m quite well known but not so well known that it’s ever a problem. I’m not that recognisable any more because my hair’s grey. It’s a nice balance actually.

You worked 25 years before Men Behaving Badly came along. Was there ever a sliding door moment where you thought ‘What would I be doing if that hadn’t happened?’

I would have had to do theatre because I’m virtually incompetent at everything else. I’m a terrible driver. My maths is appalling, I can barely count change from a pound. I don’t have any language skills. I don’t have organisational or secretarial skills. I’m basically just a great useless thing unless I’m on stage! If I was ever going to earn a living I had to do this.

I read that the entertainment gene was already in your family… What do you think your family would make of where you are now?

My father had an RAF background so I don’t think he was that bothered by it really. I think he thought acting was a bit of a strange choice for me to make. Whereas my mother always thought I had an ability. She only died seven years ago so she saw some of my more visible work and was very proud of me. Mum was a very funny and talented woman. Now my daughter is going into the same industry. Emily is 19 and just graduated from the London School of Musical Theatre and she’s going into fulltime jazz hands. She’s just found an agent then she’ll be off in the big wide world trying to work in musicals. She’s a good properly trained singer and good dancer and very good actor.

You had three older sisters. Did they go on to lead ‘sensible’ lives?

I was very close to them and they were very loving but there was a ten-year gap between me and the next oldest. Hazel, my next sister up from me, is retired now. She worked in the NHS and then with people with HIV and Aids before caring for the elderly. She’s a very brilliant clever woman. My other sister Christina is in this business still and she writes libretto for opera. Catherine passed away unfortunately, but animals were her life – particularly horses.

Looking back on things you’ve done and people you’ve met, what’s stayed with you?

Trevor Nunn has been a big influence because I did Les Mis with him and I worked with him in the West End doing Relative Values, the Noel Coward play. I think he’s exceptional to work with because he’s so clever. Mike Alfreds is another director I’ve worked with. He had a company called Method and Madness and he taught me a lot. Then all the great writers like David Renwick and Simon Nye I’ve worked with. I’ve been quite spoilt for good writers. Everybody that you work with ultimately feeds into it. I’m so glad I still enjoy it. I like the audience people and the people in the company.

Growing up who were your heroes?

Comic actor Dick Emery and Antoinette Sibley, the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. They were the only two autographs I ever got and they have actually forged my entire existence!

WHERE AND WHEN: Caroline plays Lady Fancyfull at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre until 7th September. Tickets are available at www.rsc.org.uk