“I’m just a person and quite a dull one and I’m sorry about that. I feel it’s a disappointment to journalists. They think I am what I play. But I’m not like my character and also I have quite a dull life. So there isn’t much for journalists to write about”.
In fact she’s only a bit like her characters and not really dull at all, but Caroline Quentin, highly successful at just forty, is having a moan about the tabloids. Actresses often do. When they’re not acting, they’re carping about publicity. And when they’re not doing either of those two things they’re mostly publicising themselves. And often in the tabloids. But Quentin has had her fair share of involuntary down market exposure in the red tops. Firstly she was perfect for them as what she describes as “Mr and Mrs Funny” with her then husband comic Paul Merton who suddenly departed leaving her red eyed and besieged by paparazzi. And then in a further orgy of tabloid schadenfreude Merton settled down with another actress, who they could hardly believe had been her understudy in The Live Bed Show she had done with Merton in the West End. These days he’s just sad when she looks back at the break up of her marriage. But her life recovered its equilibrium fairly swiftly when she met Sam Farmer, who was several years younger than her and worked in the production team of Men Behaving Badly.
And that series was the other reason she has also filled acres of newsprint. In the era of Loaded and misogyny masquerading as irony, she became the entire female nation’s answer to The Lad. And a witty answer it was too. Dorothy, her character in Men Behaving Badly was biting, acid even, but always fun and more importantly managed to keep her boyfriend. In so doing, she gave every woman in the land with a man not just hope but a series of one liners that could get them through the ironing, past the football socks and over the inadequacy of most men and their chaotic emotional laundry basket of masculinity.
“I said to one journalist ‘I am not written by somebody’. I have a completely different perception of the universe. I actually have a three-dimensional existence and that includes an emotional existence and if they can’t see that then .. Duh?” But even when she’s going on like this, and frankly being high maintenance, it’s hard to think badly of her because she is exhibiting what is probably her best quality as an actress, the feeling that she’s a real laugh to be with and probably rather kind. Simon Nye, the writer of Men Behaving Badly, describes it thus: “With Dorothy you could feel the venom but you absolutely knew why she would be fun to be around, why you’d be happy to be there with her.” And in rehearsal he says “she was never in a bad mood. She was never less than bouncy. And you need that buoyancy.”
In Jonathan Creek, where as Maddie she quips her way through some pretty silly plots with Alan Davies and in her sharp and newest show Kiss Me Kate which returns for its third series in October on the BBC, she accomplishes much of the same trick. Edgy but likeable, ordinary but with a highlight of glamour, domestic yet with a shot of sexiness she manages to be what she describes as “bossy nurse” to seriously reliable comic effect. She is just rather good at it. And if you ask her why this might be so she starts off confidently, like a slightly precocious fourteen year old in a biology class, to give a faultless explanation by first repeating the question. “I think I’m good at it because…” And then she stops completely, collapsing into giggles and finishes up with “I don’t have a single clue.” Although she probably does know. She’s just not letting on. But she’s an actress, so you believe the answer. She’s certainly not over come with shyness. That is not particularly one of her qualities.
When she first did Men Behaving Badly she’d gone up for it “among a million other sit coms I didn’t get.” She didn’t particularly like the scripts either because, she says bluntly “the women’s parts were shit. I was just the one who always said “Ooh No” when anyone ever mentioned the word penis. “Ooh don’t be so disgusting”. The way she was first written Dorothy was from the dark ages. I thought it was really marginalising. Upstairs there was the pretty blonde who just showed her bottom. That was Leslie (Ash). And downstairs was the bossy nurse who never gets any jokes and who always talks about hysterectomies.” So basically Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques then? “Ha ha ha. Yes and the boys getting all the jokes,”
This didn’t last for long. In rehearsal she complained. To whom? “The whole room. I don’t know how I had the guts because I really needed the work. I don’t know why I didn’t just shut up and say thank you I’m really pleased to be here. But I was horrible and really quite irritating. Though I think Simon’s forgiven me.” She says this not without a little pride. And Simon Nye pretty much corroborates the story. “I don’t want to overestimate it all. There were two main arguments early on. After that she was very loyal. There was one plot when a pretty woman came to stay and Harry (Enfield, who was in only the first series) slept with her. Caroline said that was just wish fulfilment on my part and it wouldn’t happen. It was a bit awkward because she said it in rehearsal and that’s quite late to change things. And the plot rather hinged on it. There was another one too. But it was pretty feisty of her to speak up because then she wasn’t really a star, the other three were but she wasn’t.” The scripts did change though and Nye says “I was a bit scared of Caroline at that stage, but I realised that what she wanted was just better jokes.”
Men Behaving Badly was Nye’s first sit-com. The writers of Kiss Me Kate, John Morton and Chris Langham, have none of that youthful inexperience. And Quentin rightly describes what they produce as “having no fat on it.” Very traditional in form, Kiss Me Kate never gets close to touching the hem of the net curtains of The Royle Family, but equally it keeps several generations’ distance from the dreadful world of latter day Terry & June. The Kate of the title is a therapist. “I seem to have gone from the laddie culture to the therapy culture. I’ve just been offered a part playing another therapist. I must be into my therapy years.” But her professional life only impinges on the show and the character in so far as she is a woman who knows all the right things to say and do and yet doesn’t use any of them in her life at all. To describe the show as amiable would be to underestimate both the discipline of the writing and the sheer number and size of the laughs. It lives in a very contemporary world where, to take one example at random from the preview tapes, a lesbian is not funny merely because she is lesbian but because of the carefully woven confusion that her presence causes to Dorothy and her immediate circle.
Quentin displays a great sense of fun underneath all the comedy she does which has a lot to do with her upbringing. She is the youngest by nine years of three sisters now 49, 50 and 52 years old. “My mum was very glam. And when they were teenagers they used to raid her wardrobe and put on big chiffon frocks and matching winkle pickers and come into the kitchen and sing Beverley Sisters type songs or Sandie Shaw or Dusty. It was a kind of impromptu vaudeville for anyone around: my mum, dad, the neighbours the animals.” Animals? “Two dogs, a rabbit, a pony, goldfish, three budgies a hamster.. Oh yes and a cat. I just used to just think how glamorous and fabulous my sisters were. It must have had some kind of effect. It just made me want to be an actress.”
Her sister Tina, whose almost ten year older than her, started to work at theatres like the fringe venue in South London, The Albany, where in later years Vic Reeves Big Night Out started. “I used to see Tina in shows there”, says Quentin “and they were pretty f****ing far out. Amazing political shows with fabulous glamorous costumes. I loved it. I still love going in the stage door. I love the one at The Palace Theatre where it says ‘Hundreds of famous people have walked through these portals’. I think that’s just a bloody marvellous way to start your night’s work.” She saw it every night for about a year when she got her first job in the chorus in Les Miserables.
She answered an ad when that contract came to an end and finished up in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe with among others Arthur Smith. “I blame him for my career really” she says cheerily. “We got on and he wrote Live Bed Show for me.” He then also wrote parts for in French Kiss and An Evening With Gary Lineker. It was that Edinburgh season that catapulted her into the comedy scene. Her drawing power from telly has meant that she has been able to return to the theatre acting at the National and in the West End and recently directing at Watford, but for many years she retained her connections with those new roots through appearing every Sunday with the Comedy Store improv team in London. She no longer goes since she split with Merton. “On stage trust is the one thing you have to have.” She laughs. “I think we’d be a bit wary.” But the improv was very important to her development as an actress. “It really got rid of a lot of fear for me”.
She is now earning enough money to have recovered from her former agent defrauding her of just over £400,000. She doesn’t know whether this is the last series of Kiss Me Kate. But Philadelphia cheese will keep her and Sam in nappies for a while. And she has also got a two-part drama called The Innocent on ITV this autumn. And she has been intending to take time off and indulge herself in the odd pastime like bird watching, which she loves. She’s an enthusiastic amateur twitcher rather than a rigorous anorak about birds. While she has work lined up for next autumn the time of was supposed to enable her to enjoy a second baby. Sadly she miscarried. But once over that it is unlikely that she will spend too long away from either the screen or the boards both because she is in demand and because as she says “acting is the only thing I can do to make a living. It’s fun and it’s very sociable.” And you realise talking to her that she indeed she is an actress through and through. Both in and out of interviews.