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INTERVIEW: Frances Barber

Posted by Michael Moran
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on Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Regular readers will know that I thought a great deal of Silk,

With the new series starting tonight, I thought today might be a good day to have a chat with the formidable (and fun) Frances Barber, who plays formidable (and fun) new character Caroline Warwick QC.


Michael Moran: The courtroom can have a somewhat theatrical air: What did you do to get a flavour of how real QCs act?

Frances Barber: I went to The Old Bailey and to the Royal Courts Of Justice and just sat in the various galleries for several days . Even though the proceedings are very long & often unfathomable , there is an air of strict tradition & hierarchy. the Judges word really is Law . When there is a jury it seemed to me the Barristers played to them & to the Judge in particular , but there is also an air of professional rivalry between the Defence and Prosecution counsel. They are extremely proud (and rightly so) of their eloquence .

MM: What’s your view on the televising of real trials?

FB: I don’t think its a good idea to televise real trials. Because it is a theatrical arena I think it would inevitably encourage playing to the cameras.

I remember when Leveson started & the counsel questioning Hugh Grant fashioned a 'nonchalantly relaxed'  stance, sloping his body & 'acting' deeply unimpressed, with his face in his hands. He obviously saw the online comments , because the following day he stood up straight & stopped performing. And of course who could ever forget "the woman on the left" ?

Courts have the to power to convict high profile cases which may mean the loss of liberty for some considerable time. I think anything to distract from the vital facts of each case would be detrimental to the seriousness of each individual tragedy.

MM: What’s it like joining a show a season in, when the main cast have already bonded?

FB: Actors are very generous & welcoming creatures. When I joined Dr Who Matt, Arthur & Karen could not have been more expansive in their allowing me into their family & helping me find my feet. It was the same with Maxine, Rupert & Neil. We all want the show to be the best it can be, and working with people you admire as I do all of them was such a joy.

MM: ..and instead of forever being the ingénue learning from Derek Jacobi or Sir Ian McKellen or for that matter Dame Judi Dench, you’re the ‘grown-up’ of the cast this time. What’s that like?

FB: Derek , Ian & Judi have the silliest senses of humour in the world. We rehearsed Madame De Sade next door to where Ian & Patrick Stewart were rehearsing Waiting For Godot . Judi encouraged me to send notes under their door each day saying 'STOP OVERACTING YOU ARE DISTURBING US.' She is a notorious prankster. Consequently I feel older with them than I do with the youngsters.


MM: When your character is first introduced in Silk, we get a sense that there’s an awful lot of fun that you and the writers will be able to have with her – do you have a sense yet of how much of a regular she’ll be?

FB: Peter Moffatt is the most fantastic writer. He writes for women with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly how they might behave in private. At first Caroline Warwick appears to be in total control and is a slow burn. But by episodes five and six we see another side to her as she begins to lose that veneer and is desperate to join their chambers. I cant give more away than that !

MM: Lizzie Gargan in The Street was a great rôle for you – was it as enjoyable to play as to watch? What has been the most fun you’ve had in a television production?

FB: I had loved The Street ever since it first started and was dancing on air when I got that role. 3 reasons, Jimmy McGovern, Bob Hoskins and the director David Blair.

I think David shot it like a movie, Jimmy wrote it as a Northern English Shane, and Bob is one of the most delightful, generous men I have ever worked with.

He quite rightly won an Emmy for it and I was so honoured & thrilled to be his wife. I went on to work for David again in The Fattest Man In Britain starring Tim Spall & Bobby Ball, another favourite job. But my all time fav. has to be Funland shot in Blackpool, with a cast including the genius Mark Gatiss. We had FUN. Manchester really is my second home. I always love working there.

MM: Of all the roles you’ve played, which was the closest to playing yourself?

FB: If I say Cleopatra will you think I sound inflated ? I'm not being ridiculous. Cleopatra is a woman of a certain age, hanging on to the love of her life by the skin of her teeth, but also mature enough to realise her romance has dire consequences. If Shakespeare is domestic as well as political & universal, I empathise with the domestic nature of her character. And there is something incredibly poignant & moving about last love.


MM: The tricky thing about Doctor Who is that with all the time-travelling anyone can be written in or out of the show on the writer’s whim – are there any plans for Madame Kovarian to peep into our universe again?

FB: I have no idea what Steven Moffett's plans are. But I would JUMP at the chance to be in Dr.Who again. I absolutely loved it. It was pure joy.

MM: When you’re watching TV at home are you always ‘on’, noticing the craft of other actors and directors at work? Which shows to you never miss – either for education or relaxation?

FB: No on the contrary I become totally immersed in whatever it is I happen to be watching if its good. As long as the script & acting are first class, I am swept away.At the moment I have become addicted to The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and Homeland. Production values are of course very important, but if the narrative is strong & the actors are well cast & convincing I am just a punter like everyone else.

MM: Stage and screen are naturally different disciplines. Is there one that’s more natural for you?

FB: Whenever I haven't been on stage for a while I do get an itch that i want to scratch . There is something so satisfying about being live, & playing to a different set of people each night .Refining & altering the performance to suit the mood of the house.

During King Lear Ian McKellen never stopped working on his portrayal and we did that for almost a year. But I do also love working in front of a camera. It is a discipline that requires a certain skill to appear completely natural with seventy people busying themselves around you. I’m always learning with each job I do. I have been so fortunate to have worked with the best & picked up tips from them and their method. I'll never stop learning, there’s always something new.

MM: Are you allowed to tell us much about [new film] May I Kill U? yet?

FB: I am VERY excited about May I Kill You?.  The director Stuart Urban, who directed Our Friends In The North,  took himself out during last summer's riots, & shot as much footage as he could as he had had an idea anyway about a vigilante film.

He kind of fitted his original idea around what he shot & has come up with a very zeitgeist version of 21st century London life. Kevin Bishop plays my son,  a bicycle cop who takes it upon himself to stalk the streets of London exacting revenge for insurrection & unlawful acts including sex trafficking.

He kills his victims and films the killings posting them on the Internet and uses Twitter to publicise them. Its a dark. black. sometimes comic morality tale of sorts , in which I play a Waynetta Slob type mother who relies upon him for her survival with tragic consequences. I loved playing her , no makeup, stained teeth a chain smoking alcoholic , mess.

In fact thinking about it I am probably closer to her than Cleopatra if I am brutally honest. (THAT IS A JOKE!)

Silk, a top-quality drama about lawyers, begins its new series on BBC1 at 9pm tonight. If you miss it, you ought to be locked up.

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