Caroline Quentin: 'I'm canny, but not very bright'

Caroline Quentin doesn't often get recognised these days. Occasionally, a cab driver might ask, "where have I seen you before?", or she'll get talking to a woman, in the loos of a restaurant, who will recall, with great conviction, that she was at their sister's wedding .

"So," she tells me, "I say, 'No darling, I'm off the telly'. And they say 'Ooh, Victoria Wood, how marvellous'."

It wasn't always like this. For most of the Nineties Quentin was married to the comedian Paul Merton, then a rising star on Have I Got New For You? At the same time Quentin was appearing in Men Behaving Badly, the sitcom about two slobby lads and their put-upon girlfriends that propelled her to fame. The couple soon became paparazzi fodder, a situation that worsened in 1997 when they announced they were separating. Quentin and Merton were careful never to speak ill of each other in the papers, though that didn't stop them being hounded. One newspaper even sent a bogus buyer to their house who poked around their bedroom and took photographs.

"We were right in the middle of the divorce, and they took pictures of all my things," Quentin says sadly.

"It is such a dreadful time, when you're feeling so vulnerable and crap as a person, and then that happens. I used to get quite scared. I remember one photographer nearly getting run over while he was trying to take my picture. I actually had to lean over and pull him out of the way of an oncoming taxi. I said: 'Come on, sweetie. Am I really worth getting run over for?'"

Life is very different for Quentin now, to the extent that, when she thinks about that time, it's as if it happened to someone else. Quentin has been married for the past 12 years to Sam Farmer, whom she met on the set of Jonathan Creek, where he was working as a runner.

"You may have read stories about him being my child bride," sighs Quentin, referring to the 11-year age gap. "But I looked at him and had a Sam Taylor-Wood moment. I just thought 'Yum!' I still do now."

The pair have two children: Emily, ten and William, six. Quentin gave birth to Emily when they were still living in Soho: "You push the pram through enough pools of vomit and you begin to think, 'this isn't ideal'."

So the family upped sticks and moved to the country – first to Suffolk and later to north Devon. For a while they lived in a rambling Victorian manor house but: "It was too big. I could never find the kids." So now they have a small farm just across the valley where they grow their own veg and keep chickens, pigs, sheep and turkeys. Sam stays at home and looks after the children and livestock, Quentin goes out and brings home the bacon.

We meet at the Covent Garden Hotel in London – Quentin has been up for some meetings and is due to go home when we are finished. She looks exactly as she did 20 years ago on Men Behaving Badly, give or take the odd laughter line, and even has the same hairdo. She is smiley and chatty and terrifically easy-going. She calls me "darling" from the off, and tells me that I should stop her if she veers off the point, lest she fritter away our allotted hour.

We are here, ostensibly, to talk about the second series of Life of Riley, a determinedly mainstream comedy that returns to BBC1 next week. In the show, Quentin plays Maddy, a recently married woman struggling to cope with a complicated new family that takes in two stroppy stepchildren, a nine-year-old from her previous marriage, and an eight-month-old baby with her new husband.

Quentin tells me she never reads reviews. Which is just as well, since the first series of Life of Riley wasn't exactly a hit with critics. I can't say it raised any smiles from me either, though I don't say so. Instead, I remark that she seems to have made a career out of playing women with whom we can all identify, whether they are dealing with Neanderthal boyfriends (Men Behaving Badly), the after-shock of divorce (Life Begins) or the problems faced by the working mother (Blue Murder).

"I think that's because people have this perception of me as being warm and mumsy," she says. "Now I'm coming up to 50 I'm sort of bound to play people who have children. Do I mind? Not in the least. Other people's perception of you is how this industry works. It's what I do, but I have a whole real life which is nothing to do with that perception of me.

"I have a very strict delineation between who I am and what it is. I very much do this for a living and it's not my life. I think a lot of people in my industry define themselves by their work and it breaks my heart. If you haven't got anything else in life to sustain you then you are going to suffer."

Well, this is a turn-up, I say, an actor who doesn't live and die by her career. "Isn't it?", she exclaims. "Clearly I'm not normal." She was recently offered a part on The Bill but she had just finished filming something else and wanted to go home, so she turned it down. "I'd really much rather be in my garden and mucking about with the children. We've just started an orchard; we've planted about 60 trees. I'm very excited about it. Oh God, does that sound terribly sad?"

Despite Quentin's refusal to give her soul to the job, she is clearly passionate about television and loves the people who work in it, particularly the crews. "There's nothing I like more than being in a room full of sweaty-arsed sparks," she giggles. She is also full of admiration for writers and talks nostalgically about, "a beautiful time when we really cared about them, and when it wasn't all about Mary Ding-dong in the lead role. There was a time when we would be waiting for the next Potter drama and when Pinter – Pinter, for God's sake! – would write for television. For me, the joy of a script is when you really, really rate a writer. It's just fantastic. Then it's a pleasure to turn up for work."

Quentin never intended to be an actor; the plan was that she would dance for a living. She was sent to boarding school at 10 after winning a dance scholarship at the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire. She had three sisters, who were nine, 10 and 12 years older than her. "So I was very young and kind of left behind at home," she remembers. "It was decided that my parents weren't really getting on any more, so it would be better for me to go away to Tring. I was very, very sad at night. And it was bloody cold."

She left when she was 16 – by which time her parents had divorced – and went straight out to work. Her first job was as a dancer in a pantomime at the Luton Library Theatre. "Being on stage was so exciting, even though I look back now and realise that the stage was absolutely tiny. But I was young, I was away from home and earning money. And it was showbiz!"

For several years she was an end-of-the-pier dancer, working with the likes of Bernie Clifton and spending the afternoons lolling about on the beach. "The shows were dated even then," she says. "I mean, this was around 1976 and already it seemed like something out of the ark. Occasionally you'd get the young families coming in from the caravan parks but generally the average age of the audience was 85."

It was purely by chance that Quentin crossed over into acting. At 18 she got a job dancing behind puppets in an animated film and, through that, met an actor who was involved in pub theatre. She got an audition at the Old Red Lion in Islington where she sang and danced and did comedy sketches, and from there was spotted by a casting director at the Royal Court. Throughout the Eighties there were Chekhov plays at the National Theatre, improv nights at the Comedy Store and a series of shows at the Edinburgh Festival. She met other rising stars along the way, including Clive Owen, with whom she worked on An Evening with Gary Lineker, and Gary Oldman, whom she remembers as being "utterly iridescent – now there's a man who had it all mapped out."

Quentin's big break was, of course, the role of Dorothy in Men Behaving Badly, the acid-tongued nurse and girlfriend of Martin Clunes's feckless Gary. She remembers the first series – which was on ITV and starred Harry Enfield in what would later be Neil Morrissey's role – as being "pretty dismal; I was quite sure we wouldn't make another series. But then Beryl Vertue, the producer, who was like a dog with a bone, sold it to the BBC. They brought Neil in, and it suddenly just took off."

Since then Quentin has never been out of work, moving seamlessly through a series of memorable television roles including Maddy Magellan on Jonathan Creek and Maggie Mee in Life Begins, Mike Bullen's follow-up to Cold Feet. In 2007 she returned to the stage for the first time in 10 years to play Christine Hamilton in Robin Soans's drama Life After Scandal. Quentin studied for the part by watching Louis Theroux's documentary on the Hamiltons over and over again. On the opening night Hamilton came backstage and insisted on meeting her, "which was pretty surreal, though luckily she was thrilled with the show".

Quentin says she is extremely proud of what she has achieved, particularly since there were few other career options available to her. She blithely describes herself as "canny, but not very bright."

"I'm not particularly good-looking and I'm not madly talented, I look back and I see that young girl doing panto and I think I made a really good career of not very much. I was a good all-rounder but never really shone. I just applied myself within my limited capabilities."

This doesn't strike me as false modesty. In fact, it's rather touching. Quentin is, in her mind, living proof of the old adage that you get out what you put in. She is also that rare creature: an actor who is almost entirely without ambition. It's no wonder she never got a call from Hollywood, like her old friends Owen and Oldman. And even if she had, she'd have probably told them she couldn't be bothered.

Quentin is, she says, a "hired gun. I will go wherever the job takes me, within reason. The thing is, I've got no control over what happens to me next. People could stop employing me tomorrow, especially at my age. In my dream world I'd do a nice series every year, preferably one that wasn't too long. But really – I've got to be honest here – it wouldn't kill me if I never did it again."

The new series of 'Life of Riley' begins at 7.30pm on 17 March on BBC1

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