LIFE ON THE FRONT LINE

Comedienne REBECCA FRONT talks with James Rampton

The Day Today/ Knowing Me, Knowing You team have all gone on to the sort of fame and fortune which Alan Partridge, now sadly dismissed from his chat show after assaulting a BBC executive with a turkey, can only dream of. Steve Coogan has had his own BBC2 series, Coogan's Run, Patrick Marber has become a "must-see" West End playwright with Dealer's Choice and Closer, Chris Morris has shocked the world with Brass Eye on C4, Armando Iannucci and Dave Schneider have fronted Friday Night Armistice on BBC2, and Doon MacKichan has starred in R4's Doon Your Way.

Only Rebecca Front has been relatively hiding her light under a bushel. Sure, she has had nine months in Sam Mendes's hit version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Company, but she has not been grabbing headlines with the same regularity as the rest of the team.

Not that she minds. "There is no sense of jealousy between us," she claims. "We all still meet up and get on incredibly well. I'd rather be less known but able to do the things I want to. So far, I haven't regretted turning down things like sitcom leads. I got offered a lot of wacky young mums and long-suffering wives which I didn't feel fired up to spend months on. I'm well known in the business, but not by people in the street. Of course I want to be propelled into the stratosphere and earn vast amounts of money, but it's quite nice to be able to go to the gym in the morning without having to put on any make-up. Also, you can end up with the tabloids on your back. Look at Steve's case. To coin a Partridge-ism, fame is one hell of a double-edged sword."

It may well be cutting in her favour, however, after her latest venture, Swan Song, a one-woman show by Jonathan Harvey, author of Beautiful Thing and Babies. Front plays Di Titswell, a superficially self-confident but actually rather lonely unmarried secondary school teacher. Di times her daily drive home to the second, and unwinds listening to "Babs" Dickson and Elaine Paige. She dresses dowdily in thick specs and multi-coloured cagouls, and other teachers murmur "chuck out the chintz" in her vicinity. Seriously repressed, Di feels that as far as sex is concerned, "there ain't that spare alcove in my through-lounge of life". Sad without being sentimental, Front's performance is a minor masterpiece of observational detail.

This has long been her speciality. Schneider, who worked with her on Radio 4's On the Hour and its BBC2 equivalent, The Day Today, as well the TV and radio versions of Knowing Me, Knowing You, admires her technique. "She'll have the details of a character instantly. She gets very excited about what makes her characters tick and seems to have an instant reservoir of them. When she did an American singer on Knowing Me, Knowing You," he continues, "she had observed that many of them have had a face-lift. So she made a tiny adjustment to how she held her upper lip and bred a character around that ridiculous detail."

Her hair cropped short for the part of Di, Front confirms that for her God is in the details. "I watch people all the time," she reveals. "I make mental notes on buses - it's become an obsession. It makes the journeys pass more quickly. Sometimes I do it when I'm not even intending to. I was in a bar the other day and I thought to myself, `I won't order that drink, but I think Di would'. If you get the chance to improvise around a character, even over breakfast, you get insights into the way they sit and the things they eat and drink - all the things that make a character more real. The bulk of it won't appear on stage. It's the iceberg thing: all you see is the tip, but it gives the character more weight.

"Alan Partridge is a prime example of that," she carries on. "He's not just a funny voice - Steve can do those standing on his head - but a believable character with a complete background. It sounds pretentious, but we'd have heated discussions about him. You'd come in and say, `Tell you what, I bet Alan drives a so and so,' and Steve would go, `No, absolutely not'."

Hard on the heels of success always comes backlash. Sure enough, Front and co have been accused by snipers of aggravated Oxbridge cronyism - a charge she rejects. "Cliques develop in any situation, because people work with people they like working with," she argues. "If you work with someone just because you were at college with them, then that's foolish. But if you work with them because you know they're good, then that's fair enough."

Critics apart, the future looks bright for Front; she is certainly not short of offers. In the autumn, she is developing a comedy-drama with her brother, Jeremy, and starring in a radio comedy pilot about "a working- class woman married to a villain who suddenly gets a social conscience". One thing she won't be doing, however, is writing a novel - despite an offer from a publisher to do so. "There are quite enough opportunities for falling flat on your face without spending three years baring your soul," she laughs.

Instead, the day after Swan Song finishes its run in Edinburgh, Front starts playing a working-class barrister in the new series of Kavanagh QC. "I'm doing it because I like re-inventing myself. I'm not getting out of comedy, just broadening myself," she explains, before adding with a smile: "But it's even more likely to make me un-famous."

The world premiere of Swan Song is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh (0131- 556 6550) from Wed to 30 Aug

EYE TEST

1960s: Born. Her mother was a primary-school teacher - which Front has found useful for understanding her character in Swan Song.

1980s: At St Hugh's College, Oxford, Front went in for revues. `The queues for the straight plays were always longer,' she remembers. After Webber Douglas Drama School, she performed on the comedy circuit in a double-act called The Bo-Bo Girls with Sioned Williams. They made two series of Girls Will Be Girls for Radio 4, the second of which was produced by Armando Iannucci, who recruited Front for sketches in the radio version of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. `In one sketch I had to be Mrs Thatcher doing oral sex,' Front shudders. `It was not my finest hour, but you don't say no when you're trying to break into comedy.'

1990s: Front appeared in R4's news spoof, On the Hour, which became The Day Today for BBC2. For this, she was nominated for the Best Female Comedy Actor at the 1994 British Comedy Awards. She later featured in both radio and TV manifestations of the send-up chat-show, Knowing Me, Knowing You.

In 1995, she played Queen Mary in Tony Palmer's film about Purcell, England, My England. She was cast in the role after `Tony had seen me as an American singer doing an Abba medley with Alan Partridge on Knowing Me, Knowing You. I don't know what he was thinking.' She'd love to do more period dramas - `get me in that corset'.

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