Caroline Quentin saw the funny side of losing £400,000, and she even managed to put on a brave face when Paul Merton asked for a divorce. But never before has she...
Caroline Quentin saw the funny side of losing £400,000, and she even managed to put on a brave face when Paul Merton asked for a divorce. But never before has she felt 'so disgustingly at peace' with herself, she tells Nigel Farndale
YOU ONLY notice a conversation with Caroline Quentin as it draws to a close, like someone removing their fingertips from your scalp after performing a massage. It's partly her easy, gossipy, theatrical manner. She has no reserve, and you have the sense that laughter is never far below her surface. It's also her physical presence: bosomy, tactile, 5ft 3in of positive energy.
Hugging a cushion to herself as she sits at one end of a squashy sofa, she shifts and wriggles distractingly so much so that sitting next to her can seem like sitting next to two small boys wrestling under a duvet. There is the familiarity of her voice, too breathy, knowing, amused the same as Dorothy's, the deadpan character she played in Men Behaving Badly. People who have never met the 41-year-old actress before often remark upon a strange feeling of having known her all their lives and I soon see what they mean by that.
We are in the Covent Garden Hotel, just off Leicester Square, on a cold January morning. Caroline Quentin has come up on the train for the day from Suffolk, where she lives with her partner, 29-year-old Sam Farmer, who is a freelance television researcher, and their two-year-old daughter, Emily. She pours me a cup of coffee.
"Did you want milk, darling?"
She hands it over and lifts a pot of tea from a tray to pour herself a cup. A peal of laughter.
"That is hilarious! Sooo funny."
"There are tea bags in the pot but no hot water. And I'm so gasping for a cup! Do you think they are all conspiring against me? [She looks over her shoulder and whispers] 'Don't give Caroline tea. No, pretend to give her tea.' I might just ask that little sweetheart Natalie if she can find some hot water."
She opens the door and calls out: "Natalie, darling. I've got a lovely pot with tea bags in it but no hot water. It is a pot of tea. I can't claim it isn't. I can't have you on the Trade Descriptions Act about that. But I would love some hot water to go with it. Thanks, darling."
We have been talking about psychoanalysis after Men Behaving Badly came to an end in 1998, Quentin played an intuitive reporter-cum-detective in the quirky psychological drama Jonathan Creek, and a psychotherapist in the sitcom Kiss Me Kate.
"I sometimes catch myself analysing people," she says, talking quickly, rolling her large blue eyes, flicking back her hair. "In a very amateurish way, of course. Psychiatry generally is something I have enormous respect for. We tend to be nervous about it in this country, you know, assuming it is only for real wackos, but I think it really helps people understand themselves. My sister is a counsellor, so it's not something alien to me."
Has she ever seen a psychotherapist herself?
"No, never felt the need. Not to say I wouldn't, but so far I haven't. My mum saw one when she was young. But then she is Canadian so she was never embarrassed by any of that."
Ah, the Canadian influence would explain Caroline Quentin's very un-English willingness to complain about the lack of hot water in her teapot.
"Yes," she laughs. "An Englishwoman would have just pretended." She mimes sipping tea from an empty cup. "Mm, mm. Delicious, delicious."
Her mother, Kathleen, emigrated from Canada at the age of 18. She was a nursing sister during the Second World War and was "very musical and artistic. Bit bohemian, if anything."
She married Fred Jones (Quentin is a stage name), an RAF pilot, and had four daughters: Hazel (the counsellor), Kathryn (who works with animals), Tina (an actress about to appear in Lady Windermere's Fan at London's Haymarket), and Caroline, the youngest. But the marriage was volatile Caroline remembers seeing her parents chase each other round the kitchen table with knives and, when Caroline was 15, her father walked out of the family home in Reigate, Surrey, never to return.
Her mother had a stroke soon afterwards, leaving her temporarily unable to walk, talk or feed herself. Caroline, who had been sent away to board from the age of 10 at the all-girl Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire where her ambition was to become a ballet dancer left school to look after her mother. "Mum made an almost full recovery and is going strong now, nearly 80. We're very close."
A FRESH pot of tea arrives with hot water and Quentin pours a cup, takes a sip and sighs with pleasure.
"I didn't feel a sense of relief when my parents split up, I suppose because, being at boarding school, I wasn't really there to witness the misery of their marriage. That said, I think most children of parents who are going to divorce pick up on it very quickly. You know something is up. There was never an option about my taking sides. My dad left and I stayed with my mum. There was no discussion about me going with my dad."
She began her career in a pantomime in Luton, earning £18 a week, and then moved on to be a summer season chorus girl in a Bernie Clifton show at Lowestoft pier in 1977. From there she joined the chorus in the original RSC production of Les Misérables and has since played roles in the West End and at the National Theatre.
"Perhaps I did crave the applause of an audience as a surrogate for paternal approval," she reflects. "But more likely I just loved showing off. Mind your shirt, love [she leans forward to catch a drip of coffee that is falling from my cup]. I was like that from school onwards. I soon learnt that if you can make people laugh, they can't bully you. There's nothing nicer than making your classmates laugh when your teacher is writing on the blackboard and thenmaking your face go completely straight when she turns round."
Her relationship with her estranged father may have cast a shadow over her formative years, but she considers herself to be in the sunlit uplands now.
"I'm at the zenith of my happiness, really I am. With my daughter and my partner and my dogs. I'm so disgustingly at peace with myself. I love my partner and I have the most beautiful daughter. Christ, she is lovely! It's like having an open wound emotionally, though. I can't talk about her without feeling emotional! Sam is good at being brave with Emily, letting her take risks. I think it's because he has had a much more secure life, really. It's good, because overprotected children get nervous and accident prone. Being a rugby player, he tends to chuck her around and she loves it."
Caroline Quentin knows what it is like to be harassed by reporters when feeling vulnerable. She had a miscarriage last year, when the pregnancy was at 12 weeks.
"The doorbell rang, and as I didn't think anyone knew about my miscarriage except my family I answered it. There was a reporter on my doorstep, a 17-year-old girl, a child for f**k's sake, and she had been sent by well, I won't say which paper to ask about my miscarriage. The poor girl was mortified.
"I said, 'No, I don't want to comment on it, but what I would like to say is that I think you should get another job, love. Don't do this to yourself. It is dehumanising.' She was shaking. I felt sorry for her. I was upset and it was ghaaastly [she rolls the word round her mouth]. Nothing was printed in the end."
There was also a lot of media interest when Emily was born.
"I was in hospital for two weeks and she was in for a month. She got better. Luckily she had the constitution of an ox. But it's only now that I appreciate how lucky we were. There were reporters and photographers coming into the hospital trying to get in to see me. I wonder how I would have coped if they had been able to get to my room. I don't think I would have been able to put a brave face on it."
The actress's first taste of media intrusion came in 1997, when her seven-year marriage to Paul Merton ended in divorce much to her surprise as, she says, she didn't know the marriage was going wrong until it ended. For two weeks, while reporters camped outside her house in Southfields, south London, she hid, puffy-eyed, behind curtains.
"You are under siege. It's grim, I tell you. All you want to do is put a paper bag over your head and lie down for six months. I was aware that there were people outside the house all the time and they did keep ringing the doorbell, from six in the morning till midnight but I was rather in my own world. Looking back on it now, I think it was shitty of them, actually. If you were going for an act of kindness, that wouldn't be it. It was like a form of madness."
Has her parents' divorce, as well as her own, left her sceptical about marriage?
"It's lovely to feel everything is right at the moment. I love just looking at Emily and seeing she is half-me, half-Sam. I have no residual fear of the relationship ending. I have no fear that it is going to go bad because of my history."
Did she have that fear with Paul?
"Perhaps. I suppose so. It's hard because Paul doesn't talk about our marriage, and neither do I. It failed. We failed each other."
One imagines there was constant banter between them.
"Oh, there was. There was. The one thing we weren't short of was laughs, and therefore the demise of the marriage is sad. He's a fantastic bloke. It's a shame. A real shame."
Does she still see him?
"No. No, I don't see him. Don't see him at all, which is sad, I think."
Paul Merton lives with writer and producer Sarah Parkinson, who was Quentin's understudy in Live Bed Show, a play written by Arthur Smith especially for her and Paul Merton.
He and Caroline Quentin met on a train, heading up to Edinburgh for the Festival.
"I was reading Alec Guinness's autobiography and was finding it heavy going. Paul was sitting opposite, and I said, 'God, this book is hard work.' He said: 'I've read it, it's rubbish,' and he just took it and threw it out of the window. We did make each other laugh so stupidly much. We were well matched."
A few months later Merton proposed on bended knee under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.
"Is this man bothering you?" asked a passing policeman.
"Well, he isn't right now, officer," she replied. "But I'm hoping he will be later on tonight."
Quentin showed a similar degree of good humour in 1996 when Sharon Hamper, her agent of 16 years, failed to pass on nearly half a million pounds she had earned from repeats of advertising voiceovers. Someone in the agency gave Quentin a tip-off, and when she rang the agency's accountant, she was told he couldn't talk to her. Though she issued a writ, she said in a statement: "I'm not on the streets, am I? I haven't starved. There are great tragedies in life, and I wouldn't laugh through those. Being told I've lost £421,000 is not one of them."
She never got her money back and, on an application by the Department of Trade and Industry, Sharon Hamper was banned for 10 years from practising as an agent.
"There was nothing else to do," she now says. "My solicitor at the time said, 'How can you have a sense of humour about this?' But I said, 'What else can I do? What's the alternative? Tear my hair out? Go after her with a carving knife? It is only money.' I didn't have no money. She was creaming off money I didn't know I had. Quite brilliant as a theft, really. Don't tell them and they won't miss it. I was far from poor. I was still married to Paul at the time, and he was earning a bloody fortune. I could afford to have a sense of humour about it. I don't think I'm materialistic. I really like having money. I love it. When I was doing end-of-the-pier stuff I had no money and I couldn't pay my bills, and that was horrible and frightening but "
She suddenly twists to one side and laughs. "Sorry about the wriggling. It's my hip. Got a slightly sore hip. What was I saying? Yes, now I have a lovely house with a lovely 200ft garden and I don't have to worry about paying the bills. Money is not my focus. It really isn't. So not."
She doesn't employ a nanny, and she and Sam take it in turns to look after Emily. "I'm not very driven to go back to work any more because I really don't want to be away from Emily and I do want to have more children. Maybe I should limit myself to one or two contracts a year. If I take on a new series of Jonathan Creek next year, I will be filming away from home for five months and I want to be the one taking Emily to school and picking her up."
At the moment Quentin is in the middle of a year off, which she is spending looking after her daughter. That and bird-watching and gardening, her other passions. In August, she finished making Blood Strangers, her latest ITV drama, in which she played the mother of a murdered teenage prostitute. Her lack of physical vanity in the role was heroic.
"In the acting profession people are fiercely critical of you physically," she says. "And when you are 17 you really care about how you are perceived. But I don't think it's the job of an actor to care about what you look like. Your job is to play the part and look like what the writer wanted you to look like. If you are supposed to look like a plain, middle-aged women then you shouldn't be worrying about f**king lip gloss." She purses her lips to suppress a smile. "For Blood Strangers I had no make-up well, dark marks round my eyes and whitewash on my face and I had my roots grown out. If people think I look like shit, then that is fine, that is what I look like. Like when I played Dorothy, this great bulldozing nurse."
At the height of its popularity in the early 1990s, the laddish Men Behaving Badly seemed to tap into a national mood. Did she get into trouble with feminists?
"I think it was a dangerous thing. Very close to the line. Itworried me at the beginning. I used to complain that Leslie [Ash] and I didn't get enough funny lines and I thought it was important in terms of balance and tone that we should, that the female characters should be as sympathetic as the male." Her complaint was registered; soon she was having funny lines written for her. (Dorothy: "Gary, let me put it this way. Two people in car going down to countryside: relationship intact. One person in car going down to countryside: relationship over.")
She was aware of the dangers of being typecast after the series ended. "But I think the boys [Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey] suffered more from that it dogged them for a while. Poor old Neil still can't look sideways without 'behaving badly'. It must become tiresome. Actually, people do still get confused meeting me in real life because they expect me to be this witty person like Dorothy. Fortunately I am this witty person. No, honestly I am. It's odd, really; strangers smile at me as if they know me, because they are used to smiling at me when they are sitting at home watching television."
At this point, Natalie, the little sweetheart, pops her head around the door. "Caroline, your cab is here," she says.
Quentin sits forward as if about to stand, then she sits back again, a frown wrinkling her brow. An afterthought. "You know, I'm not really lacking in vanity. I sometimes look at photographs of myself and cringe. I'm still a woman. Even today [she has been posing for photographs to accompany this article] I thought to myself, silly cow, you should have lifted your chin up. But I've come to accept that I'm going to have hundreds of photos taken of myself because of my work, and 90 per cent of them are going to be bog awful. So my policy is either not to look at them or not to worry about them if I do look at them because it would be arse-achingly painful otherwise. In my family we are allowed to tear up one photo from every batch. I sometimes see a photo and think: 'Who is that fat, plain middle-aged woman?' And then I think: 'Oh God, it's me, the glamorous television personality CarolineQuentin!"'
Natalie reappears. "Shall I tell the cab you'll be down in fiveminutes?"
"Oh, would you, darling?" Quentin says. "Thanks. Well," she adds, turning to me, "I must get back to my daughter. It's been a lovely chat, Nigel. Thank you."
No, Caroline, I say, feeling the fingertips being lifted from my scalp, thank you.