TIM WALKER on how Brexit helped turn actor Frances Barber from an enemy to a friend.
It was a young man named Tyler who first acquainted me with Frances Barber. Six years ago, she boarded a plane at Heathrow bound for Los Angeles and he’d been seated beside her. The crew made a big fuss of the actress and brought her champagne, even though she was travelling economy. She was at the time appearing in the prime-time television series Silk.
She’d introduced herself to Tyler, but he was preoccupied with storing his flute and didn’t seem remotely interested. With no one to talk to, and take-off delayed, she live-tweeted her bemusement. “Tyler is the worst companion on a flight, ever,” she wrote. “The purser asked if it was me from Silk, but he didn’t ask me a single, solitary thing. You’d think he might wonder what I did? Oh no.”
I managed to track down Tyler and the story got better and better. He turned out to be a contortionist and musician and said he’d been totally unaware of her need for validation. I ran a piece along the lines of “needy actress couldn’t cope with being ignored” and illustrated it with a picture of Tyler showing off his contortionist skills.
The next time I had cause to write about Frances was when I had to review her in the title role of an all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in Covent Garden. I didn’t care for it and in my notice I gave Frances a stabbing that was every bit as brutal as she’d received on stage.
It was nothing personal, of course, but it’s fair to say I didn’t anticipate us ever becoming great friends. I had not, however, reckoned with the EU referendum campaign which had the curious effect of turning some of my friends into enemies and some enemies into friends. Happily, Frances fell into the latter category. On Twitter, I saw a beautiful crystal clear patriotism in what she was writing. I’d started on local papers and she had begun in rep and neither of us fitted any conventional definition of metropolitan liberal elitists.
We both shared an idea of what our country should be about and we saw in Brexit and the people propagating it just about everything that was alien to that idea. She followed me and I followed her back and I direct messaged her to say I was sorry I’d been such a s**t. She was only too willing to forgive my foolish ways. The fight was what mattered to her – as it did to me – at that moment.
She’d been a Labour supporter all her life and was during that period in despair about Jeremy Corbyn. I was at the time beginning my brief and ill-starred fling with the Lib Dems, and, when there was a by-election in Lewisham East, not long after the referendum, I suggested she come and campaign with the candidate Lucy Salek and the then party leader Sir Vince Cable and I could write about it for The New European.
She was appearing on the West End stage with the Brexit-supporting Edward Fox in An Ideal Husband, but she gamely agreed. I suggested we board the Thames Clipper at Embankment – close to her theatre – voyage to Greenwich and get a cab from there. She arrived at the jetty in a vast summer hat and sunglasses and looked for all the world like Greta Garbo.
I have no idea what Sir Vince made of us, but it made for an entertaining piece and – who knows? – maybe our spot of doughty campaigning on that scorchingly hot summer’s day won Lucy a few votes. I subsequently had Frances over to dinner and we saw each other at a few first nights and I grew to admire and revere her. She lights up a room when she walks into it – all those hilarious theatrical anecdotes and that infectious throaty laugh – but there’s a social conscience there, too, and a fearlessness that made her a hate figure among Corbyn’s legions of keyboard warriors.
We never had to talk about the Lib Dems – any more than we had to talk about Brexit – but our disillusionment with the party followed the same tram lines and we both now pin our hopes on Sir Keir Starmer. Two things I can now say for sure – Frances is a lot more fun to have as a friend than as an enemy. And, as for Tyler, he did himself no favours on that flight. He should have bent over backwards to befriend this extraordinary force of nature.