Actor and force of nature Frances Barber talks to TIM WALKER about Twitter battles, her tangled relationship with Labour and the hedonistic thought driving her through lockdown.
At about this time, Frances Barber would have got back refreshed from a yoga retreat in Sri Lanka and be beginning rehearsals for a new play that Mark Gatiss was going to direct at the Chichester Festival Theatre called The Unfriend. A long sun-soaked summer of acting with old pals, forays down to the nearby beaches and fruit-filled jugs of Pimm’s on perfectly-mowed lawns lay in prospect.
In the event, the only audience that the 61-year-old actress is playing to is on Twitter and the only interaction she’s having with her fellow actors is on the telephone. Her mate Sir Derek Jacobi is gardening. Sir Ian McKellen is talking to his neighbours more or less by megaphone. Christopher Biggins is, meanwhile, fretting about whether this will be the first Christmas for decades when he doesn’t get to appear in a panto.
Barber is a force of nature who doesn’t go into anything without all guns blazing, but she admits she’s reluctantly written off the next 12 months and has moments of quiet despair.
‘I think we’re all now at precisely the same point. We managed to convince ourselves, to start with, it was a bit of a lark, like an extended Bank Holiday or something. But now of course the reality has sunk in.
‘What I realise above all is how much I loved my old life. I loved my job and my friends and hugging and kissing them and travelling, and every day was an adventure.
‘Now it’s about reconciling myself to a much smaller world in my London flat and limiting my ambitions to just trying to remain alive.’
There was once a convention in her profession that actors never talked about politics, but Barber, since she first started to tentatively venture the odd opinion on Twitter in 2011, has long since thrown caution to the wind.
In common with a lot of people who weren’t seen to be remotely political in the past, Brexit was the game-changer. A life-long Labour voter, she was upset but unsurprised when Jeremy Corbyn – never noted for his support for the European Union – put so little effort into campaigning for the Remain cause in the referendum of 2016. But in the following year’s general election she informed her followers that she would vote for Corbyn ‘holding her nose’ and urged them to do the same.
That autumn she tore up her membership card, saying she could no longer be a part of Labour if it was going to be about ‘misogyny, anti-Semitism and thuggery’, and, predictably, brought down upon herself the wrath of Corbyn’s battalions of keyboard warriors.
It’s fair to say that the irrepressible actress gave as good as she got. She enraged them still more by beginning a very public flirtation with the Liberal Democrats, and, while she never actually joined the party, was happy to go out campaigning with the party’s then leader Sir Vince Cable in the Lewisham East by-election in 2018.
Broadly speaking, Barber has been vindicated in the positions that she’s taken, but she gets no satisfaction in it. ‘It’s the feeling of vindication you must get in a graveyard. Corbyn’s people had their own pre-occupations, but they were certainly not about winning or doing whatever is possible to help working people and the most vulnerable in our society.
‘We now have, as a consequence of that long period of utter self-delusion and self-indulgence, a prime minister in Boris Johnson who is manifestly unfit to lead us through the current crisis. Just when we think things can’t get any worse, they always somehow manage to. We are now living in an utter dystopia.’
Barber was relieved that Keir Starmer was elected to lead Labour, and, to show willing, attempted to rejoin the party. Her application is currently on hold because, she says, the Guardian columnist – and frequent Twitter antagonist – Owen Jones objected.
‘I’d like to rejoin, of course, but, in terms of things to worry about at the moment, I’d say it’s quite a long way down the list. I don’t say that Keir is perfect, but he sounds like a proper leader of the opposition and that’s just so cheering after all this time when we had got used to something that fell a long way short of that. I was impressed by his cool, forensic cross-examination of Dominic Raab at Prime Ministers’ Questions last week. I can’t see that Johnson’s bluster is going to survive that for very long.’
She says that for all her Twitter skirmishes she has not lost a real friend through her outspokenness. ‘A few have told me every now and again to be careful, but I’ve still the same friends I had before I started making my views known.
‘There are actors, of course, that I work with from time to time who I know aren’t on the same page as me, but that’s where professionalism kicks in. I did a play in the West End not so long ago with Edward Fox who was a big supporter of Brexit. When we spoke off-stage, we both just kept off the subject. He’s a very fine actor and I think it would be obsessive to lose sight of that just because I don’t agree with his politics.’
Born in Wolverhampton to a mother who was a dinner lady and a father who was a bookie, Barber always saw the Labour party as her natural home. She was the fourth of six children and her early life was hard.
She made it into the local grammar School and then studied drama at Bangor University. In 1984, she won an Olivier for her performance as Marguerite in the RSC’s Camille and that was the making of her. She is, she says, very much a product of her background.
‘I found that the people I was fighting with on Twitter hadn’t come from places like I had. There was usually family money, often a public school education and Labour was more of a hobby for them, whereas it’s always been a way life for me.
‘I could therefore see how high the stakes were – I knew it wasn’t just a game. I regret in a way that I didn’t go into politics when I was younger – I fear it’s too late now – but I thought in common with everyone else that it was safe to leave politics to the politicians. That has of course turned out to be a very tragic misapprehension on all our parts.
‘Still, I try not to just sound off on Twitter and understand that real activism is turning out for marches, going out delivering leaflets, and, above all, voting, and that’s what I’ve done. I was impressed with Vince Cable – there was real integrity there – but, in common with the electorate at large, I was desperately disappointed in Jo Swinson when she took over the Lib Dems.
‘The party had a real chance to prove itself at the last election and it failed badly. The campaign was terrible. It was of course a huge strategic error on her part – and on the part of Corbyn – to have ever signed up to the election in the first place as it was always obvious what was going to happen, but of course we are where we are.’
Barber says Johnson and the cabinet he picked were pre-programmed for the sole purpose of delivering Brexit and they couldn’t, from the outset, adapt to the new reality of coronavirus. ‘They were complacent and that complacency unfortunately set the tone. Towards the end of my run in Musik at the Leicester Square Theatre, I remember asking my dresser if he’d heard anything about coronavirus, and, of course, listening all the time to Sounds of the Seventies, he hadn’t. Then I noticed Chinatown just around the corner from the theatre was emptying out and an Uber driver told me he’d picked up some people from China at Heathrow who’d been coughing and he was terrified, and I remember telling him not to worry.
‘The Friday before lockdown I was due to be narrating a new reality dating show for Channel 4 called Five Guys a Week and that was when I realised it was too great a risk to go out.’
Barber has since been entertaining her Twitter followers – getting on now for 50,000 – with pictures of the dishes she has been preparing for herself during lockdown and a photograph of herself in huge dark glasses, a mask and a hat ready to go out to do her food shop that recalled the Vincent Price horror film The Fly.
‘I’ve savings that will keep me going for perhaps, at a stretch, a year, but every penny now matters. I can’t complain about my situation since I know a lot of people have it far worse than me. I know there are mums with kids in high rises trying to cope on their own, or, what’s worse, they’re having to share a very confined space with an abusive partner.
‘Within my profession I can tell you of any number of stories of genuine deprivation, too. Everyone in theatre works from hand to mouth and for the love of it and there are stage hands and dressers and box office staff who are now in desperate straits. A lot of them – through no fault of their own – just don’t fit into the categories that the government is going to assist financially. I hear of how some of the big employers such as Cameron Mackintosh are being very honourable and trying to keep everyone going, but clearly this can’t go on forever and we can’t allow anyone to starve. Other big theatre managements are now on the brink of collapse.
‘One major theatre director was saying to me that he couldn’t see people returning to theatres until there is a vaccine, and, while I’m encouraged that testing has started at Oxford, there are no guarantees when we will eventually have one.
‘There is no way in the meantime you can have social distancing in theatres – having members of the audience sitting a few places apart – and for it to be financially viable. Audiences in masks? Actors in masks? It all starts to feel a bit preposterous, particularly if it’s Romeo and Juliet and there are going to be love scenes.
‘The West End alone has been giving billions and billions over the years to the exchequer and the chancellor now has to make theatre a special case. More people go to theatres each year than to football matches and its part in building up the morale of the nation has been incalculable.
‘Speaking for myself, I can’t tell you how much I miss acting. It is the great love affair of my life. It’s what I do. It’s so much a part of my whole identity.’
As to whether a great play will ever one day be able to do justice to these times, she is doubtful. ‘I heard someone saying the other day that what we are going through is unprecedented, but that word doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s something that’s epic – that’s actually Biblical – in it’s scope and I don’t think any of us can really quite cope with the scale of it.
‘We focus on maybe our weekly forays to the shops and our own lives because we can’t even begin to think of the effect it’s having on the whole world. I don’t believe any playwright could capture that. In his very prime, Shakespeare maybe – just maybe – but he alone could ever have found the words to describe this.’
Still, as anyone who has ever tried picking a fight with Barber on Twitter knows only too well, she is not a lady who surrenders easily. Her final words to me are characteristically defiant. ‘People talk a lot about the Spanish flu and it seems as if we are going to have to go through that whole process again. A lockdown, followed by an easing of that, followed by more deaths – more, in the case of the Spanish flu, than died in the First World War. That’s the depressing part. The thing to focus on is that awful time was followed by the Roaring Twenties. They roared precisely because people appreciated each other more than they’d ever done before and they appreciated what they’d previously taken for granted. I tell you that, after all of this, I’m going to party like I’ve never partied before. I’ve no doubt that we all are.’