© 2021 All rights reserved. SEOmaxim UK
C aroline Quentin had never watched Strictly Come Dancing before she agreed to appear on the show. âI was aware of it and Iâd seen clips,â she says. âBut I never actually watched an entire programme.â She had been asked lots of times to take part, but was always too busy. Then Covid happened and the play she was rehearsing at the National Theatre was cancelled. She found herself looking at an empty diary. âI thought: âI might as well.ââ
Quentin and I are talking on a video call. Usually, exit interviews with Strictly contestants are as anodyne as postmatch interviews with footballers, so I expect her to say that she had a fabulous time on the show. But Quentin is very much her own person. Instead, she says: âItâs probably the oddest thing Iâve done â¦ Basically, youâre trapped. I mean, thank God I liked my partner. People say itâs an institution and â¦ I felt a bit institutionalised by the time I came out.â
Quentin, 60, has always come across as down to earth â partly because she has played so many relatable, well-meaning women, all practical bags and comfy trousers, in shows such as Jonathan Creek, Life Begins and Kiss Me Kate â and I wonder if it was the hyperbolised glamour of Strictly that she disliked. But she sounds faintly affronted by that suggestion.
âIâve worn costumes all my life. Iâm a theatre actress, you know. Thatâs what I do for a living. I dress up, I wear makeup, I make a fool of myself.â It is an ostentatiously simplistic description of her work; I am unsure if that is pride in her voice, or self-denigration. She says that she tries to remove her ego from performances and âjust go back to what we are, which is rogues and vagabonds, travelling players, you know, turns and jestersâ â an unassuming list of synonyms. âI value it enormously,â she says. âBut thatâs not about ego, thatâs just â¦ about connecting human beings to other human beings in a positive and joyful way.âLicked into shape ... Quentinâs week-five cha-cha-cha on Strictly Come Dancing.
But I still donât understand what was so alienating about Strictly Come Dancing, I say. âWhat are your references?â she says. âDo you know about Jungian analysis?â I nod, possibly unconvincingly, because she says: âItâs a bit like The Wizard of Oz. The wizardâs behind that screen and he is not the mighty Wizard of Oz. Itâs impenetrable, opaque. Itâs a machine. They all refer to Strictly as a well-oiled machine. It has to be. But, within that, I think it can become a little â¦ insensitive to individuals.â
Quentin was voted off the show in the fifth week, after a cha-cha-cha in which she licked the arm of her partner, Johannes Radebe. The Daily Telegraph quoted dancers describing the gesture as âgrotesqueâ and âinappropriateâ. The Sun said fans were âhorrifiedâ. Was she surprised by the reaction?
âIt would not have occurred to me that that would have been a problem,â she says. She gives a chesty laugh hauled up from somewhere deep; I donât think it is merriness. âNot until Johannes came off, because heâs always looking at Twitter, and he went: âOh God.â I said: âWhat, Johannes?â He went: âPeople donât like the fact you licked me.â I said: âWhy not?â He said: âYou licked a black man.â I said: âDo you think itâs that, Jo?â He said: âIâm sure it is.â I said: âFuck, thatâs depressing.â And the word came down: âPeople have been upset by you licking him.âââI dress up, I wear makeup, I make a fool of myselfâ ... with her Jonathan Creek co-star Alan Davies. Photograph: BBC
Maybe the lick felt oversexualised. Would it be acceptable for a male dancer to lick a female partner? âWell, let me just say that Johannes was completely complicit,â she says. âI am not a licker. I did not take it upon myself to lick him. We talked about it. It was consensual licking.â She is riffing on the idea â giving hints of her early days doing standup. But then she starts to sound very cross. âIt was meant to be funny,â she says, addressing an imaginary, disapproving person. âSo get a sense of humour or fuck off. One or the other. I donât care.â
What did interest her, and she found wonderful, was the pure act of dancing. She felt the tug of a cord that stretched right back to early childhood. âIt was like refinding a first love,â she says.
Quentin grew up in Reigate, Surrey, with her mother and father and three older sisters. At 10, she won a dance scholarship, funded by the council, to board at the Arts Educational School (now Tring Park School for the Performing Arts) in Tring, Hertfordshire.
Tring felt a long way from home. âNot like suburbia. It was like amazing rolling fields and this beautiful house, this rockstar mansion. Honestly, it was like â¦â She looks wondrously around the Soho flat she is renting, as if she has just landed there again, and I canât help thinking of Dorothy touching down in Oz. âIt was like a fairytale.â
Quentin has spoken before about her childhood and her motherâs bipolar disorder. âShe had electric shock therapy. I remember visiting [her in hospital], not being allowed in, but being held up to the window to see her. It was a proper old loony bin,â she says. âYou donât know anything else, though, so itâs all right, âcause you donât know any different.â She has a habit of locking herself inside these circular sentences, like mini fortresses. No wonder dance was âsecurity â¦ something in childhood which can tether you to the earthâ.
Quentin has a strong need to feel tethered, because, the day before we speak, she settled with News Group Newspapers, the publisher of the Sun and the now defunct News of the World, âfor quite a large amount of moneyâ for phone hacking. She is forbidden from saying how much. âMy phone was hacked for, I think, upwards of 12 years. They hacked me when I was with Paul Merton,â she says (they divorced in 1998). âThey hacked me right the way through meeting Sam [Farmer, her husband], my pregnancies, my miscarriages, my everything.â
She realised she was a victim only 18 months ago â years after others found out. âI kept thinking: âIf Iâve been hacked, the police will phone me, wonât they?â But that is not the case. Theyâre under no obligation to tell anybody. So I have a friend who was hacked who had just won damages and I was doing a play with him. He said: âYou must have been hacked at the same time. You must have been!â I said: âNo one has ever told me, so I donât know how Iâd prove that.â He gave her the name of a lawyer and the lawyer took care of the rest.Itâs vile to know that some little man in a dirty raincoat knows all your medical history
She still has an ongoing case with Mirror Group Newspapers. âItâs not fully behind me,â she says. âWhich is 20 â how many years later? 1996. How long ago is that?â Twenty-four years, I say. She lets out a squeaky hoot. âYeah! You know, whatâs awful about it is it did for my relationship with my dad.â Her father, Fred Jones, left when Quentin was 15. After she became famous, there were lots of stories about him in the papers. âLots. And about one of my sisters. But theyâre both dead. My mother was distressed. Because why wouldnât I tell her I was expecting a baby before Iâd tell a newspaper? My motherâs dead. I canât say to her: âI told you!â I canât. Iâll never have that opportunity. And itâs vile, actually. Itâs vile to know that some shitty little man in a dirty raincoat knows all your medical history, your private stuff, whether or not you are going to have a baby or miscarry a baby.â
Despite the horror of seeing stories about her miscarriages splashed across the tabloids, the worst thing about being hacked was the distrust she felt for others and that others felt for her. A subtle and pernicious defamation of her character took place, not in public, but within the privacy of her family and friendships. âItâs not good for a family. My parents. Friends. You donât know who to trust and they donât trust you, because they think it must be coming from you, because otherwise how would a newspaper find out about things? âCause, you know, they work in shops and factories and restaurants. So when you say: âIt isnât me,â they donât believe you. It was devastating to me, that period of time.â
Quentin prefers not to dwell on her childhood, which must surely have added to the difficulty, saying only that it âwas not a bed of rosesâ. Around the time her father left, her mother had a stroke and Quentin abandoned the fairytale school to care for her. Since her three sisters were nine, 10 and 12 years her senior, she and her mum lived alone, âlike a second familyâ. To pay their bills, Quentin took any work she could.âIâve worn costumes all my lifeâ ... with her friend Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock
She got sacked from waiting jobs (she couldnât hold plates and talk) and steered out of the security company Securicor (she couldnât add up), but she danced and sang and âauditioned for anything that was goingâ. She was only 15. It sounds really tough, taking on so much responsibility. âYes,â she says brightly. âI think nowadays you would be called a child carer.â
That sense of having to earn reminds me of what she said earlier about removing her ego from performance, being a trouper, a rogue and a vagabond, and how the empty space in the diary convinced her to do Strictly. I wonder how much removal of ego went on as a teenager to survive. Those years must feel deeply formative.
âThat is who I am,â she says. âI am still that person who packs an overnight bag and gets on a train or cadges a lift to Glasgow to digs â¦ Iâm just that one if they go: âWe need a singer,â you go: âYeah, I can sing.â âWe need someone who can do the splits,â âYeah, I can do the splits.â âWe need someone who can play Queen Victoria,â âYeah, I can do that!â That was the way it was.â Somewhere in the course of her reply, without really noticing, she has travelled from the present to the past. I suspect that, for Quentin, the past feels very present.
She has recently â âI cannot believe I waited so long!â â started psychotherapy. âAnd thank God, actually. Because I donât think Iâd have coped as well with the shitstorm we are living with if I hadnât,â she says. Therapy has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. She and Farmer have two children. William, 17, will be the first person in Quentinâs family to go to university, while Rose, 21, is an actor. They can all see âthat I am not dragging round this fucking carcass of misery with me all the time.â She sounds almost triumphant when she says: âItâs starting to go.ââMartin Clunes says he is the finest man we knowâ ... with her husband, Sam Farmer. Photograph: Can Nguyen/Rex/Shutterstock
Quentin exudes energy. I wonder if she sees in herself any of the characteristics of her mumâs bipolar. âI absolutely do,â she says. âI have never gone for a diagnosis and I donât consider myself to be bipolar, but I have extreme moods. I get heightened. I get very overexcited. But I do get very low, too â¦ I donât know whether itâs inherited or learned.â
She and Farmer met 22 years ago on the set of Men Behaving Badly. He was working as a runner. The first time she met him, he said: ââGood morning, Ms Quentin, can I get you some breakfast?â And I looked at him and, I swear to god, I thought: âOh no, I love you. I really do love you!ââ she says.
He asked her out in front of her co-stars Martin Clunes, still a close friend, and Neil Morrissey. Within a week, they were living together. She thinks of the word to describe Farmer. âHeâs â¦ proper. Given that Iâm a volatile and highly charged person and I know Iâm not easy â one minute Iâm âWooooh!â and next minute Iâm âOh God!â â he has put up with me and loved me. I mean, really loved me for that, not in spite of it â¦ Martin Clunes always says he is the finest man we know. The finest man we know.â
She has been in a choir for years, which has helped steer her through the highs and lows. Singing adds something special to mindful breathing: the affirmation of a sound.
âHonestly! This is what I say to people,â she cries. âSinging with other people, singing in front of other people â¦ Itâs a gift youâre giving to people. I always think: âIâm doing this for other people.â Itâs like saying to someone: âIâm making myself vulnerable here for you and Iâm giving you this.â
âI think, for shy people â¦ I was a terribly shy child,â she starts to say. Shy? Really? âOh, terribly shy. I know. Iâm honestly not at all who you think I am.â She habitually puts up shields. âThe carapace, the trouper.â Then she says, loudly, because such an affirmation requires a strong voice: âIâm a different person.â
I am thinking back to all those auditions, reimagining her now as a shy teenager, raising her hand for everything from the splits to Queen Victoria, when she says in a tiny, anguished voice: âSo shy.â She looks very upset. More upset even than when she was talking about being hacked. She waves a white scarf or hankie, pats at tears.
âFor those of us that know shyness â¦â She trails off. âI can see it in other people; I can even see it in people like me, who constantly try not to let people in â¦ But through therapy Iâm realising Iâm allowed to be vulnerable. And Iâm allowed to feel shy. And Iâm allowed to feel private. I had my privacy ripped away from me in those years. It couldnât have happened to a worse person. I hate people infiltrating my private life. It fucked me up, royally. I felt so â¦ shameful,â she says.
She never had much sense of entitlement, but she is looking the world in the eye more, feeling less of âa con artistâ who has tricked her way to notice. âI started working at 16. Iâm 60. Iâve been working for 44 years. Is it 44?â she says, querying her maths again. âLearning a little bit of tap, little bit of singing, little bit of drama, little bit of presenting.â All those years scraping away and trying to better those talents; a sort of jack of all trades. âAnd finally now Iâm getting to have a go at all of them in quite a good way,â she says brightly. âAnd Iâm master of a few of those trades.â