You’ve got some Front – Omnigenius #4 celebrates Rebecca Front, from “The Day Today” to “Nighty Night”, but always in “The Thick Of It”

Pop Lifer is celebrating The Day Today gang’s fearsome stranglehold on most that is good in British comedy. Part 1 began where it almost all began with “The Day Today”. Part 2 delved into the strange, fascinating world of Alan Partridge. Part 3 looked at the latest Iannucci project, “The Thick of It” – the brilliant and definitive modern political sitcom. Now we turn our uninvited attentions to one of its key performers, Rebecca Front.

Courtesy of the BBC Comedy Archives.

So far Pop Lifer’s celebration of the Day Today gang has focused mostly on the writers, but even the best comic writing dies without good acting, while even lazy writing can be made hilarious by a glittering actor. So in our final Omingenius blog we’re going to turn to arguably the most versatile and least egomaniacal comic performer of the whole gang, the criminally underrated Rebecca Front. She may never have achieved or sought the megafame of Steve Coogan, but she’s been at the heart of just as much brilliant comedy.

Most of the celebration of tonight’s episode of “The Thick Of It” is likely to focus on the splenetic return of Malcolm Tucker, but at Pop Lifer we’re just as delighted to see Front returning as newly crowned Leader Of The Opposition, Nicola Murray. Taking over from Chris Langham’s mordant, death-barely-warmed-up minister in season 3 of “The Thick Of It” seemed a nearly impossible task, but anyone who has been watching Front over the last two decades should have known she was up to it.

Front turned in a typically multi-faceted performance as Murray. At first she seemed doomed to a sort of perpetually harried mumsiness, but as the show progressed Murray shows some genuine zest and desire to actually achieve something good (see her excitable attempts to secure Andy Murray’s endorsement for her healthy eating campaign), as well as an increasing verbal bite (snapping at Ben: “talking to you is like talking to a fucking whoopee cushion”) and even an ability to stand up to the dreaded Tucker. In fact, it’s surprising she’s somehow won the leadership contest, as one of the few ministers who are both likeable and have a discernible spine. Of course, it’s the moments of outright, flailing panic that have defined “The Thick Of It”, and Front does these as well as anyone – as this clips shows. “Get me some ketamine! I want to separate my mind from my body!”

Front first came to national TV fame (the only proper kind) in The Day Today, which we’ve already celebrated at length. But it’s worth recalling the startling array of performances Front turned in, from a queasily glib and glossy American news presenter to the traffic reporter who is subject to Chris Morris’ terrifying and surreal flirtations to Ange, one of the stars of the brilliant soap pastiche The Bureau. In this clip we get to see Front manouvering herself through the most awkward and claustrophobic dramatic exit in TV history, letting loose as a brilliantly lusty Italian TV commentator and delivering the immortal line: “get him into the bureaux de change!”

Front went on to see her versatility tested even further in “Knowing Me, Knowing You” where she had to morph on a weekly basis into a new guest star. Probably the most memorable of these was Yvonne Bond, who was clearly meant to be a parody of Vivienne Westwood. However, time does strange things, and now her performance seems like nothing so much as a sort of pre-emptive satire of Lady Gaga’s cringe-inducing presence on chat shows, dressed absurdly, spouting bland riddles and generating a look of mixed despair and panic in the presenter’s eyes.

Most recently, Front provided some needed consistency to Simon Amstell’s uneven “Grandma’s House.” As the brassy, scathingly honest but loving mother, Front provides gusto (regularly breaking into song, as with her famous booty-slapping performance of “Single Ladies”), earthiness and warmth. Not to mention some of the show’s best lines, as in the incredulous “Don’t you want to be a household name in America like Cat Deeley?”

But of all her performances, it’s Front’s Cath in “Nighty Night” that deserves to win Front comic immortality. We’ll be returning in the future to “Nighty Night” – by some distance the most unhinged, unpredictable, black-hearted and original British comedy of the last decade – but for now let’s focus on Front. If “Nighty Night” can be said to be about anything at all, it’s about the brittleness of English civility, and its flimsiness in the face of someone who simply ignores it, like Jill Tyrrell. All the good manners, neatly kept hedges and varnished front doors of Middle England are like plywood in the face of Jill’s trampling monstrosity.

Nobody better represents the hopeless, desperate attempt to keep things “nice” than Cath. Despite her philandering drunk of a husband, her MS and her new and appalling “friend”, Cath struggles to remain utterly and inappropriately cheerful. Front’s performance in the following scene – the cringing, the grimacing smile and the terrified giggle which conceals a howling scream – is both hilarious and agonising.

Without Front, “Nighty Night” would be little more than a grotesque, a cartoon of horrible people doing horrible things. But her generous, brilliantly nuanced performance is what grounds the show and gives Jill the license and space to become ever more hideous, a social piranha chewing up people and scenery.

It’s a performance that shows an admirable lack of vanity, with Cath regularly appearing as frumpy, washed out and humiliated. There’s real pathos too, as in the scenes where Cath faces up to Don’s “infidelity”. Later, she even gets to challenge Jill directly but – in an oh so English way – every attempt to stand up for herself is soon exhausted, and she soon reverts to a cowed fake politeness. One final scene just to remind us that Front is every bit as comfortable as a Gervais in making us cringe, as well as a brilliant physical comic performer – let’s watch Cath try to discover her inner clown.

Rebecca Front – lynchpin of British comedy and official Pop Lifer Hero, we salute you!

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