Caroline Quentin on phone hacking and therapy: ‘I’m not dragging a carcass of misery’ | Caroline Quentin

Caroline Quentin had never watched Strictly Come Dancing before she agreed to appear on the show. “I was aware of it and I’d seen clips,” she says. “But I never actually watched an entire programme.” 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. “I thought: ‘I might as well.’”

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: “It’s probably the oddest thing I’ve done … Basically, you’re trapped. I mean, thank God I liked my partner. People say it’s an institution and … I felt a bit institutionalised by the time I came out.”

Quentin, 60, has always come across as down to earth – 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 – and I wonder if it was the hyperbolised glamour of Strictly that she disliked. But she sounds faintly affronted by that suggestion.

“I’ve worn costumes all my life. I’m a theatre actress, you know. That’s what I do for a living. I dress up, I wear makeup, I make a fool of myself.” 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 “just go back to what we are, which is rogues and vagabonds, travelling players, you know, turns and jesters” – an unassuming list of synonyms. “I value it enormously,” she says. “But that’s not about ego, that’s just … about connecting human beings to other human beings in a positive and joyful way.”

Licked into shape … Quentin’s week-five cha-cha-cha on Strictly Come Dancing.

But I still don’t understand what was so alienating about Strictly Come Dancing, I say. “What are your references?” she says. “Do you know about Jungian analysis?” I nod, possibly unconvincingly, because she says: “It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz. The wizard’s behind that screen and he is not the mighty Wizard of Oz. It’s impenetrable, opaque. It’s 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 … insensitive to individuals.”

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 “grotesque” and “inappropriate”. The Sun said fans were “horrified”. Was she surprised by the reaction?

“It would not have occurred to me that that would have been a problem,” she says. She gives a chesty laugh hauled up from somewhere deep; I don’t think it is merriness. “Not until Johannes came off, because he’s always looking at Twitter, and he went: ‘Oh God.’ I said: ‘What, Johannes?’ He went: ‘People don’t like the fact you licked me.’ I said: ‘Why not?’ He said: ‘You licked a black man.’ I said: ‘Do you think it’s that, Jo?’ He said: ‘I’m sure it is.’ I said: ‘Fuck, that’s depressing.’ And the word came down: ‘People have been upset by you licking him.’”

‘I dress up, I wear makeup, I make a fool of myself’ … 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? “Well, let me just say that Johannes was completely complicit,” she says. “I am not a licker. I did not take it upon myself to lick him. We talked about it. It was consensual licking.” She is riffing on the idea – giving hints of her early days doing standup. But then she starts to sound very cross. “It was meant to be funny,” she says, addressing an imaginary, disapproving person. “So get a sense of humour or fuck off. One or the other. I don’t care.”

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. “It was like refinding a first love,” 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. “Not like suburbia. It was like amazing rolling fields and this beautiful house, this rockstar mansion. Honestly, it was like …” She looks wondrously around the Soho flat she is renting, as if she has just landed there again, and I can’t help thinking of Dorothy touching down in Oz. “It was like a fairytale.”

Quentin has spoken before about her childhood and her mother’s bipolar disorder. “She 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,” she says. “You don’t know anything else, though, so it’s all right, ’cause you don’t know any different.” She has a habit of locking herself inside these circular sentences, like mini fortresses. No wonder dance was “security … something in childhood which can tether you to the earth”.

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, “for quite a large amount of money” for phone hacking. She is forbidden from saying how much. “My phone was hacked for, I think, upwards of 12 years. They hacked me when I was with Paul Merton,” she says (they divorced in 1998). “They hacked me right the way through meeting Sam [Farmer, her husband], my pregnancies, my miscarriages, my everything.”

She realised she was a victim only 18 months ago – years after others found out. “I kept thinking: ‘If I’ve been hacked, the police will phone me, won’t they?’ But that is not the case. They’re 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: ‘You must have been hacked at the same time. You must have been!’ I said: ‘No one has ever told me, so I don’t know how I’d prove that.’ He gave her the name of a lawyer and the lawyer took care of the rest.

She still has an ongoing case with Mirror Group Newspapers. “It’s not fully behind me,” she says. “Which is 20 – how many years later? 1996. How long ago is that?” Twenty-four years, I say. She lets out a squeaky hoot. “Yeah! You know, what’s awful about it is it did for my relationship with my dad.” Her father, Fred Jones, left when Quentin was 15. After she became famous, there were lots of stories about him in the papers. “Lots. And about one of my sisters. But they’re both dead. My mother was distressed. Because why wouldn’t I tell her I was expecting a baby before I’d tell a newspaper? My mother’s dead. I can’t say to her: ‘I told you!’ I can’t. I’ll never have that opportunity. And it’s vile, actually. It’s 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.”

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. “It’s not good for a family. My parents. Friends. You don’t know who to trust and they don’t trust you, because they think it must be coming from you, because otherwise how would a newspaper find out about things? ’Cause, you know, they work in shops and factories and restaurants. So when you say: ‘It isn’t me,’ they don’t believe you. It was devastating to me, that period of time.”

Quentin prefers not to dwell on her childhood, which must surely have added to the difficulty, saying only that it “was not a bed of roses”. 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, “like a second family”. To pay their bills, Quentin took any work she could.

with her friend Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly
‘I’ve worn costumes all my life’ … with her friend Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock

She got sacked from waiting jobs (she couldn’t hold plates and talk) and steered out of the security company Securicor (she couldn’t add up), but she danced and sang and “auditioned for anything that was going”. She was only 15. It sounds really tough, taking on so much responsibility. “Yes,” she says brightly. “I think nowadays you would be called a child carer.”

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.

“That is who I am,” she says. “I am still that person who packs an overnight bag and gets on a train or cadges a lift to Glasgow to digs … I’m just that one if they go: ‘We need a singer,’ you go: ‘Yeah, I can sing.’ ‘We need someone who can do the splits,’ ‘Yeah, I can do the splits.’ ‘We need someone who can play Queen Victoria,’ ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ That was the way it was.” 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 – “I cannot believe I waited so long!” – started psychotherapy. “And thank God, actually. Because I don’t think I’d have coped as well with the shitstorm we are living with if I hadn’t,” she says. Therapy has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. She and Farmer have two children. William, 17, will be the first person in Quentin’s family to go to university, while Rose, 21, is an actor. They can all see “that I am not dragging round this fucking carcass of misery with me all the time.” She sounds almost triumphant when she says: “It’s starting to go.”

Caroline Quentin with her husband, Sam Farmer
‘Martin Clunes says he is the finest man we know’ … 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 mum’s bipolar. “I absolutely do,” she says. “I have never gone for a diagnosis and I don’t consider myself to be bipolar, but I have extreme moods. I get heightened. I get very overexcited. But I do get very low, too … I don’t know whether it’s inherited or learned.”

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: “‘Good morning, Ms Quentin, can I get you some breakfast?’ And I looked at him and, I swear to god, I thought: ‘Oh no, I love you. I really do love you!’” 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. “He’s … proper. Given that I’m a volatile and highly charged person and I know I’m not easy – one minute I’m ‘Wooooh!’ and next minute I’m ‘Oh God!’ – he has put up with me and loved me. I mean, really loved me for that, not in spite of it … Martin Clunes always says he is the finest man we know. The finest man we know.”

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.

“Honestly! This is what I say to people,” she cries. “Singing with other people, singing in front of other people … It’s a gift you’re giving to people. I always think: ‘I’m doing this for other people.’ It’s like saying to someone: ‘I’m making myself vulnerable here for you and I’m giving you this.’

“I think, for shy people … I was a terribly shy child,” she starts to say. Shy? Really? “Oh, terribly shy. I know. I’m honestly not at all who you think I am.” She habitually puts up shields. “The carapace, the trouper.” Then she says, loudly, because such an affirmation requires a strong voice: “I’m a different person.”

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: “So shy.” 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.

“For those of us that know shyness …” She trails off. “I can see it in other people; I can even see it in people like me, who constantly try not to let people in … But through therapy I’m realising I’m allowed to be vulnerable. And I’m allowed to feel shy. And I’m allowed to feel private. I had my privacy ripped away from me in those years. It couldn’t have happened to a worse person. I hate people infiltrating my private life. It fucked me up, royally. I felt so … shameful,” she says.

She never had much sense of entitlement, but she is looking the world in the eye more, feeling less of “a con artist” who has tricked her way to notice. “I started working at 16. I’m 60. I’ve been working for 44 years. Is it 44?” she says, querying her maths again. “Learning a little bit of tap, little bit of singing, little bit of drama, little bit of presenting.” All those years scraping away and trying to better those talents; a sort of jack of all trades. “And finally now I’m getting to have a go at all of them in quite a good way,” she says brightly. “And I’m master of a few of those trades.”

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