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Caroline Quentin heads to Cambridge and says: ‘Working with my daughter is the best gift ever’

Alex Spencer catches up with the star to talk about her new production at Cambridge Arts Theatre, her family life, love of gardening and thoughts on equality.

Mrs Warren’s Profession: Caroline Quentin and Simon Shepherd. Picture: Pamela Raith
Mrs Warren’s Profession: Caroline Quentin and Simon Shepherd. Picture: Pamela Raith

Not every mum and grown-up offspring would relish working and living together, but Caroline Quentin has loved every minute of touring in a play with her daughter, Rose.

She stars alongside Rose in a new production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, arriving at Cambridge Arts Theatre this April.

The play is an acid test of a mother-daughter relationship and is one of the wittiest and most provocative by George Bernard Shaw.

Written in 1894 and banned for 30 years by a Lord Chamberlain who found it “immoral and improper”, Mrs Warren’s Profession is about a Cambridge-educated young woman who makes a discovery about how her life is being funded by her brothel-madam mother.

“It just sounds so cheesy, but it has been one of the most brilliant working experiences of my life,” says Caroline.

“We’re very, very close anyway, me and Rose, and very good friends. We have the same sense of humour, which is fatal in the rehearsal room, particularly when it differs from the humour of the rest of the room. Perhaps we both have a huge sense of the ridiculous. She’s a very quick learner and she understands the text of this play really well. For someone so young, I’ve been amazed at how she understands the nuances of all the relationships in the play.”

Clearly a very proud mum, she adds: “You walk into your place of work and there is the person you love most in the world. It is like the greatest gift you’ve ever been given. It’s just incredible. And then they come up and they give you a big kiss. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

Rose showed signs of being a talented actress from a very early age, says Caroline, who immediately noticed her ability when she took the lead role in a school play at age five.

Mrs Warren’s Profession: Caroline Quentin and Simon Shepherd. Picture: Pamela Raith
Mrs Warren’s Profession: Caroline Quentin and Simon Shepherd. Picture: Pamela Raith

“You don’t expect much from littlies in a play. But she walked on and she was completely in command. She said the first few lines and got a very funny laugh and then carried on her lines with such kind of authority and clarity and honesty. My mother, who was alive at the time, turned to me and just said, ‘Oh God, we’ve got another one!’”

Mrs Warren is a character that Caroline sympathises with as a mum who has worked hard and done the best she can for her child.

She says: “She’s fierce and I relate to her fierceness, particularly when it comes to her daughter. She has raised her daughter, not in her own home, but she’s paid other people to raise her daughter because she wants the best for her child.

“And I think a lot of us parents know that actually, sometimes we will make those decisions on behalf of our children and for our children with the best will in the world. And as it happens, Mrs Warren is told by her daughter that her daughter doesn’t rate her decision very highly and thinks it’s a pretty poor choice, but hopefully my children don’t see their upbringing in the same way.”

Rose grew up watching Caroline’s career from the wings and early on her parents worked out that her dad, Sam Farmer, would need to put his career aside while he stayed home to look after the children.

“My husband has his own career, now the children have grown up. He retrained as a cosmetic scientist and has his own very successful business. But he did step away from television, which is where I met him, for 15 years to raise the children,” Caroline says.

“He and I both knew that I was earning a lot more money. He was the unit runner, so he was basically making tea and he’s younger than me. So, I was in a financially much better position, which is a very, very, very rare thing. I don’t know many men who would have done that, or could have, whose egos could have put up with it, who would have remained such a stalwart and supporter of me throughout the last 25 years. He has been a constant support to me and now to my daughter - he’s amazing.”

Caroline Quentin also loves gardening and painting. Picture: Matt Austin.
Caroline Quentin also loves gardening and painting. Picture: Matt Austin.

She adds: “He really was the only father at the school gate for years and years and years.”

He cared for Rose and younger brother William, who has just started a degree in religion and politics at Leeds University.

“William is the most brilliant comedian, actor and singer, but he’s simply not interested in doing it for a living which is absolutely right and proper. He’s a very bright boy but I think if he does go into politics or religion, actually, that some of the same skills are required,” she says.

Having experienced patriarchal values flipped on their head at home, it has been eye-opening to perform in a play about women’s oppression, especially after the progress for women’s rights made in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Caroline explains: “I think (the play) is all about equality: equality of pay, equality of treatment, it’s about not being viewed as objects. You only have to look at what’s going on in our police forces and the way women colleagues have been treated in those places (to realise) it could not be more relevant, this play.

“The shocking part is that so little has changed. Because women don’t have financial and therefore, domestic and social equality. They are always playing catch up, they are always going to be more vulnerable to those that have it, and that goes for this country. And it goes for all sorts of other political situations all over the world where women are being repressed.”

Caroline Quentin. Picture: Pamela Raith
Caroline Quentin. Picture: Pamela Raith

In the play, Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie has never really known much about her mother. A sensible young woman, she has enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, a Cambridge education, a generous monthly allowance and now has ambitions to go into law.

Is it conceivable that her privilege and respectability has been financed from the profits of the world’s oldest profession? Audiences watch how Vivie reacts when she finds out the startling truth about her mother’s business empire and that freedom comes at an emotional price.

It is definitely “not a period piece” and has the capacity to surprise audiences.

“It’s an incredibly bold play,” says Caroline. “It’s shocking. I do a couple of things where the audience will gasp. I kiss one of the men and literally people go, ‘Oh!’ It’s like that every night. It’s a shock for them.”

She is despairing of modern attitudes to women, especially those espoused on social media by male influencers.

“The treatment of young women on social media, how they are viewed, how they’re spoken to and spoken about by young men - it’s really shocking and fantastically depressing, actually,” she says.

“I’m 62 and I honestly can’t believe I’m saying those words now. Because when I was in my 20s I thought there was a bright new future ahead, I really did. I thought there was hope. At the moment, it doesn’t feel hopeful at all for women in this country, particularly young women.”

She has just been nominated for a coveted Olivier award for her last play, the National Theatre’s Jack Absolute Flies Again, and has recently completed filming a second series of Sky’s sci-fi thriller The Lazarus Project, so her work is busier than ever.

“It’s really sort of unbelievable given that a few years ago, when I’d been out of work for two years, I said to Sam, ‘Oh God, I think, love, it’s over. I think that party’s over and that’s absolutely fine. You know, I had a very good career my 40s.”

Mrs Watten’s Profession. Rose Quentin. Picture: Pamela Raith
Mrs Watten’s Profession. Rose Quentin. Picture: Pamela Raith

But despite that blip, she has remained in demand on stage and TV. Her many television roles have ranged from Men Behaving Badly, Kiss Me Kate and Jonathan Creek to Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge, and the 2020 season of Strictly Come Dancing.

“I sort of can’t quite believe my luck at the moment, I have to be honest with you. It’s quite thrilling to me that I have a nomination for the Oliviers but also this wonderful part in a big Sky series. I’m playing this incredibly powerful, complex character - really amazing.”

It isn’t really all down to luck. Caroline herself admits that the only advice she has given her daughter about the acting profession is to “work really hard”. At an audition, “you need to have done all your homework,” she says, “because there’ll be someone sitting next to you, waiting to go in, who will have done more than you, who will have worked harder than you, will be better looking, speaks French, rides a horse, and can do three pirouettes.”

Hitting 60 was a bit of a milestone moment, but not in the way she expected.

“I don’t think the actual birthday meant much to me,” says Caroline, “but interestingly, time is is suddenly very much on my mind and how I’m going to spend what’s left to me because we none of us know. If we’re lucky enough to get to 60 you’re less sure that you’ll get to 65 or 70, aren’t you? That’s the nature of getting older and I think I am very aware that I want to spend my time doing things I love with people I at least like, and hopefully love, and respect, and I think that is altering my choices about what sort of work I do, how much I work, where I work…. I think probably what I’ll do is start making choices that address the quieter side of my nature.”

Those quieter things include drawing, writing, painting and gardening, according to the actor. She has a huge following on Instagram for her gardening account, CQ Gardens, in which she shares clips of her pottering around her greenhouse and orchard.

“I’ve been a very keen gardener since my 20s,” says Caroline. “I was massively surprised during the first lockdown when my husband Sam said to me, ‘Look, why don’t you tell people you love it?’.

“If I sit down at dinner I will talk about plants all night with people if they ask, so he said why don’t you put it out there? And very, very quickly, I had 100,000 people, not just following but actually talking to me. I mean, sending me messages saying ‘I lost my mum during Covid and it really helped me when you talked about your mum and what you planted when your mum died and how it made you feel and why you chose those plants’.

“And other days I’ll just do silly bits of nonsense and walks around the garden. People will talk to me in a way that probably you can’t do face to face and tell me things about how they’re feeling. I’m in touch with people from Australia and Canada, Spain and Portugal. Lots of people from the United States. Even people that don’t gardening love to watch gardens, even if they’ve never grow a beetroot in their lives.”

The gardening started as a way of clearing her head after work and finding some quiet time.

“I had my first window box when I was about 20,” she says. “I think I am an introvert in an extrovert’s business and gardening is something you can do on your own. It’s peaceful, even if you’re in a city as I was when I first started gardening. You shut everything out, it’s just you, a bit of the earth and the plant and also it’s about hope. I think gardening is a very hopeful thing, in a world that is full of frankly terrible scenarios just piling up. To plant a bulb or to sow a seed is probably the most hopeful act.

“I feel if I’m planting something it means I must believe there’ll be a tomorrow.”

She adds that these days her favourite hobbies are quiet activities she can do alone.

“Most of the things I grow, I draw and paint. People like that they find that quite meditative as well and I do. I’ve always drawn and painted but I’m doing more and more of it. Actually I find that when I get some downtime that’s what I do. I write a bit, I draw a bit, I paint a bit.”

And these interests could lead on to a new stage in her career if acting ever takes a back seat, including possibly hosting an exhibition of her art.

“I think I’d probably need some time to prepare for something like that. But I would really love to do that. I was thinking about that, funnily enough, about three days ago, At the moment I do small things like watercolours, drawings, charcoals, but I would like to do some larger canvases. So yeah, who knows? Watch this space!”

  • Mrs Warren’s Profession is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from April 4-8. Tickets, from £20, are available from the box office at cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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