The actress tells Melissa Crowther about open-plan bathing, feeling homesick with Ian McKellan and fond memories of Smack…
How long have you lived in Clerkenwell?
It’s been 11 years now. I used to have a flat near Highgate Wood, with a big garden and a conservatory; I also had a big dog. When he died, I decided to go for something completely different. I wanted to live in a loft (before I looked too old to!) and one of the few areas that had authentic ones was here. I didn’t look at that many places. The minute I walked into where I am now, on St John Street — it’s 2,000 square feet and beyond open plan — that was it. I fell in love with it immediately. I’ve never looked back.
I’ve heard it’s pretty unusual…
It sounds very strange if you haven’t seen it, but it’s got a plinth in the middle of the floor with the bath and the shower on it. It’s one of the things I really love about the flat because you just walk in and go, ‘Oh my god, what’s that!’ There are curtains to pull around it, so you’re not on show… The guy I bought the flat from was a photographer and I’ve also got a wall made out of reconstructed panels from an ice-cream cold storage van — they’re doors to what was his dark room and is now my loo. And you can’t see them if they’re closed. I had a party here once and Paul O’Grady spent so long looking for the loo, he just said, ‘Oh fuck it, I’m going to piss in the corridor!’
Do you have a dog still?
When I got here, the Spalls [actor Timothy and his wife Shane] bought me a beautiful little bulldog, called Smack. Unfortunately, he died a few weeks ago, which was really sad. I used to go to the Green with him twice a day, every single day. His ashes are scattered in the churchyard, so there will forever be a piece of Smack in Clerkenwell…
Where do you like to hang out?
I love The Well, and Medcalf on Exmouth Market — if you’re lucky enough to get a table in the garden on a Sunday for lunch, it’s fantastic. It’s my favourite thing in the world to have the papers and a long, long Sunday lunch. The Slaughtered Lamb on Great Sutton Street is good for that, too — I can stay there for hours. For breakfast, I often go to Smiths of Smithfield, as I like sitting outside there at weekends when there’s not too much traffic going barmy up and down the road.
What do you like best about EC1?
There are so many hidden gems. However many times I’ve been up and down St John Street, I’ve always managed to discover a new route or a little alley I didn’t know was there. And Clerken-well really does feel like a village. I hardly ever go up to Islington, which is quite strange because it’s so near, but everything’s here and so I don’t need to. I suppose the only thing that it would be lovely to have in addition here is an old cinema, showing obscure films into the night.
Have you ever filmed around here?
I was doing an episode of Hustle and when I saw that the location was St John Street, I was so thrilled. And then I discovered that the base, where they do the make-up and everything, was in Southwark. So they picked me up from St John Street, we drove all the way to Southwark, then we drove all the way back! We were filming in the Farmiloe Building, where they shot that wonderful Russian gangster film Eastern Promises, with Viggo Mortensen. I remember watching it when I was in Minnesota with Ian McKellan, when we’d been away a long time touring King Lear. I kept saying, ‘Look, that’s my road!’ I’ll never forget feeling this huge pang of homesickness
Overall, how do you rate living here?
I absolutely love it. I’ve thought many times that maybe it’s time to move on. But I can’t think of where else I’d like to live more, to be honest.
Frances Barber is in the BBC’s forthcoming adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’, due to air this Christmas. She also stars in ‘Dr Who’, and Channel 4’s ‘Pete Versus Life’