Canny: Frances Barber bought her first flat at 26
The actress Frances Barber, 64, doesn’t mind being paid less than co-stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Christian Slater. But she was happy to be given a similar-sized Winnebago trailer to Hoffman to change in when on set for Netflix series Medici, she tells Sam Meadows.
Barber has been nominated for Olivier Awards for Uncle Vanya and Camille and starred in BBC dramas Silk and Doctor Who. More recently, she played Joy in the movie Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.
The London-based actress is currently starring in Steven Moffat’s play The Unfriend.
What did your parents teach you about money?
My dad was a bookie. He used to take us to the horse racing and the dogs and he would always have a great bag of money that punters could bet on. He was very strict and taught us to be extremely careful. He would insist that we only take the amount of money we could afford to lose. If we walked away with all of it, then we’d had a free day out. Anything more was a bonus.
When Dad got his own betting shop, I worked there on Saturdays and saw men who would come in with their wage packets, lose and then continue to bet. It would genuinely break my heart. It’s an addiction. I love going to casinos and horse racing, but I have also seen the awful downside. I’ve never gone on to online gambling websites – I think it’s a terrible, terrifying world.
Did your parents own their home?
I was brought up in a council house. Years later, my two elder brothers bought it for my mum and dad. I was very grumpy because I was quite Left-wing at the time and I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I still don’t. But it gave my parents stability and they probably would have lost the house had it not been bought.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
All the time. I am a jobbing actress. I am very lucky I’m still working at this age. I’m not going to plead poverty but, like everybody, there have been periods where I’ve struggled to afford the mortgage.
When did you buy your first property?
I was about 26 when I bought my first flat for £57,000. It was a garden flat in Camden, North-West London. The interest rates were 14 or 15 per cent. I look back and think: how did I get through the month? I lived there for two or three years and then I bought a lovely flat further north in Highgate for about £300,000 as I wanted to be near the woods.
I lived there for eight years, but I had a fantasy of living in a loft and thought I have to do it before I get old and look ridiculous. So I bought the place I’m in now in Clerkenwell, Central London. It was a struggle for the first ten years. I had to remortgage to cover the service charge.
I’ve been here 23 years and it’s the only thing of any value I own. I’ve had a good time of it, because mortgage rates have been so low. Too good a time of it really. I think I fell into the trap, like everybody, of thinking this is fine and now, of course, my rate has quadrupled.
Was your property your best investment?
Without a doubt. There’s a gambling element inside me. Everybody said, you can’t afford this – particularly my accountant. But I had fallen in love with it. Nobody was going to talk me out of it. Now I realise that little gambler whispering in my ear was right.
And your worst financial decision?
I’ve not had any disasters because I have been cautious. I don’t have any stocks or shares. I just have some savings and that’s it really. I know two actors whose accountant or manager disappeared with all their money. Literally left them brassic. I spoke to one actor who was earning $1 million (£850,000) an episode for a TV show and one day he looked at his bank account and it was empty. The man went to prison, but he never got the money back. Thankfully I’ve never had anything like that.
What pays best? Film, theatre or television?
Normally film. Although these days if you are lucky enough to get into a long-running series on television for Netflix or Hulu or something, they pay a lot more because they tend to go on. The BBC doesn’t pay that much, ITV pays much more, Channel 4 isn’t bad.
Everything I’ve ever earned has been quite moderate – I’ve sadly never been paid silly money. I’ve never earned six figures for a film.
In character: Frances as Kovarian in Doctor Who
What do you think about the gender pay gap in acting?
Earlier in my career I was often paid less than my male co-stars. I think now because it’s such a hot potato that it happens less, and contracts will be written so that if you have comparative roles then you need to be paid the same. But, I’m not ridiculous about it. I did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [on stage] with Christian Slater and he was a movie star, bringing in the punters.
It didn’t bother me that I knew he was probably getting twice as much as me even though we had comparable parts. People were paying for tickets to see him, so you have to be sensible about it.
I did a Netflix series called Medici with Dustin Hoffman – I wasn’t going to say I want as much as him, I’m not insane. But they did give me a similar size Winnebago, so I was very happy with that.
Do female actors have to spend more money on their appearance than men?
Unquestionably. When I moved back from Los Angeles I just thought everyone looked tired and then I realised I had got used to everyone looking so wide awake because they have had botox. Accountants in the industry have a whole section for ‘cosmetics’, as they sweetly term it.
We have to spend a lot of money on it, and now quite a lot of male actors have work done too. You’d be amazed.
Are you affected by the changes in the state pension age?
I am. I did go to Downing Street to help publicise the campaign against the changes, but I didn’t really follow it through as I was busy. I haven’t got my pension yet and I know women are very angry about losing a certain amount of money because the age was put up. I never thought I’d be looking forward to being a pensioner, but I am. I was over the moon when I turned 60 and I got my Transport for London Oyster pass.
Do you prefer cash or cards?
I used to use cash a lot, but then Covid happened and I haven’t had any since. It’s a whole new world now. I have to force myself to remember to get change so that if I have a takeaway delivered, I have a tip for the driver.
Does money make you happy?
Of course. The worst thing about not having money is insecurity, which can lead to terrible things like anxiety. Having security means having enough money to cushion yourself. I am fortunate to have never been on the breadline.
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