Robert Bathurst on returning to Cold Feet and his favourite Sussex places
PUBLISHED: 15:30 07 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:30 07 November 2016
East Sussex actor Robert Bathurst has been involved in two television juggernauts: Cold Feet and Downton Abbey. As the former returns after a 13-year hiatus, he speaks to Jenny Mark-Bell about getting the gang back together
As Tory Boy David Marsden, Robert Bathurst provided an anachronistic, old-fashioned foil to the younger, cooler characters of Cold Feet, the sitcom that returned to our screens last month after a 13-year hiatus.
Storming onto our screens in 1997 (the same year Tony Blair moved into No.10), Cold Feet was one of the harbingers of Cool Britannia. Its vibrant Manchester setting was a sharp riposte to the 1970s and 1980s narrative that it was grim up north.
Much beloved by viewers, the series made household names of its stars James Nesbitt, Helen Baxendale, Fay Ripley, John Thomson, Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst.
The latter couple enjoyed a more affluent lifestyle than their friends but that didn’t stop them experiencing stumbling blocks such as alcoholism, infidelity and divorce.
The series went out on an emotional low but a critical high, with the Daily Mail reporting 9.4m viewers tuned in to watch the episode in which young mother Rachel (Baxendale) died in a car crash. According to The Guardian the first episode of the new series exceeded 6m viewers.
Robert Bathurst lives in East Sussex and has just returned from filming an episode of Channel 4 and TNT production Foreign Bodies in Kuala Lumpur. He says that everyone concerned with the new series of Cold Feet felt there was a compelling reason to revisit the characters. “They have moved on: they’re older and they’re at a different stage of their lives. It’s not a remake, it’s a revisit.” Robert first heard that the writer and producer were discussing a return in March of last year. They finished shooting this June. He admits that the actors had reservations: “Acting is a strange thing in that you get to know each other very well very quickly and then you say goodbye, that’s just how it is. We had a good five years together and then we were off. It was very strange to reconvene and we were all very apprehensive about it because as far as all of us were concerned we had drawn a line under it.”
The series writer Mike Bullen has said: “This feels like the right time to revisit these characters, as they tip-toe through the minefield of middle age. They’re 50, but still feel 30, apart from on the morning after the night before, when they really feel their age. They’ve still got lots of life to look forward to, though they’re not necessarily the years one looks forward to!”
Robert adds: “Mike’s desire to see what the characters were up to was very appealing because we all loved doing it all those years ago and he wrote some wonderful stuff. It suddenly became apparent that we all rather enjoyed working with each other again.”
During Cold Feet’s first incarnation David’s emotional insensitivity made him an often unsympathetic character. A product of the Thatcher era, David represented yuppie culture. “Those sorts of people weren’t generally treated very kindly by TV drama – they were regarded as selfish, greedy and self-obsessed,” says Robert. “To some extent David is that, but I always felt very strongly that he couldn’t just be that, because that wouldn’t sustain more than about five minutes of interest. You always look for the more interesting human qualities that somebody like that might possess.
“David is still the blinkered person that he is, but he does his best and he does things for more honourable motives than you might imagine. And yet his judgement is appalling, he gets into the most terrible scrapes of his own making. Not with any evil intent, just because he doesn’t get things right.”
Those thunderous missteps included affairs with a political activist and his own divorce lawyer. At the start of series six we found him still with lawyer Robyn.
So popular was Cold Feet that the actors renegotiated their fees to make them among the highest-earning actors on television at the time – reputedly earning £75,000 each per episode for the fifth series. They were also involved in the development of their characters, although Robert downplays that: “Inevitably you are involved in colouring the character but it’s really important to say that that’s not creating the part. It’s just finding rhythms, tones and all the things that make the characters interesting. None of us created our parts but we are responsible for giving it tone.”
After bidding farewell to one of the great television behemoths of the nineties and noughties, Robert again found himself involved in a broadcasting juggernaut with Downton Abbey (2010-2015), in which he played the supporting role of Sir Anthony Strallan for all six series. “What’s interesting about those two shows, both of which did become big,” says Robert, “was to be involved in the first series. When you’re doing the first series of something you simply don’t know whether it’s going to appeal or not. What’s enjoyable about doing a first series is you’re not looking out at what the audience might think or any expectations riding on it, you just do it. And then you get on to the second series and third when things have taken off and there’s a whole hoopla about it in the press, and massive expectation. What’s really important is to retain that smallness and just do the story.”
Ever since ITV announced the sixth series of Cold Feet there has been feverish media speculation about where we will find the characters, but Robert says it’s not difficult to shut that out during filming. “When you’re doing it there’s no press about it. And also you’re doing things in such small chunks – five minutes of screen time a day – it’s the overall picture that people get excited about, not the little beats that you’re responsible for during a working day. The fact that you’ve got five, six, seven, eight, nine million people sitting inside that camera, you don’t even think about that, you just do it in the room and see how it all pieces together.”
In between roles in landmark television series, Robert – whose first professional experience was with the Cambridge Footlights – has continued to work in the theatre. His most recent Sussex performances were in Love, Loss and Chianti, a double bill by award-winning writer Christopher Reid at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester last January. He also appeared in Blue/Orange at Theatre Royal Brighton in 2012 and An Ideal Husband at Chichester Festival Theatre.
The greasepaint and glamour of the stage were exploited to surreal and hilarious effect in Toast of London, in which Robert recently starred alongside co-creator and star Matt Berry. He says “One of the things I find most exciting sometimes is if I read something and I simply don’t get it. I just thought, ‘this is really odd’. It’s quietly culty and those who do like it really do love it. A friend of mine said he was on a plane the other day and other passengers were telling him to shut up because he was laughing so much at it. It’s an impossible show to describe. It’s one of those shows that hasn’t got a very interesting premise: it’s about an actor and the scrapes he gets into, which isn’t funny in its own right, but it’s got its own tone and it seems to work. I love it and I love doing it.” He is relaxed but hopeful that it will return for another series. At the moment, he is working on more theatre projects, so talk turns to local performance venues and memorable moments. “I did a show at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne where a piece of furniture fell off the stage and I had to persuade the usher to give it back to me. It was an office chair on castors and they’ve got such a steep stage that when I stood up, the chair overtook me and ended up in the orchestra pit. Luckily there was nobody in the orchestra pit.”
Robert and his wife, the artist Victoria Threlfall, have been in East Sussex for about 17 years and he “adores” it. “It’s rougher than smarter, more manicured West Sussex. I’m going to annoy a lot of Sussex people here because West Sussex people are very snotty about East Sussex – and I’m very happy to let them stay there because I love East Sussex. It’s wooded and it’s muddy, it’s got heavy clay and the land isn’t as good for farming. However there is a real charm and beauty to it and there’s a roughness to it which I find very appealing.”
The area has changed in the time he has been here and he attributes some of that change to the ‘string of pearls’: art galleries and venues dotted along the south coast such as the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and the Towner in Eastbourne. “Artists always lead the way. It’s often the artists who descend on these places and start insisting that they get good coffee. That changes the way people perceive these towns.”
My favourite Sussex
• Shop - Cycle Revival in Heathfield. It’s an independent bicycle shop owned and run by a father and son. They supply and lend and it’s a great place.
• Restaurant - There’s a place in Western Road in St Leonards. It’s advertised sometimes as the Taj Mahal and it’s also known as the Lakshmi Mahal. It’s a really good Indian restaurant – it takes a while for the food to come but that’s because it’s all freshly prepared and it’s really fine Indian cooking.
• Pub - The Lamb in Wartling.
• Walk - There are loads, but I love Cuckmere Haven.
• Visitor attraction - I just love the fishing boats at Hastings, and Birling Gap.
• Sussex celebrities and personalities share what they love most about the county - Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit