Interview with Cold Feet star Robert Bathurst
PUBLISHED: 12:13 19 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:00 20 February 2013
Sussex actor Robert Bathurst, best known for playing posh David in the award-winning TV series Cold Feet, has cornered the market in upper-crust types. But don't make the mistake of stereotyping him – he's full of surprises...
Sussex actor Robert Bathurst, best known for playing posh David in the award-winning TV series Cold Feet, has cornered the market in upper-crust types. But dont make the mistake of stereotyping him hes full of surprises. He talks to Angela Wintle as he prepares to tread the boards in Brighton in Noel Cowards Blithe Spirit
Few actors, I imagine, suffer from stereotyping as much as Robert Bathurst. To many, he will always be David Marsden from the popular ITV series Cold Feet, whose confident public school demeanour contrasted so pitifully with his emotional cack-handedness.
Emotional ineptness aside, Robert is superficially at least in the same mould well spoken; Cambridge educated; staunchly middle class. I can no more imagine him playing a Cockney wide boy than picture Penelope Keith running the Queen Vic.
But he is aware of the dilemma. He gently declines to be photographed at his home in rural East Sussex, partly, I suspect, because he is a private man but also, Im told, out of fear of appearing self-satisfied. No smug pictures round the Aga, thank you, requests his publicist politely. Besides, she says, Robert is just a regular guy nothing like his stuffy alter-ego.
And so it proves. Robert is actually quite shy and diffident, though he tempers the mix with a beguiling and dry sense of humour. Refreshingly, he has never apologised for what he is, though thats not to say he hasnt fought the system on behalf of his characters. Initially David in Cold Feet was a stereotype, he says, set up in the plot as a Thatcherite person to have a go at. But he fought endless battles to make him more rounded.
I didnt think his type of character was well handled in drama, he says. Its a rule of modern television that these sorts of people arent allowed any redeeming qualities. Theyve been regarded as representative of the oppressor classes for so long and now its payback time. But its something to be resisted.
As it happens, Robert isnt fussed if viewers equate him with the characters he plays. Far from playing against type he has embraced his class credentials. Presumably, this is one of the reasons he will be appearing in his second Noel Coward play in 12 months this time as Charles Condomine in Noel Cowards Blithe Spirit, which runs at Theatre Royal in Brighton in November. He joins Alison Steadman, who will play eccentric medium Madame Arcati, and will be reunited with his Cold Feet screen wife, Hermione Norris. West End singer and actress Ruthie Henshall is also rumoured to be joining the cast.
Its a comedy ghost story, he says. My character is a writer who tries to get some background on what its like to run a sance, so he calls in a mystic from the village and thinks hes going to have a laugh at her expense. But lo and behold, the spirit of his late wife suddenly materialises and starts taking pops at his new spouse, and hes the only one who can see and hear her. Its pretty shocking.
Surely this stage reunion with Norris cant be a coincidence? No, it was probably a cynical commercial act, he laughs light-heartedly. It certainly wasnt our doing. We know each other pretty well, but weve never performed on stage together.
Robert has been lured back to Coward because he loves taking on the language. Theres a very specific metre and you have to surrender to the rhythm, though I try not to do it as people might perceive Coward should be done. So we shouldnt expect clipped sentences? No, if you do it straight, it works really well. Cowards plays are better than people imagine much more than light romps.
Well be seeing a lot of Robert over the coming months. In December, he will be appearing in Hattie, a BBC biopic exploring Carry On actress Hattie Jacques secret affair with a younger man during her marriage to John Le Mesurier. Robert plays Le Mesurier, best known, of course, for playing the diffident Sergeant Wilson in Dads Army; Ruth Jones of Gavin & Stacey fame will play his voluptuous wife.
Theres quite an interesting story to tell about Jacques, though whether we want to know is another matter, he says, referring to the BBCs penchant for revisionist dramas, which has already picked at the reputations of Enid Blyton and Hughie Green. Its well known that Hattie took a lover, a Cockney car salesman called John Schofield, but when Le Mesurier found out, he simply moved into a spare room.
I watched a lot of film footage in preparation for the role, though I tried to forget it all when I came to play him because I didnt want to do an impression more an approximation. He downgraded his talents as an actor, claiming he only played one part, but he had glorious phrasing, timing and presence. In private, however, he was a heavy drinker and died of liver failure in 1983.
Robert also has a part in the current ITV1 period drama, Downton Abbey, and will be showing up in 12th century England this autumn in a Channel 4 adaptation of Ken Folletts best-selling historical novel The Pillars of the Earth, set during the Great Tyranny in the reign of King Stephen. Its about the building of a cathedral, and all the politicking and personalities that go with it. I play Lord Percy Hamleigh a conspirator who ends up getting shot by Sarah Parish, my wife. I always seem to be getting bumped off these days!
Robert may be in demand now, but it was many years before he gave in to his longing to become an actor. He was born on the Gold Coast in the dying days of colonial Africa, where his father worked as a management consultant. In 1966, the family moved to Dublin and Robert was sent to a boarding school in County Meath. I hated it. There was lots of thrashing and letters home were read in case we said anything bad about the school. It made me very good at hiding.
He caught the acting bug after seeing a pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. At Cambridge, where he read law, he became President of Footlights, and appeared in revues alongside Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson. But he was so fearful of rejection that he only became a fully paid-up thespian after a wasted year at law school.
Early career highlights included Noises Off in the West End and the TV series Joking Apart, as well as a series of lucrative Guinness commercials. But it was Cold Feet that made his name at the relatively advanced age of 44. The cast were relative unknowns, but such was the success of the show that by the end they were reputedly earning 70,000 per episode. I ask how he gelled with James Nesbitt (who played Adam) and John Thomson (Pete), whose laddish exploits have been well chronicled.
I got on perfectly well with both of them, though we certainly kept different hours, he says fondly. Ive laughed more in Johns company than anyone I know. And Im extremely fond of Jimmy, whos gregarious, sensitive and funny. I didnt see a lot of Helen Baxendale, who played Rachel, while we were filming, because she was either pregnant or rushing off to her daughter.
Hes not sure why Cold Feet struck such a chord. It was partly because the scripts were so gloriously funny, but the characters were also ordinary, believable people who were often in quite sad situations. By a fluke, it caught the mood.
He has been in steady employment ever since. He played a fictional prime minister in the BBC sitcom My Fathers the Prime Minister, Mark Thatcher in the fact-based drama Coup! and Mr Weston in the recent BBC adaptation of Emma. He has also made a welcome return to the theatre in everything from Chekhovs Three Sisters to Alex, a stage adaptation of the Daily Telegraphs popular cartoon strip.
His home life is just as rich. He is married to Victoria Threlfall, an artist, and they have four daughters. Home is set in rolling farmland between Tunbridge Wells and Battle. A lot of West Sussex people are very snooty about the east of the county, but what I love is that its rougher and less feudal. It has old iron workings, its heavily wooded and doesnt have major roads running through it its deep country.
When Robert isnt bent over a script, he explores the region on his bicycle and goes mackerel fishing off Rye Harbour in his own boat. It may also surprise you to learn that he is potty about horse racing. I am happiest on a wet Monday at Plumpton, he smiles. I like jumps rather than the flat, and just spend a fiver here and there. I like the smell, the mud and the blood, and the power of the horses whooshing past.
So, far from being a stereotype, it seems that Robert is actually full of surprises. When I ask whether there are any roles he yearns to play, he says it would be foolish to announce his ambitions. But he does allow one chink in the armour: The more unexpected the opportunity, the more appealing it is, he says. So perhaps we will hear him with a Cockney accent after all.
Blithe Spirit runs at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, from November 16-20. For tickets, ring 0844 871 7627 or visit www.ambassadortickets.com/brighton