Robert Bathurst has me trapped in a farce worthy of Feydeau. We are sitting in the living room of the Sussex house he shares with his artist wife, Victoria, and their four daughters. Coffee has been made and we’ve settled in our seats in the living-room when – horror! – my host spots a tiny country mouse. The cat is beckoned but seems singularly uninterested, even though his prey is positively Jerry-like in its provocations, skittering here and there.
When a daughter’s efforts and various entrapment methods all fail (Bathurst stretched out in full along the carpet, with a shoebox and dishcloth in hand), we settle back into our interview. From time to time, oddly enough usually coinciding with a tricky question, the mouse is spotted again – “Oh God, is it going into my handbag, Robert?” “No, it’s very tiny – it might have a rest in your boot…” and so on.
Bathurst has been a pal since starring – in a brilliantly comic turn – as Boris Johnson with a crazy blond wig plonked on his head in a musical, written by my partner and me, about a dramatic episode in David Blunkett’s life. It was a great learning experience, not least to understand from first hand how much more actors can bring to your creations than you could ever imagine on the page.
But something he cannot act is the enthusiastic interviewee. We are here to talk about the return of Cold Feet, in which he plays posh management consultant, David. He produces a helluva performance when asked quite straightforward questions. What moves you? “Cugh – ugh – err…” What is your guilty pleasure?: “Oh dear oh dear oh dear…” What is the most surprising thing about you? “Arggghhhhh…”
Robert Bathurst in Cold Feet
Thinking to help, I mention John Malkovich’s embroidery habit. And how the late Denholm Elliott told me that what moved him was the back of people’s heads when they’re upset, and how one of his great pleasures was the sunburst bite of a ripe tomato. And off he goes…
“That annoys me, I’m afraid – it’s just an actor trying to beef himself up as someone more interesting than they actually are.” But couldn’t it be true? “It could well be true, but I’m just naturally suspicious of people who talk like that – presenting themselves as a deeply sensual being who should be admired for their sensitivity.” (The most surprising thing about him, he says, is that “I’m not as benign as I appear”.)
He goes on: “I don’t trust actors when they talk and when they present these things because everything is so studied. Everything is done for effect, with one eye on how it’s going to be received. I never trust what an actor says.”
He is refreshingly honest about the slings and arrows of his profession. I ask him if he feels that he has fulfilled his ambitions, assuming that he is ambitious? “There are times when I feel underused and underrated. In the early 1990s, in the annual round-up, someone referred to me as the most underrated actor. But then I’ve never met anyone in the profession of any standing who isn’t a bit gnarly about what parts they could have done. “As a self-employed performer, you can’t be content – you’ve always got to be on the look-out and have a slightly beady attitude to where you might be going next and what you should be doing – and a sense of your own worth, because if you don’t have it, well…”
I would have thought he must have had the looks to be the romantic lead. He is tall and rangy in a slightly crumpled, cornflower blue shirt that might have been picked to match his eyes. Did he ever hanker to play the parts that, say, Eddie Redmayne or Tom Hiddleston get now? “But I’m not slender,” he says. “I used to play prop forward in rugby. I’m not your classic shape for the sort of – Cary Grant, you know. I’m tall and broad-shouldered and sometimes I feel… chunky.”
He is the oldest member of the main cast of Cold Feet (at 59). Does he feel old? “I don’t, strangely,” he laughs. “I’m actually completely content to be in my 50s and Victoria is roughly the same age as me, so it’s not as if I’m endlessly being mocked by a younger partner.”
David in Cold Feet had a mid-life crisis, how about Bathurst himself? “I didn’t have a mid-life crisis in my own life because I’ve never been cool, so I never had anything to lose from that point of view.”
What is striking is that he talks about his character, David, as though he were vividly real to him. When the series was launched, almost 20 years ago, David was originally drawn as a Tory toff, with no redeeming features at all. He and Hermione Norris (who plays David’s now ex-wife Karen) would work on finding “some beats of connection, and I think those developed more as time went on”.
The Cold Feet gang back in the day
I mention Adam’s (James Nesbitt’s) son, Matthew, having sex with Karen’s daughter Ellie and he corrects me: “Our daughter, thank you very much!” He likes the writing in the first episode of the return of Cold Feet, when the men go off for “a crap stag night” ahead of widowed Adam’s new wedding. They decide they’re far too old to be going to a lap-dancing bar and end up having a Chinese, with David telling his friends he’s not happy with his new wife, the divorce lawyer who handled the split with Karen: “‘Robyn doesn’t like me and I’m not sure I like her very much,’ and then he says something like, ‘When you’ve reached middle age, it’s just little fleeting glimpses of happiness – that’s about all we can expect.’”
When Cold Feet started out, neither Adam nor his pal Pete (John Thomson) liked David, but the death of Adam’s wife, Rachel (Helen Baxendale) in the last series was bonding for them all: “As you get on, you value shared history with people; the shorthand of friendship. I saw someone at an event the other day, and the last time I was with her we were both weeping buckets at a funeral together – and you have that connection, instantly.”
David is involved in a high drama this series. He has been investing in unregulated schemes but he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, while also having persuaded one of his wives (Bathurst gets in a bit of a muddle about which one) to take his speeding points à la Chris Huhne. At any rate, there is now the tantalising possibility of David’s incarceration at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Stay tuned.
Is David a bit dim? “OH NO!” Bathurst seems horrified by the suggestion. “I’m really, really keen to fight that. When he does something stupid it’s because of his judgement – there is a difference there.”
When I ask him if he has hobbies, Bathurst responds: “My hobby is my family life.” Is he Mr Bennet? (His daughters are Matilda, Clemency, Oriel and Honor – ranging from 18 to mid-20s.) “No, Mr Bennet was put upon. It’s got more and more enjoyable with the girls. They have their own opinions and own way of doing things and I’m trying to let them not be worried about what I think of what they think…”
He also enjoys nature and the changing seasons, goes walking with Victoria as much as possible, and cycling: “She bought us bikes for our 31st wedding anniversary this year.”
What scares him? “Occasionally there are times when… financial things in lulls – ‘Oh gosh, have I bought something I shouldn’t have bought?’ you know… ‘Have I mortgaged something which I shouldn’t have mortgaged?’ Financial wobbles.
“My father used to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares like that because my brother and sister and I were all in fee-paying schools and tax was at 98 per cent.”
His family background seems solidly Edwardian middle class but with some rackety episodes. His paternal great-great-grandfather and his brother ran Delhi in the 1850s around the time of the Mutiny; one of them was poisoned by the Mughal shah’s wife. His great uncle on his mother’s side, George Archer-Shee, was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order at naval college, which went to the courts and became a cause célèbre. Terence Rattigan wrote his play The Winslow Boy about Bathurst’s great-uncle. Robert’s mother’s parents both trained at Guy’s Hospital – where she was a nurse and he was a surgeon. They moved to Scarborough and split up, with a restraining order placed on Bathurst’s grandfather.
Bathurst was close to his parents, Phillip and Gillian, who died within a month of each other in 2009 – “I have a photograph of them by my bed and they’re getting younger and younger!”
He was born in Ghana, where his father had been a gold mining engineer, then management consultant, before moving to Ireland for a job then back to England. When he was eight, he was sent to a grimly oppressive boarding school, run by Benedictine monks, where he was bullied by staff and older pupils. When he was filming Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie in Ireland, he hired a car to revisit the school, hoping – presumably – to bury some ghosts: “As
I went up the drive, I was hyperventilating.”
Robert Bathurst in Mrs Brown’s Boys
Would he say that he was still scarred by his school experience? “Without a doubt, yes. Absolutely. Your letters were read and if you said anything against the school, you were beaten. It has forced me to be very private. You become cannier about how much you show and how much you display. I don’t announce any ambition in advance of doing something.
“You become very much more watchful and more calculating. You’re wary; you anticipate trouble. You work out how things might play and decide whether or not to show your hand.”
He cannot blame his parents, because his mother suffered from mental health problems. “My sister was born in ’61 and my mother spent much of the following two years in and out of places. I never really addressed it with my parents but I know she had ECT and was away a lot. One of the reasons we were sent away was to take the pressure off her. Even though she was lovely – lively and great – there was always a hint of her just holding on. Towards the end, she was very driven down by my father’s dementia.”
So much more thoughtful and complex than the characters with which he is associated: he seems to have been somewhat typecast ever since playing Cold Feet’s David (who also, it turns out, has some hidden depths). He is never out of work but his parts do not always do justice to his talents – from the aristocratic old buffer in Downton Abbey, Sir Anthony Strallan, to Ed Howzer-Black, the dressing-gown-wearing landlord/retired actor in the cult comedy Toast.
One of my favourite Bathurst performances was in the drama Hattie, as the loving, put-upon husband of Hattie Jacques (Ruth Jones) – the actor John Le Mesurier – who endures her affair with a younger man (played by Aidan Turner). It is a subtle and heartbreaking piece, which demonstrates his range.
He is, actually, full of surprises. He can be, this much one might expect, highbrow, putting on his own play, Love, Loss and Chianti – acting two fifty-minute narrative poems by Christopher Reid. But his tastes are also unabashedly unelitist, even populist. When referencing performers who can connect instantly with their audience, the first name he mentions is Ken Dodd.
He loves Mrs Brown’s Boys and its creator, Brendan O’Carroll, who has cast Bathurst in the TV series and film as a loved-up lothario who has the hots for Mammy. “I do love very, very broad music hall. Probably the reason why I like working on Mrs Brown is that everybody decries it and says it’s cheap and vulgar. But Mrs Brown is straight out of the tradition of music hall. People are so snotty about him and it and the cheaper end of the entertainment market, and I just love it.
“Only Brendan would have cast me as an Irishman. You don’t often get those sorts of parts. There is much more range, I think, than I’m allowed to do. But then all actors say that.”
Cold Feet continues on ITV tonight at 9pm