John Thomson: “I’ve had thoughts… dark thoughts”
Early success nearly destroyed him, but playing a man fighting depression in the revived Cold Feet gave Thomson the chance to start again
by Simon Hattenstone
It was a huge surprise when Cold Feet returned to ITV in 2016 after a 13-year break. And it was a welcome surprise that the comedy drama about six friends (now five) was still funny and relevant. But the biggest surprise of all was that the standout star was John Thomson, who plays the broken Pete Gifford.
While the other Cold Feet actors went on to enjoy considerable success after the final series finished in 2003, Thomson fell by the wayside. And boy, did he take a tumble. Throughout the original run of Cold Feet, it was known that he and Nesbitt lived lives not entirely dissimilar from their characters – both men became party-tastic tabloid fodder. But whereas Nesbitt’s luck held out and his career continued to flourish, Thomson crashed. Every mishap was caught and magnified by the newspapers.
The offers of acting work dried up – even if the booze didn’t. His face disappeared from the TV screen, and he kept himself and his family going with voiceover work. By the time the producers of Cold Feet approached him with the proposal of a new series, Thomson was considering giving up acting and returning to stand-up comedy, where he had started out. Back then, if he was offered a shift in the local pantomime, he reckoned he was doing well for himself.
Today we meet at ITV Studios in Salford’s Media City, and he looks better than he has done for years. He is 48 now, and looks neither bloated nor pinched, as he often has done in the past. His blue eyes burn with enthusiasm, as he talks about all he’s been through and the second chance he has been given.
Thomson grew up near Preston to loving adoptive parents. He was a brilliant mimic, and after studying drama at what was then Manchester Poly he went on to work on Spitting Image, The Fast Show, and with his friend Steve Coogan in Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge.
Then came six years in which he enjoyed huge success in Cold Feet. He’s the first to admit that he enjoyed it a little too much. “Nothing prepares you for fame. It’s such a shock to you when you’re put on a pedestal and it’s all these parties and everyone wants to be your mate. I moved to London and just bought into the scene. I bought into the parties and the private members’ clubs, everybody does, it’s a rite of passage.”
There barely seemed to be a week without a newspaper reporting Thomson falling out of a cab and into a club. He was a constant in the gossip columns, and occasionally starred on the front pages – for drink-driving, causing a drunken rumpus, even enjoying a threesome.
“That didn’t even happen,” he says today. “People ask, ‘What was that like?’ and I go, ‘It didn’t even happen.’ It was a set-up with [jailed publicist] Max Clifford. You see, karma! Clifford set that one up.”
He says he became paranoid: he thought he was being followed or friends were selling stories to the press. Years later he found his phone had been hacked. Last year the Mirror settled with him, paying undisclosed damages. “Actually I was coping fine with fame till the tabloids came for me. They admitted they saw me as an easy target. They saw a vulnerability in me. I still don’t really know what I did wrong. People ask me that, and that’s part of it – the injustice. I’ve done some drugs and some drinking, and people said, ‘Well, what d’you think the people writing this are doing?’” The worst thing, he says, was when the Sunday Mirror tried to trace his biological parents, whom he never knew and has never met, without his permission.
At the end of 2006 Thomson accepted he was an alcoholic, stopped drinking and turned his life around. But still he couldn’t turn his career around. He was regarded as trouble. Casting directors stopped calling. “I’d cleaned my act up and was desperately trying to clear my name, but the tabloids had demonised me so much, they made me a pariah. I was four years sober and word still hadn’t had got round the industry that I was ‘redeemed’.”
At the time, he was so relieved to be sober and enjoying family life (he married his long-term girlfriend Sam in 2005) that he didn’t let it bother him too much. He could make decent money with the voiceovers. “They were my lifesavers, really. Doing a commercials voiceover is like having a Christmas number one.”
He was determined to get his acting career back on track, though. In 2012, he headed out to Los Angeles on spec. But his six-week sojourn was soul-destroying. He hit a new low. “I just decided to give it a shot. You hear about actors going out and nailing it. I went to LA on a fool’s errand, and didn’t get a single commission. It was just awful. I thought London was lonely! But in LA I got agoraphobia. Everyone’s on the take there. It’s the polar opposite of the North in terms of friendliness. It’s just false friendly. It smells of despair, does LA.”
It was a much-needed reality check. When he went out he hired a big souped-up car. After a few weeks he traded it in for a beaten-up banger. That made him feel better – at least he was being realistic. He then decided it was time to size up his career to see if it was worth continuing. “There’s a star rating you get on IMDb [the Internet Movie Database] and I looked where I was in relation to my peers in Cold Feet and what work I’d done over the past five years compared with my contemporaries.” Something had to change.
By now, he and Sam had two daughters, Olivia and Sophia. He says his children kept him going. “I tried to be chipper and happy-go-lucky when I got back, but it broke me inside.” He attempted to reinvent his old stand-up routine and got himself booked for a show. But he was too embarrassed to tell Sam what he was being paid. “I did a gig for 50 quid! I remember as I left the house, Sam asked, ‘Where are you going?’, and I said, ‘Got a gig tonight.’ She went, ‘How much?’, and I went, ‘£150.’ I didn’t dare tell her.”
The worst was still to come. In 2015, Sam left him, and they got divorced. He was crushed. “The thing about divorce is it’s three things – one the divorce, two the bereavement of the relationship and three moving house and starting again. So the combination of those three things is like being hit in the face with a sledgehammer.”
It was just after the divorce that he received the call about Cold Feet being revived. By now he had a new agent. “I was toying with the idea of playing the dame in a panto at Stockport Plaza and I was on the train to London when my agent Gary rang and said, ‘I don’t think you should do that panto.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he went, Because Cold Feet is coming back.’ I went, ‘YOU WHAT?’ The timing couldn’t have been better. It was my salvation.”
It felt as if Pete’s role in the new series had actually been written for Thomson – Pete’s wife Jenny (Fay Ripley) left him after he had an affair, and though they are now back together, he is holding down two jobs to try to make ends meet, and his self-esteem is non-existent. In fact, Pete’s story is autobiographical – but inspired by writer Mike Bullen’s experience of midlife depression.
Thomson brought incredible tenderness and empathy to the part. “I drew on my experience. That’s the thing, though – as an actor it’s best to have an interesting life because it gives you something to draw on. If you just tick along all day, you don’t have much to draw on.” He grins. “I’m grateful I’m rock ’n’ roll, really.”
At one point in the last series, Pete came close to taking his own life. Has Thomson ever reached such a low? “There’s a force in me that won’t allow me to go that low. Too much to lose. Maybe before children, possibly, but not now. Not now. You contemplate. I’ve had thoughts.” He pauses. “I’ve had dark thoughts, but never considered carrying them out. I could mentally toy with the idea of it and how to do it, but not carry it out, because I’ve got something in me, call it spirit, a guardian angel.”
His performance as Pete touched many viewers in a way he never had before. “It went beyond praise and accolades. People contacted me about portraying depression so believably and compassionately. Some people said, ‘I am depressed, thank you for raising awareness’, and other people got in touch with me and said, ‘I know what’s the matter with me now – I’m going to the doctor’s. You’ve basically diagnosed me through your performance.’”
Thomson’s own life has picked up, not least because of Cold Feet’s new success. He looks after his children at weekends, he has started enjoying living alone for the first time since he was a student, has begun a new relationship, and is enjoying fame second time round. It couldn’t be more different, he says. “Whereas in the old days I could go three nights without sleep, now I’m in bed for 10pm.” Moderation and privacy are his new watchwords. “I’ve really gone off social media. It’s a great promotional tool, but I have no desire to share my private life with anybody.”
It’s time for him to pop outside for a smoke, but before he does I ask if there’s anything else he’d like to talk about. Yes, he says – the fact that only five per cent of actors are in regular work. “If any actors who are struggling are reading this, I just want to say, have strong belief. If you know you’ve got talent that’s been recognised in the past, it never goes away. I want to say something for the 95 per cent of actors who are struggling. I’ve been there, thinking I’m going to pack it in. Have faith – you can get back on track.”
Cold Feet returns on Friday 8th September at 9pm on ITV