Baxendale gets `Cold Feet'

Will new British drama `Cold Feet' follow in the footsteps of America's hugely popular sitcom `Friends'?
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Six well-heeled thirty-somethings struggle with life, love and how to create the perfect hairdo. This must be the model for hundreds of pitches sitting on the desks of commissioning editors at TV stations around the world. It's the "let's make our own version of Friends, but call it something else" syndrome. Following in the footsteps of series as diverse as This Life and Game On, Cold Feet (right) is the latest British Friends-alike.

I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth in sitting-rooms up and down the land - "oh, no," they cry, "can't the Channels dream up something original? Please spare us another smart-alec, smug set of thirtysomethings you want to punch rather than watch every week." Fortunately - and perhaps surprisingly - ITV has spared us that. Cold Feet deftly sidesteps the more obvious traps that other, crasser programmes have fallen into (I won't mention any names, but Babes in the Wood knows who I am talking about). Where Granada's new series scores is that it is played as drama rather than comedy, and the jokes seem organic rather than grafted on at a script-doctors' emergency session. It is first and foremost about life rather than laughs.

Who better to ask in detail about the similarities between the two shows than the only person in the world to have appeared in both of them? Helen Baxendale, who has made a splash as Emily, Ross's English-rose fiancee in Friends, plays Rachel in Cold Feet. The character is undergoing distinct teething problems in her nine-month-old romance with Adam (the sparky James Nesbitt).

In between sipping a lemon juice in a trendily grungy north-London cafe light years away from the squeaky-clean soft furnishings of Central Perk, she explains: "Both series have three women and three men who are upwardly- mobile. They both deal with thirtysomething lifestyles and problems. So there are surface comparisons. But Friends is very much a sitcom, and the whole forward motion is following the laughs. The aim is always to get to the next laugh. Cold Feet, on the other hand, is very much led by the drama of the situation. It is not afraid to find dark qualities in what's going on. Towards the end of the series, there aren't many laughs in Cold Feet. By then, people will see that it's so unlike Friends that comparisons don't matter. People might watch Cold Feet because they think it's going to be like Friends - they'll be horribly disappointed, though."

The relationships in Cold Feet certainly have more grounding in reality; for instance characters in the British series have believably bitter arguments.

According to Baxendale: "Rachel and Adam are plausible because they both want the same thing and yet they can never quite communicate that to each other." We've all been there.

Baxendale admits that she found the whole experience of working on Friends, perhaps the world's most popular sitcom now that Seinfeld has ended, "surreal". "Suddenly I found myself on this set that I recognised with these people I knew from the television. I do that on some English programmes, but this was more intense because I'd never been to America and Jennifer Aniston is this huge world symbol with great hair. You just think to yourself, `this is very peculiar'."

Inevitably, Baxendale felt something of an outsider. "They've been doing the show for four years, and they just get on with their lives. They have lots of guests, so I wasn't grasped to their bosom as a long-lost friend." She laughs when she is asked the inevitable question: are Friends friends in real life? "I'm sure they're friends, but they're not inseparable. They go to their own homes at the end of the day. They don't all bed down together on the set at night."

She is candid about her motives for doing the show. "I'm sure the fact that people can say, `she's that English girl from Friends' helps sell you to the people who are giving money for films," she said. "In purely practical terms, that's why I did it. It's a career move. But it's also great to be in something where people go, `wow, what's she like?'."

The role of Emily has done nothing to harm Baxendale's reputation as a sex symbol, established over several years in such shows as Cardiac Arrest, Truth or Dare and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. "I don't find it a problem being called a sex symbol," she smiles. "Having just had a baby, I find it very refreshing. I'm happy to be tagged as a sex symbol."

Even so, this new-found, transatlantic stardom creates its own pressures. Baxendale reckons she can handle them, however. "I know that even if you have a boost to your recognition level, people have short memories. After six weeks, you'll sink into obscurity again. Also, having Nell [her nine- week-old daughter] is a huge earthing influence. You're aware that there are other important things in life. I feel more pressure about being her mother and wanting to do what's right for her. It's a relief to think, `actually nothing matters that much'."

For all that, her career is obviously on the ascendant. Baxendale is currently flitting between London and Dublin, where she is filming an Ordinary Decent Criminal, a major new feature film about Martin Cahill, a legendary Irish gangster. In it, Baxendale has the privilege of giving her co-star Kevin Spacey his first screen kiss. Now if that isn't a sign that she's made it, I don't know what is.

`Cold Feet' is on ITV at 9.30pm tomorrow. `Friends' is on C4 at 9pm on Friday.

James Rampton