Staying In: Interview - John Thomson: The very fast show

John Thomson is one of our most versatile comedy actors - the bloke next door with a cool catchphrase. And he's a jazz drummer. No, really ...

John Thomson was more ubiquitous at Christmas than drunken sales reps staggering along the street in Santa hats singing tuneless versions of Slade's "Merry Xmas, Everybody". Not content with starring roles in Men Behaving Badly, Cold Feet and Ted and Ralph, Thomson also appeared in the video of The Fast Show Live. But we ain't seen nothing yet. Later this month we will be watching him as Eddie in the second series of Playing the Field, Kay Mellor's superior BBC1 drama about a woman's football team, before he returns later in the year as Pete, the lovable loser in Cold Feet. Not for nothing has he been called "the hardest-working person in showbiz".

He admits that when he was working on three shows (Roger, Roger, Playing the Field and The Fast Show) virtually simultaneously last year, "I started to have a personality disorder. I'd get a fast car from one set, have five hours' kip and then turn up at another. I'd think, `hang on, the crew have changed,' and then realise it was a different show." He has now dyed his hair a violent shade of blond as "a rebellion against continuity" - but he's no less in demand. During a recent two-week holiday in Mauritius, he missed out on "three series and two films".

But just why has Thomson become the busiest thing this side of a fly with a distinctly azure behind? It must be something to do with his versatility. Whether he's Paul Calf's friend the delinquent Fat Bob, the ghastly smoothie Jazz Club Man in The Fast Show, or the dorkish barman, Ken, in Men Behaving Badly, Thomson is always unshowily reliable. His characters invariably have a bloke-from-down-the-pub recognisability about them.

"I remember doing Chekhov at the Manchester Poly School of Theatre and thinking `aaargh, Chekhov'," Thomson recalls. "But the director said I didn't understand it because I wasn't thinking `oh, that character's like so-and-so in the canteen'. Chekhov could be set in Salford in 1998. People still have the same quandaries. Ignoring the fact that you're wearing a period suit and Schubert glasses, people identify with the naturalism of a scene - and that's what makes it work."

The other reason Thomson is popular with casting directors is that he doesn't want to hog the limelight. He's a solid middle-order accumulator rather than a flashy opening batsman. "I like being the sort of jobbing character actor who gets to play different parts," he says. "I wouldn't fancy my own show - all teeth, tinsel, dancers and singing `Love Is In the Air'. Anyway, after Emma Thompson's show, what could I call it - `Thomson II'?"

He certainly works best as a team player. Some of his finest work has emerged from his joint writing with Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson on The Fast Show - the Nouveau Footy Fan, for instance, or Jazz Club Man. The latter has prompted complete strangers to come up to him in the street and say "nice" - to which he replies "great". "I'm glad the catchphrase isn't `rubbish'," Thomson says. "That would make me paranoid."

His other great collaboration is with Steve Coogan, whom he first met when they were both studying drama at Manchester Poly. After sharing a Perrier Award with Coogan at the Edinburgh Festival, Thomson went on to play Pauline Calf's partner, Fat Bob, in both The Paul Calf Video Diaries and Three Weddings, Two Fights and a Funeral. But for all Bob's cultish popularity, Thomson is quite glad to have finally evaded his clutches. "I now go for less stoogey, fall-guy stuff. I did all that with Fat Bob. I was in danger of becoming rent-a-chump. I love that character, but I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life being typecast as him - I'd rather be typecast as Doctor Who."

That's not to say that Thomson didn't benefit from working with Coogan. "Steve's genius is his total dedication to his characters and attention to detail," he says. "When we write, we'll take half an hour over one word. You've got to be specific. If we read a script which asks for a Lada, we go `oh no'. But if it says, `an Austin Maxi 1100 with one yellow door,' well - that kind of detail is what makes Steve's characters work so well."

For a while, Thomson and Coogan have been hoping to make a spy spoof called The Knight. "Steve would be a character called Knight Cheddar Blaze, who is an international chess grand master, but also a secret agent. I'd be his boss, M, but also a master of disguise. A real woman would approach him, and then the camera would cut to me in her frock."

In the meantime, Thomson would like to develop his career as a jazz drummer (I kid you not) and build up his portfolio of feature films, which currently includes The Young Poisoner's Handbook, The Man Who Knew Too Little and The Girl With Brains in Her Feet. He also acted in The English Patient. No, you weren't dozing during his scene - it was cut. "I played a Second World War soldier chatting up Kristin Scott Thomas at an open-air cinema in Cairo. At the time I had no idea what the film was going to become - I wasn't bothered that I'd been cut. Then, nine Oscars later, I was bothered."

Something of a one-man sketch-show, Thomson makes for invigorating company. As we make to leave the central London bar, he can't resist a Fast Show gag. Dashing to be first to the cloakroom, he calls back to me: "I'll get me coat."

`Playing the Field' starts on BBC1 later this month. `The Fast Show Live' video is available in the shops.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?