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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible