Staying in: No mean feet

James Nesbitt, star of the hit thirtysomething drama, talks about its warmth and charm - and his ugliness
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James Nesbitt has an identity problem. "At least once a day, people come up to me and say, `I loved you in Four Weddings and a Funeral'. It's got to the point where I say, `Yes, wasn't that Auden poem brilliant?' and sign autographs as John Hannah."

These confusions are likely to happen less and less often. After starring roles in films such as Waking Ned, Resurrection Man, Welcome to Sarajevo, The James Gang, Jude and Hear My Song, and in TV dramas such as Playing the Field, Touching Evil, Go Now, Ballykissangel, Common as Muck, Soldier Soldier and Between the Lines, people really ought to know him by now. If they don't, the second series of Cold Feet, ITV's hit thirtysomething drama, should cure that.

In the first series - centred on the vacillating fortunes of six Manchester- based friends (played by Nesbitt, Helen Baxendale, John Thomson, Fay Ripley, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris) - Nesbitt attracted plaudits for his easy-going amiability. He downplays the difficulty of the role, however. "To play a Northern Irish eejit in his thirties who likes going to the pub, supports Manchester United and is in love with Helen Baxendale is a real stress. Not."

Cold Feet touched a chord with many viewers. "There was a big Cold Feet seminar at the Edinburgh Festival this year, and the word `zeitgeist' was used a lot. But beyond that, it just engages people. There is a warmth about it. Viewers are interested in the relationships.

"The other thing is that John Thomson and I are no lookers - that's quite un-American. We have moments of real ugliness, and people like that honesty. The second series is even darker."

The success of Cold Feet is borne out by the number of clone dramas it has spawned - Wonderful You or Big Bad World, anyone? "Producers see a hit and think `copy it'. But to be honest, I haven't seen many of these other series. I don't watch TV much. We have a baby, so I have no life. She has more energy than Jonah Lomu."

Thanks to Cold Feet, the Ulsterman Nesbitt is now being bracketed with the likes of Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in the file marked "cool Hibernia". But he dismisses the hype surrounding trendy Celts. "Bobby Carlyle would have been one of the great British actors even if he had been Lithuanian. He could stand on his head and fart and still be compelling. But for the rest of us, if you're halfway decent with a different accent, you're immediately implanted in people's minds more than an English actor. Anyway, now the Irish and Scottish traditions are so well established, they've gone beyond fashion."

Nesbitt comes from a Protestant working-class background in Coleraine - not a usual breeding ground for thesps - and met some resistance at home when he decided to pursue acting as a career. "I was always an eejit at school, the ruination of my mother and father. When I gave up my degree and told them I was going to be an actor, my mother didn't speak to me for months."

Now she does, of course, as Nesbitt has turned into one of the most reliable comedy-drama performers in the business, an actor who always seems to come with the adjective "charming" attached. Not that he likes it that much. "`Charming' is a bit of a tired euphemism which critics use when they can't think of anything else. Still, it could be worse. My mother certainly doesn't think I'm charming."

But viewers do. "I'm surprised I've ended up doing a lot of comedy," he concludes. "When I started acting, I thought I was going to be brooding and intense. But with a face like mine, it was hard to be brooding and intense. After all, I only have one eyebrow."

`Cold Feet' starts tomorrow at 9.30pm on ITV