Robson Green has had a cred bypass. At least in the eyes of some newspapers. "I read a review of one of my shows in The Times that said I was the critic's least favourite actor in the world," Green sighs. "I watched Neighbours and thought, `I'm in trouble'."
His much-derided singing career with Jerome Flynn didn't boost his trendiness rating much, either. "The comments from the papers and the music industry were damning. The Guardian said I had spent my entire life being boring," recalls Green, who obviously has a keen memory for these slights. "We were mocked because we did songs that children and 90-year-olds were buying. If someone's successful, they hammer them. I don't think that's karma."
Nor does Michael Darbon, who is producing The Student Prince, Green's latest vehicle, a romantic comedy about a working-class policeman (guess who) assigned to protect a prince attending Cambridge University. "It's the old English thing of people always wanting to put down success," Darbon argues. "Look at the way people take delight in taking potshots at successful footballers. Robson suffers from that. We should appreciate people for getting where they are."
Perhaps we are beginning to. With the release of Reckless and Touching Evil, two highly-rated drama series on ITV earlier this year, Green is reaching a new audience. Articles have been written by middle-class, middle- aged women about the guilty pleasure of tuning in to Green. Whisper it, but even some of the broadsheets are starting to confess to liking him.
His most high-profile critic even made a public recantation. "Chris Evans put my photo on the table during TFI Friday," he recounts, "and I thought, `Oh no, what's coming next?' He said, `I've been saying bad things about Robson Green, but he's great in Reckless.' Perhaps there's a cred factor that's seeping in," he adds, with evident relief.
That cred may well stem from the fact that for all his squillions - he cheerfully admits to clearing a cool million from his singing career - he embodies that paradoxical quality of being extraordinarily ordinary. "He's a guy that people can identify with," Darbon contends. "He's not someone who's remote in the sense that many stars are. Robson presents himself as a man of the people, and that's what he is.
"He also has a willingness to make contact with the public. When we were shooting in Cambridge, the kitchen staff and bedders were queuing up to have their photos taken with him. He wants to share his success, and that quality rubs off."
He left school in Newcastle at 16 to work at the Swan Hunter shipyard as a plater and welder, before joining a local am-dram group. He progressed to such roles as Jesus in a five-and-a-half-hour production written in 13th-century rhyming couplets. This newspaper commented that: "It was hard to believe anyone would follow Robson Green across the stage, let alone Israel."
In 1988, however, he left that world behind when his big break came with the part of Jimmy the porter in Casualty. "After two episodes, I was shocked I ever worked again I was so bad," he now laughs. He went on to another eye-catching role as the squaddie Tucker in Soldier, Soldier.
Green does his best to play down the claustrophobic side of celebrity. "Forget about actors," he urges, "it's footballers who are the real legends in the North East. When Jackie Milburn [the famous Newcastle United player] died, the funeral was like a royal occasion. I sat next to Alan Shearer on a plane and I went to pieces. But if I ever stopped being able to go to the shops, I'd be deeply unhappy."
What really sets Green apart from the crowd are his magnetic eyes. One look into them, and you know why at least half the nation has been swooning. Lee Hall, the writer of The Student Prince and a long-term friend of Green's, explains his appeal. "There's a roughness about him with a very gentle edge - that's an attractive combination. He's down-to-earth, but with intelligence and sparkle."
Green tries to reject the sex symbol tag that has been hung around his neck. "People give you labels throughout your career," he protests, "What is a sex symbol? Aren't they people like Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson? I don't see myself as that. But I do learn from those people. I watch James Stewart and see how focused his eyes are and how he always chooses the right moment to do something."
Right now, the only risk for Green's career is overkill. "There is a danger of premature burnout for Robson," Darbon concedes, "but he's fully aware of it and in control of it. The fact that he has opted out of making records with Jerome shows he's pacing himself.
Even before he won the Special Recognition gong at the recent National Television Awards, the lucrative offers were flooding in (almost embarrassed, Green tells me that he is paid in excess of pounds 30,000 per episode for Touching Evil). Commissioning editors are keen to hire perhaps the only actor in Britain guaranteed to net 16 million viewers per episode. He's going on to shoot a second series of Touching Evil and Dog Stars, a drama about a pub football team. And he already has a bestselling biography, Robson Green: Just the Beginning - at the age of just 33.
His profile should be kept at this high level by The Student Prince. For Green, the attraction of Hall's script lay in the fact that "it's about class war. A working-class bodyguard comes up against the heir to the throne - there's your drama."
Beyond that, he was drawn by the screenplay's message about the Royal Family. "I don't think the Royals reflect what Britain is today," he says. "The sooner we rid ourselves of the pomp and ceremony, the better. If you strip the Royal Family down, they're only people. That's what this piece says."
Green will no doubt be disappointed that the film is not getting the slot he was angling for - "after the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day". Nevertheless, he concludes with a mischievious grin: "I hope the Royal Family watch it."
`The Student Prince' is on Sat 29 Nov on BBC1Reuse content