TwentyFourSeven is Bob Hoskins' `most important project' and, after those BT ads, it's more than helped to keep his street-cred up to scratch, writes David Lister
Bob Hoskins is in character. He's cheerfully irreverent, chirpy and 'appy, exactly what a Bob Hoskins should be. He is about to star in a new British film which has given him a part he describes as the best of his career, for a young director he describes as Britain's Martin Scorsese. No wonder he's chuffed.

And what's more the film, TwentyFourSeven, was shot on an estate with the highest crime rate in Europe, and the kids there loved him, "They asked me if I had any drugs." He gives his trademark fruity chuckle, "Who'd have thought I'd have that sort of street cred?"

Actually he's got a lot more street cred than that. His publicist receives plenty of knicker mail for him, but it's not really worth forwarding it on to one of the most happily married actors around.

"Nah. Am I going to risk my marriage for some soppy cow who can't keep her drawers on? I'm a very happy man, which is hard to say about a genius isn't it. We're all meant to be crippled aren't we." Much of Hoskins' conversation is of the self deprecating variety told with a mock humour and unusual honesty. All of which comes from the innocence of the Cockney voice. Even the fruity laugh is a cackle of naivety rather than Sid James lasciviousness.

"Listen," he says to make sure the point isn't missed, "the only sex interest I've got is me missus."

The missus, his second missus, was wooed and won on the night of Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981. "We were both out trying to avoid the wedding. I walked into a pub and there she was and I thought hello sweetheart. I was living in a jeep. I know it was after Guys And Dolls but I was totally broke. My divorce cost me, a lot of money, So I parked the jeep outside her house and said `are you going to make me sleep in this?' She didn't stand a chance."

Family is supremely important to Hoskins. He tries to arrange his film schedule so that he is around in the school holidays for his children Jack and Rosa, aged 13 and 14. "What do I know about all this sex symbol stuff? I'm a short, fat, middle-aged man with a bald head." Indeed he refers to himself as a cube, and is delighted that the director of TwentyFourSeven his new film, Shane Meadows, is also a cube.

"They sent me some of his tapes," says Hoskins, "and I said this kid's amazing. I was amazed this kid had this much insight and compassion. He's totally self-taught.

"Then I met him. He was five-foot six, cubic with a shaved head, I thought `ello, I seem to recognise you from somewhere, us cubes must stick together'. And then I went up to Nottingham and did it and I was terrified 'cos he was making it with kids from this housing estate and I thought, God, they are going to see me as this silly old prat film star nonsense, but they saw me as one of the chaps." Hoskins has a curious habit of speaking in his broadest Cockney, but ending a sentence with a word out of Billy Bunter.

In the film he gives a sensitive performance, both funny and touching, and with a Midlands accent to boot, as a man who runs a boxing club to stop kids turning to crime, but is fundamentally isolated himself. He describes his part as "a wonderful study in loneliness. To play a character as tough as this and yet to portray this socially crippled character was the biggest challenge I've had in years. I'll tell you this. This film is more important to me than anything I've ever done."

It comes too after a deep disappointment. He championed and acted in a version of Conrad's The Secret Agent alongside Robin Williams, giving what Hoskins describes as "the performance of his life, a study in evil." But Fox barely released it.

"I was very proud of it. Conrad is merciless. He don't give you any sympathy for any of the characters. It's very slow, it's very laborious but very good. Fox killed it stone dead. I think they thought they were getting a Victorian James Bond. But if you look at Conrad and you look at me, you know different."

When people do look at Hoskins in the street, it is, of course, not of Conrad or even any film part that they immediately think. Another fruity chuckle.

"People come up to me in the street, say `it's good to talk' then rush off. It's a pain up the arse. People used to talk to me. Now they say it's good to talk and run away. And you know something? It made BT pounds 287 million profit in one year and they wouldn't even give me a mobile phone, no I'm serious, not even a mobile phone."

It's not quite as sad a story as it seems. Hoskins is reliably estimated to have made pounds 1 million from the ads which became synonymous with him. And he chuckles again with more BT secrets. "Yeah, it was great money. We all had it worked out to a tee. I was working with the same directors, same crew and we actually shot one in 10 minutes, no I'm serious, set up, wrap up, done, 10 minutes. Imagine how much that cost BT."

If there is something, well actually quite a lot, endearingly natural and unspoiled about Hoskins' Cockney persona - even after years of successes including theatre with Guys and Dolls, TV with Pennies From Heaven and films such as Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday and Who Framed Roger Rabbit - then Michael Caine must take some credit.

Caine's success in the Sixties was an inspiration. "Until then, every actor had 20-20 vision and had been in the RAF." And when Caine first met him, Hoskins recalls, "he said, `listen, you're going to be successful and you're going to make a lot of money, but however much money you make, don't waste it on a boat, Do Not Buy A Bloody Boat'.

"So whenever I see Michael now, I shout over to him `Look, I still haven't bought a boat'."