Neil Pearson as a latterday David Koresh? Not so strange, says James Rampton, plenty of people already think he's a god
Neil Pearson ponders his role in BBC1's Heaven on Earth as Richard, a graphic designer who chucks in the rat race to become the megalomaniac leader of a religious sect in remotest Wales. "He's bit of a bastard who thinks he's God," Pearson deadpans, before adding with a wicked grin, "I can't think why they cast me."

The actor who set at least half the nation's pulse racing as bed-hopping Dave in Drop the Dead the Donkey and bed-hopping Tony in Between the Lines is savvy enough not to take too seriously his image as the greatest heartthrob this side of a pace-maker. "When journalists ask, 'So, Neil, how do you feel about being a sex symbol?' it's a ridiculous question," Pearson sighs. "How do you answer it? I've never formulated a set of words that will cover it. Anyway, there's a whole new breed of cheekbones coming up to replace me. They can ask Ewan McGregor that question now."

His undoubted magnetism - there is even a Neil Pearson Website should you wish to learn more about one man and his cheekbones - is cleverly subverted in Heaven on Earth. Richard's charisma is already well established by the time he thinks he has been visited by God and contracts a bad dose of the David Koreshs. The same piercing blue eyes and persuasive manner he employed to schmooze business clients is put to work in his subsequent life as the demagogic leader of the Community of the Faithful. Matters soon degenerate into what can only be described as a Welsh Waco. Done up in a natty black suit and blue shirt and sipping a beer, Pearson almost smacks his lips with relish at the recollection of adding such a 24-carat bad guy to his portfolio. "It's like a spaghetti western," he smiles. "Don't say much, just look moody in the sunshine. Everybody likes baddies, they're the guys people remember. Who do you remember out of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Kevin Costner or Alan Rickman?"

For all that, Pearson is aware that what is hardly a promotional video for religious sects may well provoke some heavy-duty switchboard-jamming - in fact, he's counting on it. "I'll be worried if we don't get complaints," he declares. "We need all the publicity we can get. If they do get up on their high horse, we'll get an extra million viewers, and I'll be the first to write them a thank-you letter. Apparently Hanif Kureishi wrote to The Sun to complain about his own series, The Buddha of Suburbia, and put a million on the viewing figures.

"Sects are usually diligent about complaining," Pearson continues, hopefully. "When I did a series called Upline about pyramid selling a few years ago, one of those organisations tried to injunct us on the grounds that we were showing them in a bad light. Quite. Do you expect the NSPCC to make a sympathetic profile of King Herod?"

It is not unusual for Pearson's work to get up official noses. In Guy Jenkin's satirical film, Crossing the Floor, his portrayal of an image- obsessed New Labour leader in the grip of the twin forces of the spin doctor and the focus group precipitated none-too-friendly fire from Millbank. "They never learn," Pearson chuckles at the memory. "If they'd just shut up, the programme would have sunk without trace. The manipulation of the media is supposed to be second nature for these people, yet here they were falling into trap one. It's very gratifying that it did ruffle feathers. There's no point in doing something if it doesn't."

Similarly, Pearson's work on the newsroom sitcom, Drop the Dead Donkey, has rattled the odd cage. "The complaints tend to come in green ink with random capitals. My favourite was when we were making gratuitous jokes about Colin Moynihan being short. Some bloke wrote in saying, 'I'm a successful managing director, and I'm all of five foot one.' We wrote back: 'Dear Shortarse, Thank you for your letter which is receiving attention.'"

Another series of C4's topical comedy is planned for later this year. Isn't Pearson worried about flogging a Dead Donkey? Not likely. "There's a snobbishness in Britain about long-running series," he contends. "But Only Fools and Horses is as fresh and popular as ever, and that's well into into its 80th series. Anyway, we've done five series under the Tories, so now everyone fancies having a go at the new government. We're equal- opportunity offenders. We'll have a go at anyone."

Next month, Pearson opens in the West End production of Closer, Patrick Marber's award-winning play about sexual politics. The one reservation for this card-carrying Spurs fanatic was that the run cuts into the sacred turf of the football World Cup this summer. "I might find myself playing a Saturday matinee to 40 Koreans while the rest of the population is watching England play Brazil in the semi-final," he groans. "So if you hear I've got a bit of a chest in July, don't worry about it."

Pearson is undeniably what uncool people would enviously call a "cool dude"; he can even get away with carrying around copies of Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid and David Mamet's True and False - Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor without seeming irredeemably naff. He is the sort of annoyingly handsome, jealousy-inducing bloke who probably went out with all the prettiest girls at school.

But what saves him from being completely sick-making is his sharp sense of humour, often directed at himself. "I don't adopt a self-important attitude about acting," he claims. "It's something I like doing and that's about it. If I ever started wearing sweat-pants with woolly socks and referring to The Work, I might reach for my revolver and put it in my mouth."

'Heaven on Earth' starts on Sunday on BBC1 at 9pm.

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