Kevin Whately must be one of the most likeable men on television. Who could help but adore Inspector Morse's unassuming sidekick Sergeant Lewis, or the henpecked Neville from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet? Alas, in real life, Mr Whately is not proving much of a darling.
He had arranged to be interviewed at a specific time in the centre of London, but when I arrive at our Bloomsbury meeting place he's nowhere to be seen. It transpires that he forgot to mention that he has changed venue to the outskirts of west London. I dash across town on a stiflingly hot Tube train, but it's hard to dash effectively when you're eight months pregnant. By the time I arrive in White City I'm feeling the sort of anger that only a soup of hormones and exhaustion can produce.
Whately strolls across the TV studio car park towards me with an insouciant air. Bastard, bastard, bastard. Accompanying him are two men with equally lived-in and familiar faces, his Auf Wiedersehen co-stars Jimmy Nail and Tim Healy. "Is this the journalist? Well, I'm off then," quips Nail.
Whately apologises, not quite fulsomely, but adequately. He wants to discuss Belonging, a one-off drama he will be starring in this September on ITV1. It is the sort of programme that restores your faith in television. Adapted by the admired screenwriter Alan Plater (whose credits include Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders), it features a marvellous cast including Brenda Blethyn, Anna Massey and Peter Sallis.
The story tackles an unglamorous subject that affects many but is rarely seen on our youth-obsessed networks: the place of elderly relatives in society. More than five million people in this country provide unpaid care to an older relation, making it an issue of burning relevance.
Whately plays Jacob, the husband of Blethyn. He absconds with another woman, leaving his wife to cope not only with his desertion but also his cabal of crotchety relatives. He sees her as one of life's natural copers and scarcely gives a thought to the burden he has dumped on her. So, does Whately think Belonging marks a change in emphasis from the people commissioning our TV dramas? "I'm not sure that it's a recognition of a massive grey audience out there, but it should be," he says. "It certainly exists." It turns out that he has always been more aware than most of older viewers. A decade ago when he played Dr Jack Kerruish in Peak Practice, market researchers discovered that Whately's biggest fans were women aged between 55 and 75.
Gosh. That must have been a body blow for a fortysomething actor. "No, no. I've always been very happy with that," he insists. "The other Auf Wiedersehen guys and I were never exactly heart-throb material. We're popular, yes, but as character actors. Let's just say I've never relied on my looks to make a living."
He delivers this disarmingly modest statement without any expectation of being contradicted. He ought to know by now that the rough-around-the-edges charm of actors like him and Nail has an enormous appeal to women. Today, Whately wears low-key clothes - dark jeans and a shirt - eminently suitable for his current role, that of actor in rehearsal. He has small blue eyes, a permanently hang-dog expression and the features of a battered teddy bear. This sounds an unpromising combination, but his looks make him a dream for the casting director who seeks real faces rather than the suspiciously smooth, chisel-jawed visages of some of his contemporaries.
But it's not just Whately's everyman face that has underpinned his long and successful television career. He diffidently tries to identify his own appeal. "You can see some very great theatre actors who don't work at all well on screen. They're trying too hard at it. Put me on telly and I think I have a relaxation on camera that makes an audience relax, too. It's not a conscious thing. Cameras don't bother me, whereas other people try to perform to them."
Whately possesses another quality that makes him frustratingly likeable: he doesn't take acting seriously. You don't get any of that luvvie nonsense about working on his craft or exercising his acting muscle. He thinks that acting is a rather silly profession and not something to boast about. He came to this conclusion in his mid-thirties, shortly after his children were born.
"You just suddenly think that there's something quite childish about acting. Basically it's pretending, isn't it? It's good fun and I enjoy it, but it's a funny way of making a living, particularly when you make a very good wage, as I've been fortunate enough to do."
The alternative profession Whately has often dreamt about is a world away from television drama. "I fancied doing stained glass restoration," he says. "It's the whole thing about making art out of light. You go into a church and there's no atmosphere at all, and then suddenly the sun comes through the glass and it comes alive."
As we chat in the summer sunshine, the actor Robson Green walks past. "God, it's like the Geordie mafia here today," says Whately. His own Geordie gang is busy rehearsing for a Christmas Auf Wiedersehen, Pet special that the papers claim will be called "Hut on the River Kwai". Isn't he nervous about alienating his grey audience? After all, prisoner of war camps aren't exactly a giggle a minute. "Actually it's nothing to do with the camps. I think the River Kwai gets mentioned once. But I've already started getting letters from veterans' associations, saying: 'Please don't take the piss.' We just happen to be filming in Thailand, that's all."
Just to recap, the original Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, a tale of bricklayers making their living in Germany, finished its run almost two decades ago. In recent years, two new series have been recorded, one set in Arizona and another in Cuba. Now there's a Christmas special in Thailand. It sounds suspiciously as though the actors only agree to reunite if the locations are suitably exotic. "No, no. It'll be no picnic," he assures me. "It's rainy season and there will be lots of mosquitoes around. We get back together because we're all pals and we all enjoy working together."
It was a strange experience for the Auf Wiedersehen cast to pick up the same characters two decades on. "We all look a lot older for a start," he says. "The egos are all about the same, but people's ways of working have changed. When we did the original it was pretty anarchic. Now we've all got our own ways of doing things, like Tim Spall who has worked a lot in movies. It's interesting to see the differences."
After the security of 14 years spent playing Sergeant Lewis in Inspector Morse, Kevin delights in the short-term nature of projects such as Belonging and the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet special. His long-term success means he lacks any of the usual thespian insecurities. "I've had 20 years of doing long-running series. I prefer a short, sharp project now. You sign up to a long contract and then think, 'Oh no, I'll be doing that for the next year. All I've got to look forward to is the work.' I love that feeling when you are out of work and wondering what will come up next. Most offers come out of the blue. I find that very exciting."
Ironically, since we met he has signed up to do a new series of Inspector Morse in which Sergeant Lewis will take the leading role. It seems that he can't escape the longer term TV parts, no matter how hard he tries. "I always wanted to be a stage actor but the telly was always there for me," he says. "I was very lucky that way. When people can't make a living it must be very frustrating."
Since his first stint as the affable Sergeant Lewis ended, Whately seems to have made a point of playing screen baddies, from a murderer to a peeping Tom. In Belonging, his errant husband hardly wins the sympathy vote either. Is this a deliberate effort to shake off his Mr Nice Guy image? "I hope my roles take the audience by surprise and I hope that they accept I can play nasty parts as well and get away with it. Villains are more interesting to me. I think characters tend to get written in black and white, and I like to find the extra dimension in them."
Whately lives in a quiet rural village in Bedfordshire with his wife, the fellow actor Madelaine Newton, and their two teenage children, Kitty and Kieran. He's 53, the exact age almost to the week when his own father died. "It does make you think," he says. "He'd been away for quite a lot of my childhood in the Navy, but I thought the world of him. I wonder now if I'd have got into acting if he'd been alive. I'd have thought he'd have wanted me to have a proper career." Instead, Kevin gave up accountancy for the insecurity of drama school. And, as we know, he has never looked back.
As we get up to go, I realise that I've forgotten to feel angry with this unmistakably nice man for at least half an hour. He gives me a genial kiss goodbye, apologises once again and disappears into the arms of his Geordie mafia.
'Belonging' will be shown on September 12 on ITV1Reuse content