The 16-year-old Greg Wilson is the sort of self-satisfied TV magician you wish would make himself disappear, or saw himself in half – permanently. Greg is the central character in Other People, a promising new sitcom that kicks off a run of six Channel 4 Comedy Showcases on Friday.
We first meet him when he appears as a pleased-with-himself guest on Crikey, It's Saturday!, a children's TV show, an entertainer who has risen without trace to star in The Royal Variety Show. However, when a caller to the show's phone-in sums up the nation's feelings by shouting out on live TV: "you're a wanker", Greg's career implodes.
Spool forward 21 years, and Greg, now 37, has been reduced to working as a lowly sales assistant at a furniture warehouse. Just when he imagines things can't get any worse for him, he is accused of GBH by Shirley (Siobhan Finneran), a spurned autograph-hunter. In just two decades, he has gone from the Palladium to the police-cell.
Martin Freeman is an actor who, since he broke through six years ago in The Office as Tim, the salesman with the weight of the world on his shoulders, has cornered the market in care-worn characters. So he is perfect casting as Greg, a man who is on first-name terms with failure and frustration.
Like all the best Brit-coms, Other People trades in the comedy of disappointment. Thirty-six-year-old Freeman – who, in person, is as sparky as his most famous alter ego was deadened and world-weary – wouldn't have it any other way. "If you're alive for more than five minutes, you're going to be disappointed," asserts the actor, who has also exhibited his "downtrodden-ordinary-bloke" quality as Arthur Dent, the put-upon, dressing-gown-clad lead in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "There is nothing far-fetched about disappointment as a subject for comedy. It's something we are all too familiar with.
The actor, who has appeared in several productions – such as Men Only, Picking Up the Pieces, The Debt, The Robinsons and The All Together – with his long-term partner and fellow actor Amanda Abbington, reckons that smiley-happy people do not great comedy make. "Comedy can't be about continuous success. The characters we get behind – whether it's Hancock or Basil Fawlty or Captain Mainwaring – are eternally frustrated. Disappointment is an endless wellspring of comedy inspiration."
Another topical strand of Other People, is Greg's almost pathological desperation to be famous – you only have to watch 10 seconds of The X Factor to see what a prevalent concern that is nowadays. "As a teenager, Greg desperately tried to ingratiate himself with the Brucies and Tarbies," Freeman muses. "He wanted to be invited in to the fame building and allowed to stay there. He thought that having done The Royal Variety Show, he'd made it. He'd met Princess Margaret – what could possibly go wrong?"
But even when Greg's career hurtles off the rails and ends up in a hideous train-wreck, he can't quite quell his craving for celebrity. "When the woman in the furniture store asks for his autograph, he immediately obliges. It's a knee-jerk reaction," Freeman comments.
"He thinks, 'someone wants me, I'm in the limelight again – even if only for two seconds.' Once you've tasted the limelight, it's hard to let it go. Everyone wants to be acknowledged."
However, Freeman reckons the current obsession with celebrity is totally out of proportion. "These days it's not enough to be acknowledged as a surgeon – you have to be acknowledged as the cover-star of Grazia magazine. After all, that's much more valuable to society than saving a child's life, isn't it?"
The same perverse instinct is displayed by Shirley in Toby Whithouse's Other People, a pilot that Channel 4 hope will go to series. According to Freeman, "the woman in the furniture shop doesn't know who Greg is. He's that 'wanker' from that kids' programme, but because he was once on the telly, that's good enough. If Joseph Goebbels were alive today and walking down the high street, the same thing would happen to him. Who cares what he's done – he could be a footballer, an actor or a genocidal maniac – as long as he's famous? It's the same currency."
Greg is soon enraged by Shirley, and Freeman thinks that anger, too, is a rich comedy seam. "In a later episode that Toby is working on, Greg goes to anger-management classes," the actor reveals. "He is asked by the therapist, 'why are you here?,' and he replies, 'why isn't everyone here? It can't only be me that's wound up just by being alive!'
"The show is poking fun at everyone who gets wound up and reminds us how stupid it is to get hacked off by petty things – life's too short. Having said that, I frequently get annoyed by things. We all know how to behave on paper, but it's much harder in reality, isn't it? What winds me up? You name it! I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but nothing winds me up more than people saying, 'chill out' to me when I'm irritated!"
But the way his career is going, Freeman has every reason to be cheerful. The actor, who has previously starred in such films as Love, Actually, Confetti, Breaking and Entering and Ali G In Da House, will soon be seen headlining in two American films, The Good Night, in which he plays a man torn between Gwyneth Paltrow and Penelope Cruz, and Dedication, a rom-com in which he portrays Mandy Moore's ex.
Like all the other stars of The Office – Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Lucy Davis and Mackenzie Crook – Freeman has capitalised on the break the groundbreaking comedy of embarrassment handed him.
Freeman has largely managed to evade the trap of being known merely for that one work. "I've got absolutely no complaints," he declares. "I think people now know that I'm not just Tim from The Office. The only place that image persists is with a few lazy journalists. You'll sometimes see a picture of me in something like Charles II with the caption: 'Tim from The Office in a funny wig'. I'd like you to apologise for that on behalf of the NUJ," he deadpans.
Freeman, who hails from Aldershot, has again donned "a funny wig" to play the lead in Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway's bio-pic about the traumas Rembrandt experienced when his wife died during the painting of The Night Watch.
"I like things that are slightly off the beaten track. If you want your film to be instantly green-lit, your first approach is not to go to a relatively unknown English actor. They're not going to throw millions of dollars at you for that." Freeman concludes that, "I'm really proud to appear in these kind of arthouse films because they reflect my own taste." He pauses for effect. "But I know they'll never get me a swimming-pool in the Bahamas."
'Other People', will be shown tomorrow at 10pm, Channel 4Reuse content