Caroline Quentin has a confession to make: she has never seen Cold Feet. So, when she met Mike Bullen, the creator of ITV1's hugely popular thirtysomething saga, for lunch to discuss his latest project, Life Begins, she recalls that she "kept nodding sagely about Cold Feet. But, as he talked more about the characters - Jules and Chris and Maurice and Sandra, or whatever they're called! - he suddenly stopped in his tracks and said, 'You haven't seen it, have you?' I just laughed merrily and said, 'I'll have the salmon, please.' "
Quentin must be one of the few people in the country who has not sat glued to Cold Feet. When it came to a tear-stained close last year, in excess of 10 million Britons were hooked on Bullen's serial. Will they soon be mainlining his latest offering?
Bullen is sitting on the set of Life Begins, in the decidedly soulless surroundings of a windswept and deserted car park near St Albans station. Glamorous it ain't. The 43-year-old Bullen, who has the thin, tortured-artist look, begins with Life Begins. This bittersweet drama centres on Maggie (played by Caroline Quentin), a woman on the cusp of 40 who seems quite contented with her lot as a wife and mother of two. Then, out of the blue, her husband, Phil (Alexander Armstrong), announces that he is leaving her. As she contemplates a lonely life of unfixed taps and precious little money, Maggie also has to contend with a father (Frank Finlay) suffering from incipient Alzheimer's.
So, is Life Begins merely Cold Feet with fortysomething rather than thirtysomething characters, and an added fear of mortality? Bullen is eager to avoid invidious comparisons between his new drama and its immensely successful predecessor. He does not view this as some sort of televisual beauty contest. "As far as Cold Feet is concerned, I've done that, got the T-shirt," he asserts, in a tone that brooks no contradiction. "Although Life Begins is in similar territory, I don't feel that there is any ghost hanging over the project. This is a completely different set of characters and stories. Every episode of Cold Feet ate up large chunks of plot. Here, we really spend time with the two main characters - it's like eavesdropping on their lives. This is not Cold Feet by another name."
Nevertheless, Bullen is bracing himself for flak from TV reviewers. "Journalists will no doubt say, 'It's not as good as Cold Feet.' But you could just as easily say, 'A can of tomato soup is not as good as a carton of orange juice.' I expect sarcastic critics to be sarcastic, because that's what sarcastic critics do," he says, sarcastically. "But it's the audience that matters, and they won't make that comparison. My name probably doesn't even register with them. People should just view it on its own terms. People who've already seen the first episode have said to me, 'It's not Cold Feet, is it?', which I see as a good thing."
Life Begins certainly possesses a darker tone than its (at least initially) bright and breezy forerunner: Life Begins is darkness visible. Bullen does not demur. "Cold Feet got darker as it went along" - as the death of Rachel (Helen Baxendale) underlined - "but this is dark from the start. Phil walks out before the first ad break."
This subtle intermingling of tone was one of the strengths of Cold Feet. "Comedy dramas are difficult to pull off because, to succeed, they have to work on two levels, to be both funny and dramatic," Bullen observes. "The key is emotional truth. You can milk a situation for all its comedic potential as long as you remain within the bounds of credibility. Do that and you can switch between genres at will, which allows for a much greater emotional impact. So, for example, in Cold Feet we could play the dysfunctional relationship between Pete [John Thomson] and his father for laughs, then gobsmack the audience by killing Dad off on his way to his grandson's christening."
The writer pulls off the same trick in Life Begins. He injects humour into the most seemingly depressing scene. When Maggie informs her disapproving mother that Phil has abandoned her, the mother sniffs, "You know, you're the first person in my family to have a failed marriage."
"Well," Maggie retorts, "at last I've done something to make you proud."
Bullen, who recently won the Writer of the Year prize at the British Comedy awards, explains that he is a "glass-half-empty person. That's important for my style. I'm always looking to undercut the happiness of any situation." But that cuts the other way, too. "This won't be Bleak Feet," he confirms. "I've never felt that drama should be unremittingly bleak. That's my main complaint about soaps such as EastEnders and Brookside. Life's not like that. Even at times of greatest distress, there are moments of humour.
"I was recently talking to a woman whose father had died of cancer. She said that sometimes she and her sister would sit laughing in the next room from him. It was the same during the Blitz. When people had to sleep in the Underground, it was like a party. It's necessary to have those safety valves - it's a protective thing."
Bullen, who is married with two children, also has an ear for the way that much goes unsaid in relationships. Quentin reckons that his scripts "read like a dream, but when you come to play them you see they're terribly complex. At dinner, a woman will say to her husband, 'Do you remember when...?', and you realise that there's a huge amount of subtext there."
Bullen declares: "I don't like American huggy-huggy, I-love-you moments. Being English, I prefer someone saying, 'Are we going to eat now?' - which is our way of saying" 'I love you.' That's much more effective. It's part of our national character to talk in code."
Bullen has recently moved with his family to Australia, but he was brought up in the less exotic environment of Solihull. After Cambridge, he worked in advertising and at the BBC World Service. He broke through as a writer when he poured himself on to the screen as Adam, the lovable singleton played by James Nesbitt, in the pilot of Cold Feet, which proceeded to scoop the Golden Rose of Montreux. As the series progressed, Bullen exhausted all the dramatic events that had happened to him, and had to draw instead on his pals' experiences. "It interests me how writers cannibalise their own experiences and those of those around them. Maybe we're trying to make sense of our confusions."
As Cold Feet reached its final series last year, Bullen found his life mirrored in different characters' experiences. He jokes: "I now identify less with happy-go-lucky Pete and more with David, the self-satisfied management consultant who has embraced middle age!" But middle age has not stopped his creative juices flowing. Bullen is working on a romantic-comedy feature film, and a TV series about the different generations in one family. "The family is a microcosm of the whole community," he muses, "and sometimes dysfunctional families are the most successful. On TV, the most successful family is to be found in The Simpsons, because they're solid and secure and they love each other." Moving into top rhetorical gear, he continues: "That's why George Bush Snr got it so horribly wrong when he said that America should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. Frankly, the Waltons worry me - I imagine that there was a lot of incest going on there! Which family would you rather be part of - the Waltons or the Simpsons?
"The Simpsons are so much more real - they show family life, warts and all, and have room for both comedy and drama. George Bush Snr's take on society was sadly askew. He was not necessarily an idiot - but he certainly spawned one!"
Bullen is in an enviable position. After collecting more awards than he can display on one mantelpiece, he is one of TV's most in-demand writers. Like his characters, Bullen has grown up. "We're taught that acquisitiveness is best, and that if we keep on acquiring things, we'll be happy," he reflects. "But it doesn't bring happiness. I've got five remote controls for my telly, and there is a hell of a lot of stress involved in choosing which one to use. More is less. I always thought that people ahead of me had it all sussed, and I imagined that when I reached that age, I'd have it sussed, too. But if I've got any wisdom, it's that I now realise that no one ever has it sussed."
'Life Begins' starts on Monday 16 February at 9pm on ITV1Reuse content