Neil Pearson: Let me be the judge

He became a television star as a sexy, funny jack-the-lad. But now the actor is dishing out tough verdicts from the stalls, in a contest to find new playwriting talent. Liz Hoggard finds him surprisingly thoughtful

Neil Pearson loathes reality TV, so when he was asked to be a judge on The Play's the Thing, Channel 4's search for a new West End playwright, he was sceptical. "My instant reaction was, 'It's Pop Idol with an A level'."

What convinced him to take part was the involvement of Sonia Friedman, the producer of West End hits such as Shopping and Fucking and the Madonna vehicle Up for Grabs. "I've known and worked with Sonia for 10 years, and because she was on board it was some sort of guarantee that this was going to be a grown-up thing, and that we were actively going to be looking to encourage people: not to be cruel to those who couldn't do it, and to be constructively rigorous to those we thought could."

Pearson, 47, is best known for television series such as Drop the Dead Donkey and Between the Lines. Cynics might suggest he's been chosen to bring a more mainstream audience to a niche show about theatre. But he is passionate about new writing and has spent much of the last 10 years on the stage, from the West End production of Closer to Friedman's revival of Michael Frayn's Benefactors.

The Play's the Thing is risky - for everyone. With previous series, Operatunity and Musicality, C4 set out to slot a novice performer into an existing West End show. For the new show, they commissioned Friedman to select and produce a winning script from 2,000 first-time playwrights. Last night we saw them whittle it down to three finalists. The final episode will follow behind-the scene rehearsals of the winning play and the opening night. Friedman, legendary for her toughness, will pull it if it loses too much money.

As an actor Pearson specialises in sexy jack-the-lads, but as a judge, he is a revelation: thoughtful, funny, openly emotional. "I wasn't going to play Simon Cowell. I'm not interested in doing anything that derives its entertainment value from laughing at people."

There was a great moment in episode one when, commiserating with the losers, he gave an impassioned speech about rejection. "If it's any comfort to you, the last play I decided to be in got crucified by the press you are now very luckily avoiding." The play - Cloaca, at the Old Vic - was savaged by the critics.

"Kevin [Spacey] wanted to use his clout to put new writing on stage. The arts journalists seemed to me to turn into sports journalists," he recalls. "There was an air of us versus them: America versus the UK. Was it the best play in town? No. Was it the play they described? Also no."

Pearson can also be tough. In another scene, Pearson and his fellow judge Mel Kenyon have a bust-up about whether an improvised play has an author. Kenyon, a literary agent, thinks not. "I'm feeling slightly morally outraged," she declares.

"I think Mel was wrong," says Pearson, "because I don't think there is a right way to create a piece of theatre. I do remember at some point she started talking about moral issues, at which point I thought, 'We've lost perspective here: famine is a moral issue. What we're looking for is a play'."

Pearson is very good company, but don't be fooled by the unpretentious, blokey persona. He's an intellectual. When I arrive at the swanky private members' club, he's curled up reading a battered William Faulkner novel. Taking one look around the room full of braying celebs, he suggests we conduct the interview outdoors "near something green".

Will The Play's the Thing change his image? "I have a vague idea of what you're talking about. But I'm not sure it's just the characters I play. I've been talking to journalists for 20 years but they only ask three questions: 'what's your new show about? Are you like the characters you play? Who's your girlfriend?' If you limit your questions to such a narrow area, it's hardly surprising that you don't know much about the person you're talking to."

Pearson remains good-natured about the fascination with his love life, although he finds it odd that people who've been to Alcoholics Anonymous and had three broken marriages "have the nerve to ask me when I am going to settle down".

He is clear-eyed about parenting. His father walked out when he was five; by 11 they had completely lost touch. He won a place at Woolverstone Hall, a boarding school in Suffolk, the majority of whose pupils were from single-parent, inner-London families. In 2000 he wrote an impassioned essay on behalf of the National Council for One Parent Families. After graduating from Central, he starred alongside Leonard Rossiter in Loot, where Rossiter died in his dressing room. In 1990 he won the role of lothario Dave Charnley in Drop the Dead Donkey, and a star was born.

Pearson says he hardly walks down the street planning to be a sex symbol - today he's in jeans, hair dishevelled - but he retains a powerful attraction for women. An actor friend who knew him when he was dating the actress Susannah Doyle says it was a genuine love match, but that she grew exhausted by the female fans who stalk him.

Theatre is a passion, but when he signs up for a long run, his heart sinks. He aims to work seven months of the year, and travel the rest. And he likes poker. "Patrick Marber has finally convinced me it is a good and noble way of pissing your time away."

Friedman had the casting vote on The Play's the Thing. Pearson is sanguine: "We had to look for the one that has the most chance of selling hundreds of seats a night." The play is previewing in the West End but secrecy surrounds the writer's identity. All will be revealed tomorrow.

I tell Pearson, a stickler for language, that I have a tendency to use the words "quirky" and "edgy" in every piece I write. "You've just equated quirky with edgy. I don't," he says firmly. "Quirky is edgy with stabilisers! It's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic without going to the heart of what you're writing about."

'The Play's the Thing' is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 10pm. The winning play is currently previewing at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2. Box office: 0870 060 6627

THE CV

BORN 27 April 1959 in Battersea, London, the eldest of three children. Was raised by his mother, Maureen, a secretary. Despite his family home being in south London, spent much of his youth away at boarding school. Lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan.

EDUCATION As a boy, attended Woolverstone Hall, an experimental school in Suffolk, where he first began to act. Later trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

EARLY CAREER Spent the 1980s working in the theatre and playing small TV parts, particularly in sitcoms. Starred with Leonard Rossiter in Loot at the Lyric Theatre in 1984. In 1988, won a part in Hat Trick Productions' historical sitcom Chelmsford 123.

YOU MAY HAVE SEEN HIM IN...

It was another Hat Trick show, Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-98)

Brought him nationwide fame. Recorded close to transmission, the popular Channel 4 sitcom, based in a TV newsroom, used current news events to give the programme a greater sense of realism. It also made stars of Haydn Gwynne and Stephen Tompkinson.

Between the Lines (1992-94)

Acclaimed BBC1 police drama that ran for three series. The show centred around the eventful life of Detective Superintendent Tony Clark, played by Pearson.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Played Richard Finch, a Dave Charnley-style editor at a fictional TV channel and the boss of Renée Zellwegger's Bridget Jones.

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