Robert Bathurst: Thingy out of Cold Feet

Until ITV's hit series Cold Feet came along, Robert Bathurst was just another struggling actor. Now he's an unwilling celebrity who's fighting off Hello! magazine. Fiona Sturges met him
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The Independent Online

Being a highly paid television actor isn't everything it's cracked up to be. Sure, you might have an audience of millions, great scripts may frequently come your way, you may even get invited to all the good parties. But there's one problem, says Robert Bathurst, star of ITV's Cold Feet. Nobody knows your name.

"I know I'll always be 'thingy' out of Cold Feet," he sighs in that resigned, slightly crushed manner with which disciples of the programme will be instantly familiar. "It's only to be expected. If I have an ambition, I suppose it's to be 'thingy' out of something else as well."

You might know him better as David Marsden, husband of Karen, father to Josh and "the twins", and friends with Rachel, Adam, Jenny and Pete. The programme's first series, originally touted as Britain's answer to Friends, notched up nine million viewers a week, which certainly makes Bathurst a household face, if not quite a household name.

We're now on to the fourth series of Cold Feet, but it's only in the last two that David's story has come to the fore. He is currently living in the fallout of his infidelity with a political campaigner and is racked with guilt. Beneath the brash and clumsy exterior, he has emerged as a gentle and well-meaning character.

"I remember when I got the first script it said, 'David is obviously an 80K man'," says Bathurst. "I'd never seen people in those terms yet that's how our writer saw him – a post-Thatcherite whipping boy. But his more human frailties have been allowed to come in since then."

Bathurst is 44 – three years older than David. He says he likes him, although he doesn't shares his aspirations or live his sort of life. David is, after all, a man whose efforts to repair his marriage involve switching over to a subtitled film when his wife walks into the room and rattling off poetry at the breakfast table.

Bathurst and I meet in a restaurant in the middle of Soho. People certainly seem to recognise him – when the photographer takes him outside for some shots, two passers-by get their cameras out too. On first appearances, he is not so far removed from his screen persona. He's well-spoken and is immaculately groomed. All in all, he gives the impression of a sensible, straight-down-the-line individual although there's a underlying sparkle. Bathurst is given to small bursts of self-parody. "Oh reeeally!" he cries when I remark upon the latest publicity shot for Cold Feet, one that has the cast assembled naked, except that is from some carefully arranged drapes, as if posing for a painting of a Roman orgy. "That's what I said when I first saw it – 'Oh reeeally'. I didn't enjoy that session at all. It was one of those things where we were told to do it and just did it without thinking."

Filming for the series takes place in Manchester for five months each year. Occasionally, the actors are asked for their opinions on plot developments. "I suggested that, since David was approaching a mid-life crisis, perhaps he should get a Harley Davidson, only because I was entering mine and fancied a bike as well. So Granada paid for my motorbike test, hired a Harley and filmed a couple of scenes on it. I even fell off it at one stage. Now I have no desire to get on a motorbike again."

He responds calmly and thoughtfully when I allude to the rumours about the cast "doing a Friends" and demanding exorbitant fees.

"Our fees have gone up and I'm happy to say that it's well paid," he says. "It's all about market rate. I don't know where to pitch these things so I take my agent's advice. As long as ITV get their money back then I think we are worth it."

Bathurst has been approached on several occasions to appear in Hello! and OK! magazines but has always turned them down. He says the celebrity circuit makes him deeply uncomfortable. He can't even bring himself say the "c" word without adopting a high-pitched, faux-nasal voice.

He got accustomed to the ways of the tabloids early on in his career when he starred in Anything More Would be Greedy. Set during the Thatcher years, it followed a decade in the life of a debauched Tory MP. At the time, he remembers being interviewed by one paper.

"I spent half-an-hour talking about the role. Then they asked me whether I had had any girlfriends at university and, rather than get into it, I just played the line that I was hopeless with girls. It wasn't entirely true but, anyway, as a result the headline for the article went 'TV's Red-Hot Lover Was A Flop'. I had their measure from then on."

Bathurst was born in Ghana where his father worked as a management consultant. When he was two, the family relocated to Dublin. He had a "fantastic childhood" which was only partially marred by being sent to a boarding school where boys were beaten. Does he feel scarred by the experience?

"No, not really. It's just the only thing from that time that I can think to moan about."

He can remember wanting to act from the age of 13, though he would never have owned up to it. "I thought it was a bit naff," he says. "Actually, it was pathetic. It was just so unlikely for anyone who had come across me to think that that was what I would do."

After school he went to Cambridge to study law. He did the minimum amount of work, spending most of his time on stage, though he went on to do the barrister's qualification – "partly to show that I could apply myself if I really wanted to".

One of his first acting jobs was on a Guinness advert. This was followed by a series of radio sketch shows including Griff Rhys-Jones's Injury Time, where he starred alongside Emma Thompson and Martin Bergman.

Initially, the work came flooding in but after a couple of years he experienced something of a slump.

"I'd finished this big advertising contract and I'd been slung out of the pilot for Blackadder. I'd been offered a job as a presenter on That's Life! but turned it down. I eventually went to the National Theatre, where I joined the player's cast. I was green about the profession then and I didn't realise this meant understudying. So there I was standing holding a spear in St Joan for four months saying, 'Halt! Who goes there?' It was a very steeling time."

Though he appears generally content with his lot, Bathurst wants it to be known that there's more to him than just one staggeringly successful TV series. So much so, in fact, that halfway through our meeting he sends for his CV.

When it arrives an hour later I see that he's right. It's long and varied, listing regular appearances on The Lenny Henry Show, a handful of solid theatre roles, and the acclaimed 1991 BBC series Joking Apart. Rather charmingly, it also catalogues his less auspicious career moves.

He has recently starred alongside Caroline Quentin in ITV's one-off romantic comedy Goodbye Mr Steadman and is currently working on a BBC drama The Secret, due to be aired in the spring. When I ask if he has a career plan he shakes his head.

"I suppose I should have a wish-list. I'm just not pushy enough. But I love the chance of it, getting opportunities that I would never have thought of by myself." With that, he's off to lend his voice to a Harrods ad. I look down again at his CV. Near the end it announces "Now does voice-overs with No Shame Attached." You can't say fairer than that.