No, I don’t associate myself with the character at all,” says Robert Bathurst, sounding exactly like David Marsden, his character from Cold Feet.
Urbane, incredibly polite, charming, yet slightly apologetic and quietly spoken, he has one of those voices that make you feel as if he is genuinely delighted to be talking to you, that you have his undivided attention. Generally cast as well-spoken and upper middle class, whether tending towards honourable or bounder, with his smart suits and slightly foppish grey hair, he puts you in mind of the upmarket lawyer he may well have been if the Cambridge Footlights hadn’t lured him from his law degree into full-time acting, or indeed of “management consultant/investment consultant” David Marsden.
“Acting is just colouring in,” he says, “so you try to colour in as best you can, but what comes first is what the author writes. Obviously some aspects of your instinctive reactions might be your own, and then all the grace notes you find from other things go in there. But I play high and low class too, you know.”
Back on our screens last year after a 13-year gap and nearly 20 years after it first aired, Cold Feet is just as popular second time round with its cast of James Nesbitt, John Thomson, Faye Ripley, Hermione Norris, as well as Bathhurst, this time joined by Benidorm and The Loch actress Siobhan Finneran. Over six million people tuned in to the first episode of the 2016 season of the ITV drama, to see how the friends had coped with the vicissitudes of life. Older, but apparently not much wiser, they continue to marry and split up, land and lose jobs, struggle to parent and generally make a mess of things, not least Marsden. Having wound up in the criminal and divorce courts last season, he has a knack of turning his self-inflicted misfortunes around and may yet come up smiling apologetically once again.
“I love playing him,” says Bathurst, who is delighted to be back for another seven episodes of Cold Feet, reprising the role of the… what exactly is it David does again?
“Do you know, I’m not really very sure,” he says. “There was one episode where I sang a nursery song to one of my children, ‘Bye Bye Baby Bunting, daddy’s management consulting…’ so we think that was it, but I don’t really know what David does for a living. He’s sort of in the financial world...
“He was originally a sort of ex-yuppie. When we first saw him in 1996 we had been through 11 years of Maggie and he was a creation of that. Those characters aren’t meant to have a chink of humanity so you’re surprised when David does, albeit he gets it wrong. He comes from a milieu that is bent on perfection yet he’s wholly flawed so people enjoy that,” he says.
“At first you question if we’re doing it again just to fill a hole in the schedules left by Downton, you know, is it happening for the right reasons? But you realise there’s a good reason for coming back; we’ve grown older and it’s richer for the gap. And to be working with the same lot again, yes it was very warming.
“All of the characters have been affected by their experiences over the years so they’re not just flying one flag as characters, there’s more flow than that. And David is less sharp in his aspirations,” he says.
“One thing with middle age, you just think ‘oh, sod it, who cares’ about certain things, and you see them from a different angle. For David the materialistic drive is less important and the jobs aren’t there for him. Spiritually too, other things matter more and he appreciates friendship, something he’s not very good at. There’s a golden thread between those main characters, from the weight of shared history that comes from long-term friendships.”
At the end of the last series David has been released from prison after his investment advice turned out to be dubious and he’s without a home or a job. Will ex-wife Karen, who he is possibly still in love with, take him back or will he remain married to current wife Robyn, who is in the process of divorcing him?
“Yeah… I think we left it that he had left Robyn… that Robyn was… em, he’s not divorced yet, that’s right,” he says, not sounding 100 per cent sure, or perhaps trying diplomatically to avoid spoilers. “Things have moved on a bit and he gets into more pickles, scrapes, em, severe physical danger... for the best of motives. Yes... another unwise adventure.”
More affairs perhaps?
“The affair when he was married to Karen?” he says. “Well, that was one afternoon in a hotel and the whole world fell in on his head after that,” he says, sympathising. “That’s David’s sort of character. You step out of line a TINY bit and the whole world comes crashing down on you. You get no latitude, nobody gives you any space to misbehave. They’re straight down on you,” he says, defensive of his character, who despite his flaws, is popular. What does Bathurst see as his appeal?
“It’s always enjoyable seeing people suffer, isn’t it? And suffering at his own hand as well, because everything he does goes slightly wrong. And from his own standpoint he has always behaved TOTALLY honourably.”
Even when he hasn’t...
“Yes, exactly, honourably from his own viewpoint,” says Bathurst. “I’m sure Stalin believed he was behaving honourably. I think David does try and do things for the best, but he’s always getting into terrible scrapes and getting smacked in the gob or put in prison.”
Going to prison wasn’t such a shock for the resilient and optimistic David, who describes it as “much like boarding school, only less violent”, something Bathurst can identify with, having been to more than one. Born in Ghana in 1957, where his father was working, he returned with the family to Ireland then England, and he and his brother were educated at boarding school. “There was one school in Ireland that was fairly Lord of the Flies,” he says, ”but that was par for the course in the 1960s anyway. The others were all OK.”
Ireland was the setting for Bathurst’s introduction to theatre, in particular the panto at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin which sparked an ambition to act.
“Yes, I used to love the panto there, that’s probably where my fairly low-brow taste developed, and I relish it,” he says. “That and going to see Ken Dodd at the Winter Gardens in Scarborough when I was ten was fantastic.”
If Bathurst’s tastes are broad, he reckons his roles are too, contesting that he gets cast as a certain type, and racking up appearances on stage and screen in a variety of roles over an almost four-decade career.
“I played high status recently as Prince Charles in Charles III...”
And he played a would-be stand-up comedian in Joking Apart, Stephen Moffat’s 1990 TV sitcom.
“Oh, did you see that?” he says, pleased. “Were you one of the few? I loved Joking Apart. I think it’s crazy that the BBC haven’t repeated it – Stephen Moffat showing how to write comedy, although I don’t think the stand-up routines really worked. I think it should be re-done.”
He also enjoyed his part in cult sci-fi series Red Dwarf, which he says “tapped into that extraordinary body of audience who love science fiction and there was enough of that in there, as well as being just a sort of straightforward farcical sitcom.”
And he turned up as Mrs Brown’s love interest in an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, and in the film, Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie as an Anglo-Irish barrister with Tourette’s. There was his part in the long-running ITV game reserve drama Wild at Heart and he was in at the beginning of ITV megahit Downton Abbey in 2010, where he was resplendent in tweeds and tuxes as Sir Anthony Strallan, love interest of the lovely Lady Edith, aka “poor Edith”. Honourable, but dithering, he finally came to his senses over the 25-year age gap and dumped her at the altar at the last minute. Harsh, but it was the honourable thing to do.
“At that stage no-one knew Downton would be a success, but it was because it was sharply written. The scenes were generally not longer than 30 seconds and it really rattled along. It took people by surprise, but that’s down to tapping into people wanting nostalgia, and also the characters, plot and making it snappy. It turned out to be a good calling card for America for me, because they were mad on Downton, and that took me to Chicago to do King Charles III.”
Other stage outings over the years include Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, and on the big screen he was perfectly cast as John Le Mesurier in the Hattie Jacques biopic Hattie, while on the small screen, he teamed up once again with Cold Feet co-star Hermione Norris for his role as philandering husband Andy Cummings-Browne, working his way through the village’s womenfolk in Sky One comedy drama Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death in 2014.
But one of his most enjoyable roles ever has come about more recently in the bonkers Channel 4 BAFTA and Rose D’Or winning comedy, Toast of London, where Bathurst plays idling retired actor Ed Howzer-Black.
Bathurst fits right in with Matt Berry’s surreal thespian comedy, as the star’s landlord and sidekick, mild yet sexually perverse, in the show that has racked up three series so far.
“Toast of London I would put into the category of shows which are amongst the favourites I’ve ever done. It’s a minor cult in that the first series on Channel 4 was watched by almost nobody and the second series got awards and now people absolutely adore it. I love it. I’d love to do more, so hopefully…”
Even while it’s off screen Bathurst has been making money from the show as there are several racehorses named after the characters.
“Clem Fandango has never been less than first, second or third, so I’ve had a good return on him, although Ray Purchase came ninth at Carlisle the other day and I lost some money on that one.”
Based in London, Bathurst lives with his wife, artist Victoria Threlfall, and the couple have four grown up daughters Matilda, Clemency, Oriel and Honor, with Oriel following him into the entertainment world, on the production side. This summer he’s been happy to enjoy some time off after working solidly since last October.
“We’ll see if Cold Feet re-commissions and if it doesn’t I should get going, find something else,” he says. “I’m doing audio books at the moment, then after that I’m going to look at putting my show on at the Edinburgh Festival next year.”
Bathurst is producing and starring in a stage production called Love, Loss And Chianti, based on poems by Costa Prize-winning poet Christopher Reid, which he has already performed at Chichester last year.
“It’s not the sort of poetry that frightens people at school,” he says. “They’re lyrical narratives, very clear, very emotional, very funny. It’s like character stand-up really, you just bang it out and see how it works. Altogether it’s a blend of poetry, music (viola and cello) and projected cartoons.”
“Oh yes, there’s plenty of that,” he says. “Especially in the second half. Lots. The poems are called ‘A Scattering’ and ‘The Song of Lunch’ and they’re both about love and loss. One’s about grief and one’s about the end of a relationship, one is sad, but one is very, very funny, so they work well as a double bill.”
And will it be in a venue where the audience can join in with a glass of chianti or two while they watch the poetry and drama unfold?
“Yes, of course. Absolutely. I shall ensure it is.”
Of course he will. We wouldn’t expect anything less.
Robert Bathurst stars in the seventh series of Cold Feet which continues on STV on Fridays at 9pm