Interview: Robert Bathurst

‘I lied at my Cambridge interview, saying I wanted to be a barrister. I reckoned that if I said I wanted to be an actor they’d quickly show me the door.’ HOLLY STEVENSON talks to ROBERT BATHURST, best known as ‘David from Cold Feet’ and the ‘seedy old widow’ in Downton Abbey.

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The role of ‘David’ in ITV’s comedy drama Cold Feet is a cross David Bathurst perennially carries. It has made him instantly recognisable, yet  mostly for wearing a suit and looking emotionally constipated. His role as a widow courting Lady Edith in Downton Abbey hasn’t done much to change this – the costume’s slightly different, but the constipation has remained. Yet Robert himself is much more versatile; he can, shock horror, do comedy, and refuses to take himself seriously. And it all began with a Cambridge interview and a lie…

Holly Stevenson: It has been rumoured that ITV executives are keen to make another series of Cold Feet. What do you think of the rumours? Would you want to do another series?

Robert Bathurst: Rumours have been flying around for ages. There are good reasons both for and against doing more. If it has the same wit and brightness and the characters were allowed to develop then yes but if it’s just a marketing exercise to get ITV out of a hole then there wouldn’t be any point.

HS: What was your relationship with your Cold Feet co-stars like?

RB: Very good, without having them all over for Christmas. The press always tried to make out that we were a tight unit, always out on the town together but that wasn’t the case; we all kept different hours and some needed sleep more than others.

HS: How do you feel about perennially being known as ‘David from Cold Feet’?

RB: I don’t knock it. Every actor could do with being in a hit.

HS: Tell us about your experiences whilst studying at Cambridge.

RB: I lied at my interview, saying I wanted to be a barrister. I reckoned that if I said I wanted to be an actor they’d quickly show me the door. I did Footlights for three years and as many plays as I could manage. I never got into law but had a very indulgent DoS. After I left I did the Bar exams partly to prove that I could apply myself  at the subject and partly to avoid going to drama school with all those group bonding games.

HS: Were the Footlights as elitist as they are made out to be?

RB: The May Week show has only a handful of people in it, so in that sense, yes…Those who come through are the ones steely enough to survive the heckling at Smokers.  Comedy is underrated; in drama actors can bore the pants off the audience for hours and still think they were marvellous. In comedy you get the taste of true shame if it goes badly.

HS: You said once that your role in Joking Apart was the favourite of your career. Why is this, and have you changed your mind since?

RB: Not yet. Anyone who wants to write TV comedy should look at Joking Apart. Of the twelve episodes we did I reckon about eight of them are classic farces which will endure. We limped out on BBC2 over a five year period so it never had the chance to build, but twenty years on I still get people saying they loved it.


A classic ‘Joking Apart’ clip

HS: What is it that attracts you to Noel Coward plays? Would you do another one?

RB:  I like doing them plainly, without the sort of High Church intoning that people think is the way to do Coward. I’ll leave that to village hall productions. The trick is to make the plays as much fun for the audience to hear as they are to read. I’d like to do Present Laughter again one day .

HS: What would be your ideal theatre role?

One with lots of words. I don’t see drama and comedy as separate art forms, I like anything that engages an audience.

HS: Where do you feel more comfortable, in front of a camera or on stage?

RB: I like filming, once you realize that the crew couldn’t give a damn what you are up to, but enjoyment when filming has to be delayed for six months or so, until you discover whether or not what you are doing is a complete turkey.  In theatre that realization dawns more quickly.

HS: You played Hattie Jacques’s husband in a BBC biopic. What do you think about the BBC’s revisionist dramas?

RB: The BBC seem to have a fixation about the private lives of light entertainers.  It cannot be a surprise that they weren’t as cheery as they appear in public. Because a comedian subtly controls an audience and dominates them, fearing ignominy at any moment, we shouldn’t be surprised if they are shit company.  Hattie Jacques wasn’t a comedian, just a good, gregarious delightful person, riven with insecurity. Ruth Jones is all of the former without the last bit. Honest.

HS: Why do you think Downton Abbey has been such a success?

RB: It really did take off with an unexpectedly wide audience. At no stage during filming did the producer bounce up and say ”It’s going to look GREAT” which is usually code for saying “The rest of it is rubbish”. The key to its success is that it was more about the characters than the frocks.

HS: Will you be making an appearance in the next series?

RB: They’ve checked my availability, so if they think there’s any future for a seedy old widower chasing the spare younger sister then he may come back…

Blithe Spirit is running at the Apollo Theatre, London, until the 18th June.