Actor Robert Bathurst has spent his career switching between popular TV shows such as Cold Feet and theatre roles around the UK. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about why he’s happy he didn’t go to drama school and his current project – Love, Loss and Chianti – which has been 10 years in the making
Tall, affable and welcoming, Robert Bathurst is instantly recognisable from his TV work on Downton Abbey, Blandings and most memorably as David Marsden, the posh management consultant from ITV’s long-running comedy-drama Cold Feet.
When we meet at a dingy rehearsal room in Vauxhall, it is to talk about his stage work – he is putting the finishing touches to a project that has been a decade in the making. Love, Loss and Chianti is an adaptation of two books of verse by Christopher Reid – A Scattering and The Song of Lunch – opening at Riverside Studios in London this week.
A Scattering, about the trauma of dealing with the death of Reid’s actor wife Lucinda Gane, was the first poetry book to win the Costa book prize in 2010, while The Song of Lunch, about trying to reconnect with an old flame, was made into a BBC film, also in 2010, with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman.
Bathurst first came across Reid’s work more than 10 years ago when he was having trouble expressing what he felt about a close friend’s serious illness. He says: “You feel guilty for living when you think someone you care about is dying. Is moving on a disrespectful act? Reid articulates all this confusion magnificently. My friend survived but other friends have died since and I’ve always turned to Christopher’s verse.”
Though he is best known for his high-profile TV work including Toast, Wild at Heart and Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes – last year’s remake of the venerable BBC sitcom’s three missing episodes – Bathurst has always interspersed TV jobs with stage roles. He developed a deep affection for live performance with the Cambridge Footlights, of which he was president in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He read law at Cambridge but there was never any doubt in his mind that acting was a better fit than the law. “I should really have gone to drama school after university but I knew nothing about it, or the business,” he says. “I was completely green. Besides I don’t think I would have got in.”
With friends he’d met through Footlights, including Emma Thompson and Rory McGrath, Bathurst went on to take part in the BBC Radio 4 sketch comedy Injury Time, which ran for three series. It was enough to earn him an Equity card. He says: “When Injury Time finished after three series, I auditioned for the first cast change of Noises Off, for the part of the young company manager, and got the job. I remember thinking: ‘This is easy – you just turn up and they give you the job.’”
He replaced Roger Lloyd Pack in the show, which was followed by a year of walk-on parts at the National Theatre in London. “I just wanted to immerse myself in the business. I understudied two parts in Saint Joan, directed by Ronald Eyre, who knew I’d been in Noises Off. He came up to me during rehearsals and said: ‘What are you doing this for?’ which was quite depressing.
“But I’m glad I did it. I got to know Michael Bryant quite well who was crucial to my development as an actor. We were in a Feydeau farce together. He would take me aside and bawl me out for posture and diction in a way that older actors don’t really do to younger actors any more.”
Did he ever feel that missing out on drama school held him back? “No, I’m very happy I didn’t go. The fall-out rate at drama schools is huge. I guess it can open doors and help with people’s perception of you, but it doesn’t mean that you automatically go on to be successful. Early on, I did a two-hour monologue on cannibalism at the Man in the Moon pub theatre in London and put myself through tap dancing lessons; doing things like that was probably as good as going to drama school.”
Looking at his prodigious CV, it is clear Bathurst has worked hard over a career spanning four decades. He says having a large family – he is married to painter Victoria Threlfall and they have four daughters – has always spurred him on. “I had to get jobs that paid. I couldn’t sit back and enjoy myself on the fringe for years on end. Luckily I love working.”
It was the arrival of Cold Feet in 1997 that catapulted him into recognition-on-the-street fame. He says: “I thought I was doing all right until Cold Feet, then there was a sudden leap. It meant I didn’t have to introduce myself so much to directors and casting people. I used to do a lot of commercials in the early 1990s to support the family, but I was able to stop doing them after Cold Feet.”
When the show returned with a sixth series in 2016, after an absence of 13 years in which time the five main characters had all become middle-aged, did the lead actors, now virtually inseparable from their screen personas, have any say in what had happened – or would happen – to their characters?
I’m very happy I didn’t go to drama school – the fall-out rate is huge
“Each of us went out to lunch with the writer Mike Bullen, but of course it was up to him which direction we all went in. It’s up to the writer to do the research, not the actor. There was no Mike Leigh process of working as a management consultant or cafe proprietor. Acting is basically colouring in someone else’s artwork. Another actor would have given David a different colour palette.”
Bathurst has become an audience favourite portraying a number of roles with his trademark cheery diffidence – kind of Bertie Wooster meets Sergeant Wilson. He cites Michael Gambon as his early acting role model, especially his performance as the amorous vet in the original 1974 production of The Norman Conquests – a character for whom diffidence was a way of life.
When asked how he has developed his comic style, he says: “Comedy is about taking people by surprise. I try to do things that aren’t obvious. I don’t feel comfortable as the centre of attention but I enjoy being on stage and taking people by surprise.”
His stage highlights include Three Sisters opposite Kristin Scott Thomas and Eric Sykes at the Playhouse in the West End in 2003, Whipping It Up with Richard Wilson, which transferred from the Bush to the New Ambassadors (now the Ambassadors) in London, and touring productions of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit. Most recently he played the notorious title character in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell at the Coach and Horses pub in Soho.
We meet in a week where there has been furore over an article in the Telegraph that claims Shakespeare is threatened by the “woke brigade”, saying: “A traditionally cast production is now a rarity, ever more unthinkable.” What does he feel about the movement towards greater diversity in casting?
“I find it refreshing that people are less jarred by unusual casting, whether it’s a disability or a person of colour. As Martin Luther King famously said, it should always be about character rather than colour,” Bathurst says.
“Some people will say there has been an over-correction and some will say there hasn’t been enough. The whole point of the movement towards diversity is to keep making those steps. Will distinctions become so blurred that everybody can play everything? I suspect that isn’t the case. It’s the job of casting directors to find the person who fits the part.”
Meanwhile he is focusing on Love, Loss and Chianti, the show he has been refining for nearly a decade. “It is a huge amount to learn. I go through my lines in traffic jams, supermarket check-outs and when I can’t sleep at night. I’ve tried to keep it oiled by doing it as much as possible. I need to find out what works and what doesn’t work, what needs changing.
There has been a huge amount to learn for Love, Loss and Chianti – I go through my lines in traffic jams, supermarket check-outs and when I can’t sleep at night
“People come to it, not entirely sure what they’re coming to see. Even people close to it don’t always get it, until they see it. I’ve tried to make it more of a play than a recitation. I call it character stand-up.”
He says he tries to deliver the work in a way that people forget it is in verse. “I loathe the actor’s poetry voice. I was really pleased when someone I was at university with came up to me after a performance in Edinburgh and said he didn’t realise it was in verse. I thought: ‘Great. That’s exactly what I want people to think.’”
Love, Loss and Chianti runs at Riverside Studios in London until May 17. Details: riversidestudios.co.uk