IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BATHURST
Robert Bathurst is a familiar face to television viewers these days. Most famously, he starred as David Marsden in five series of Cold Feet and recently returned to our screens for a second series of My Dad’s The Prime Minister. And, naturally, he will always be fondly remembered by visitors to this site for his superb portrayal of the hapless Mark Taylor.In October 2004, Robert spoke to us about his career, the foundations of which were laid in university with the Cambridge Footlights. Although he was studying for a degree in Law, as he reveals in the first of a four part interview, acting was secretly his true passion.
ROBERT BATHURST: It’s all I ever really wanted to do, strangely enough, which is probably rather a sad thing to admit, but, certainly, from the age of about thirteen, I was interested in it. I didn’t really tell anybody I wanted to do it, for sure, until I was about twenty-five, and by that stage I’d been to university and done lots of shows, as do lots of people, on a purely studenty basis. After I left university, I continued doing comedy shows of the Footlights group that I was with, and we toured around the country and Australia. With another group, also from Footlights, I did a radio series called Injury Time, which was produced by Geoffrey Perkins and was the first professional engagement I had. It was written by Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath and had Griff Rhys-Jones, Emma Thompson and Martin Bergman. I don’t know if you’ve come across him at all but he’s quite an instrumental figure from that era. He’s now married to Rita Rudner, the comedienne, and they live in splendour in Las Vegas, where’s she’s on every night.
We did loads of series of that but I wanted to get out of doing revue – I’ve always regarded revue as being a young person’s occupation, really. I couldn’t see anybody older than 33 making much of an impression and I wanted to play the longer game. I wanted to do plays, but I had no experience of doing plays and nobody was necessarily going to employ me, so I auditioned and got into Noises Off for a year at the Savoy Theatre in the second cast of that. At the end of my first proper year of work, all I had was two words on my CV – it wasn’t really that impressive – so I joined the National [Theatre] in a very menial way, just simply to get out of the whole ex-studenty revue thing; to try and find myself in the larger world of actors and theatre.
There are lots of horrible jobs in acting – really, really, terrible ones – and I was the person standing at the back in Saint Joan, dressed in tights and chain mail, holding a spear, and I had one line which was, “Halt! Who goes there?” My chain mail balaclava was down just above my eyes and it was way above my nose just in case any friend was in the audience, who’d recognise me, and I was just grinding my teeth with frustration! But on the other hand, because I hadn’t been to drama school, it gave me a picture as to how the profession operates - something I was utterly naïve about - and it was a very useful experience from that point of view. I can look back at it now and say that it was useful but, at the time, I thought it was desperate and awful.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: It’s certainly not hard to see why. Now, a very early role of yours was Prince Harry in the pilot episode of Blackadder.
RB: Yes, that was actually before I did Noises Off. I was very, very green. The director had done his training video, which I was involved in – this was for him to learn to become a director – then he went on to direct the pilot of Blackadder, and he gave me the nod for that. For the series, they got rid of me and they got rid of the director and they got rid of half the Royal Family and revamped it. The character, Harry, only lasted one series – I don’t think he went on any more than that – and so, at the time, I thought, well, that’s just bad luck, isn’t it? I think if it happened now, I’d probably slit my wrists! It was so early days and I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I quite understand if they wanted to use somebody else. I wasn’t desperately upset about it and never have been, particularly. It was just something that happened.
JA: Sure. I think the first substantial role for which I remember you was in the sadly late Malcolm Bradbury’s impressive Anything More Would Be Greedy.
RB: Oh, my goodness me! That was originally going to be a nine parter on film and then Anglia Television and Anglia Films had some sort of hissy spat: the Bradbury thing was an Anglia Television thing and not an Anglia Films thing, so as a result it got relegated to six episodes on video! It was put out in August of 1990 and, you know, no one saw it, and, actually, there were aspects of it that were really quite interesting….And Bradbury was a considerable writer and his take on the Thatcher years was quite interesting. It was during the Thatcher years but in the aftermath of much of her career, and he was able to take an objective, historical view, almost as it was happening, which was something that I don’t think was appreciated at the time. That was good. That was playing an MP – Dennis Medlam his name was. It spanned about fifteen years, I think. We went from being students to about 35, and I became a disgraced minister.
JA: Yes, you were a slimy Tory MP, as I remember.
RB: Slimy Tory MP – that’s probably tautology, isn’t it?
JA: Absolutely! [laughs] Now, inevitably, I’m going to move onto Joking Apart as you would have shot the pilot not that long after. When you saw the script, did you immediately think, this really has to be made into a series?
RB: I remember that I read the script the night before I went to have the meeting. That night I was working on a satirical sketch show for BSB before it got swallowed by Sky. They got some celeb in to do jokes on the news, and they got four or five actors and comedians to do sketches, live on the telly. What was glorious about it was we were broadcasting to nobody! We were doing live television to nobody! About three people in Westminster Cable had BSB, so we had all the tension of live television, knowing we’d be lucky if we were into double figures of people watching it!
There was a comedian doing it that night with me who’d also been sent the script for Joking Apart. We did the auditions with John Kilby, Andre Ptaszynski and Steven [Moffat] at what is now the Soho theatre - it was the old Soho Synagogue - in Dean Street. This comedian went in before I did. Just as he was walking out and I was walking in, he said, “If you get this job, I’ll break your legs!” [laughs] He’d had it all day and he’d been reading it and pissing himself laughing. I’d read it and thought it was really good, but he was desperate to do it….And I don’t think it was entirely jocular, his threat....And I’m glad to say that I haven’t seen him since!
I thought it was good, but I’ve never really projected forward with any job and just assume that they would go to series because you don’t know whether the writer has it in them. I thought it was really funny and I love the set piece at the end. And I love the way – as I’ve always loved with Steven’s writing – they are really good, three act plays in twenty-eight minutes, where the set-ups are quiet, you get the middle period which develops it and then you get a protracted period of madness towards the end, whereas so many sitcoms just have a little tiny flurry of about three lines to end with. With Steven’s comedy writing everything starts to pay off after about twenty-one minutes and you get eight to ten minutes of laughter which has been earned.
JA: Absolutely! He’s got an extraordinary ability to keep building things up and up to an excruciatingly funny climax.
RB: Yes, a lot of laughter is recognition and you will laugh because you recognise the set-up from earlier in the piece, and what’s more, you haven’t necessarily seen it coming. His capacity to surprise is brilliant, and, for an actor, it’s good to play because you know it’s funny and you don’t have to push it too hard in the first ten minutes. You just have to play it, and there are laughs in there, yeah fine, but you are not desperate for them. Nothing’s demanded of you in terms of farce pace from the beginning; you can just let the narrative unfold and the pace takes care of itself.
JA: It must have been fun to work on.
RB: Oh God, it was great fun. It was really good. The pilot, itself, we did in Birmingham at Pebble Mill and that seemed to go pretty well. John Kilby directed that and eventually Bob Spiers did the series because there was a bit of a gap between the two, and they used some of the pilot in the first episode. I had this rather Prussian hair cut, so they used that for some of the drop-ins for the first episode.
JA: After the first series, one critic described you as something like ‘Best Comedy Newcomer of 1993’. Did you find that slightly insulting, given your comedy experience?RB: Not at all. You’re a newcomer to anybody who hasn’t heard of you before. There was every reason why lots of people wouldn’t have heard of me, so fine. That wasn’t an insult. I’m just delighted someone noticed!
IN PART TWO: The revelations about Joking Apart continue