For the nearly 11 million people who watched the final episode of Cold Feet back in 2003, the return of Manchester friends Adam, David, Karen, Pete and Jenny couldn’t be more eagerly anticipated. These days, the much-loved 30-somethings from ITV’s most popular comedy drama are well into middle age. How will they fare?
The show, which pulled in record viewing figures, started in 1998 and quickly won over men as well as women with scripts that were moving, funny and peculiarly British.
It made stars of James Nesbitt, Helen Baxendale, Hermione Norris, John Thomson, Fay Ripley – and Robert Bathurst, who today is looking like a naughty schoolboy as he pulls faces, bounces around and generally plays the clown at our photoshoot.
He enthuses with polished vowels about the return of his character, posh boy David, though he wondered whether they could recreate the magic of the original. He arrived at the first script read-through with cold feet of his own.
‘I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing to revisit. I knew that once Downton [in which he played Lady Edith’s fiancé] had finished ITV would be looking for something else, but that wasn’t enough of a reason for doing it. However, I soon came to the conclusion that it could be all the richer for having the gap.
‘The first series was about people whose youth was ebbing away. Now 13 years later, it’s gone! What do they do? They’re middle-aged, have teenage children, money problems, relationships that have blown apart, and are still getting themselves into terrible pickles. So I like to think they are older, but not wiser and still rubbish at life!’
The biggest difference in the life of Robert’s somewhat ineffectual character, management consultant David Marsden, is that, having divorced Karen (Hermione Norris), he is now married to his divorce lawyer Robyn.
‘Other than that he hasn’t changed at all. He is still doing his best. White-collar workers in TV dramas aren’t supposed to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. So I thought it important to look for those chinks of humanity in him. His attempts to do the right thing make his spectacularly poor judgment all the sharper and funnier. He still has his job, which is something vaguely in the financial world, but things continue to go very wrong in all aspects of his life.
‘Cold Feet is about people entering new phases of their lives, such as emotional entanglement or grief, which they find perplexing and are unprepared for. I think that strikes a chord with people. Dear old David always thinks that everything is OK, including his relationships, and when they blow up in his face he simply can’t understand why he is the root cause of it.’
Robert’s own real-life relationship couldn’t be more different. Married for more than 30 years to artist Victoria Threlfall, with four grown-up daughters, he enjoys the rural East Sussex life in a house surrounded by rolling hills.
‘Being married is about being attentive and growing together,’ he says. ‘Not being hung up about the fact that you’re not what you were. I haven’t gone off with a younger model who is now concerned she is going to have to nurse me. My wife and I got through life as a joint adventure.’
The process of growing up is going to be central to the drama – last time we met the cast they were in their thirties. Said series creator Mike Bullen: ‘This feels like the right time to revisit these characters, as they tiptoe through the minefield of middle age. They’re 50, but still feel 30, apart from on the morning after the night before, when they really feel their age.’
Robert himself turns 60 next February – and his life is a long way from being a minefield. ‘I’m having the time of my life. At my age your memento mori is firmly in sight, yet as long as you feel vigorous, strong and capable and the faculties are there, there’s lots of time to enjoy things and have adventures.
‘I have a small boat, and I enjoy bobbing about a mile offshore catching mackerel, reading the newspaper and listening to the Test match. I don’t inhabit a showbiz milieu. When they stop paying me, that’s it, I just carry on with my life. So, much as I enjoy being interviewed and messing about in front of a camera, I don’t connect the two lives.’
Studying law at Cambridge, Robert discovered he preferred performing in the Footlights with Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson to academic life. But the seeds of his career were sown when he was sent away to an Irish boarding school, aged eight. He has spoken about living in constant fear of a thrashing and having letters home censored for any adverse comment about the school.
‘The only female influence there was a rather put-upon school secretary and the elderly matron. Everything else was Lord of the Flies. It made me slyer and not wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s probably why it was fun to act because you have licence to put your head above the parapet. It might get blown off, but it’s not you. Whereas if you assert yourself in a prep school you’re on a hiding to nothing – unless you’re chief bully.’
Two years ago, when he was preparing for a role in the comedy film Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, he found himself back at his old school (which he takes great pains to say is now co-ed and looks a ‘fun place to be’). ‘As I drove up to this Georgian house, it was just as big as I remembered. I was hyperventilating and thought, “Oh, God,” as I remembered the ghastly smell of the place.’
The two young teachers who showed him around looked somewhat concerned when he explained that he wanted to pick up a school tie for what some might call a rather ‘vulgar’ film. ‘But an older teacher who had obviously no idea what Mrs Brown’s Boys was said, “How wonderful to have the school in a film about Queen Victoria”,’ Robert chuckles.
‘Laughter plays a huge role in my life. I like to prick pomposity, play people off against each other. I’m not serious enough and I’ll always look for fun if I can find it.’
It’s one of the reasons he was so delighted to have the chance of reuniting with his old buddies in Cold Feet. Apart from a couple of acting roles with Hermione Norris and John Thomson, the cast members haven’t particularly kept in touch, he says. ‘But it was so enjoyable being back together. John has been dry for nine years and when people dry out, sometimes their wit dries with them. But his has redoubled and he is terrific. On a personal level, that has been the greatest pleasure in doing this.
‘Cold Feet was a defining time. It was an eye opener in terms of audience. It’s like going into the sea and there’s a big swell, and you think, “There’s something uncontrollable here”.
‘Filming scenes back in David’s office was like putting on an old pair of slippers. I thought, “Yay… here we go again”. I am really excited about it. Hugely. We’ve done it, chewed it over and discussed it. Job done. It’s up to the audience now.’
Coming in from the cold - where have the stars of Cold Feet and their characters been up to?
So, just what have the Cold Feet characters been up to since the last series ended
13 years ago?
The last time we met David, he had divorced Karen but was torn between rekindling their love or starting a future with lawyer Robyn. In the end, he married Robyn, but is still in contact with his ex through their children. The management consultant has shown spectacularly bad financial judgment in the past, but has a new marriage changed things for the better?
Robert, 59, has appeared in TV dramas, including Wild at Heart and Downton Abbey.
Jenny made a surprise comeback in the last episode of Cold Feet when she arrived at Rachel’s funeral, dressed up to the nines in a chauffeur-driven car… and seven months pregnant. After a year in New York, she had broken up with her boyfriend and returned to Manchester homeless and jobless. She’s now in the hotel industry.
Fay, 50, reinvented herself as a cookery expert, publishing two books, and has recently starred in Channel 5’s Suspects.
There was a happy ending for Pete in 2003 when his ex-wife Jenny and their son moved back in with him. They are still together living in the same house, but with the addition of daughter Chloe, whose father is unknown. But life is a struggle financially and Pete is having to work two jobs – one of them as a taxi driver.
John, 47, has appeared in BBC One’s crime drama series Death in Paradise, plus Coronation Street and Celebrity Masterchef.
Back in 2003, Karen had conquered her alcohol demons but was resigned to being a single mum, following her divorce from David, and about to go on holiday with her slightly crazy Spanish nanny, Ramona. Karen is still unattached, working as a publishing editor, and looking after the twins.
Hermione, 49, starred in ITV’s Wire in the Blood and BBC One’s Spooks. More recently, she has been a main character in BBC One’s In the Club.
When we left Adam he was mourning Rachel, who’d died in a car crash, and gearing up to be a single dad to baby Matthew. Since then, he’s travelled abroad with his IT job and hasn’t spent as much time as he should with his son, who is at boarding school. He has missed soulmate Rachel, but there are new beginnings…
James, 51, was in The Hobbit, nominated for a Golden Globe for BBC One’s Jekyll and also starred in Murphy’s Law and The Missing.
Words Pam Francis. Portraits Dean Chalkley. Stylist Jerry Khan. Grooming Nadira V Persaud.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.