Robert Bathurst is best known for his roles in television comedies Cold Feet, Joking Apart, and My Dad’s the Prime Minister. He has also had starring roles in Comic Strip Presents…, The Stepfather, Poirot, White Teeth, Goodbye Mr Steadman, The Safe House, Hornblower, Get Well Soon and A Breed of Heroes.

His films include The Thief Lord, Heidi and The Wind in the Willows. He has also been the voice of a wide range of commercials, selling everything from beer and cigarettes to DIY equipment.

On stage, Bathurst’s West End credits include Noises Off, Dry Rot, Alarms and Excursions and, most recently, Three Sisters with Kristin Scott Thomas. He has also appeared in St Joan at the National, Lady Audley’s Secret at the Lyric Hammersmith, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Nose and The Comedy of Errors at Nottingham Playhouse, The Rover and The Choice at Salisbury Playhouse, and Getting Married at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Bathurst returns to the West End this month to star in the British premiere of Fabrice Roger-Lacan’s French comedy about the true meaning of friendship, Members Only.

Date & place of birth?
Born in Ghana, west Africa in 1957.

Lives now in
I live in Sussex. I’ve been there for about eight years.

I didn’t train. I was at Cambridge and did lots of shows there in Footlights, particularly lots of comedy revues. After I left, I stayed doing shows with people I’d been at university with, but I couldn’t see anybody over 33 still doing sketch shows. So very early on I started to try and get into acting in plays. It was just something I loved doing, so I wanted to make a career of it.

First big break
Without sounding like a travel agent, I’ve had lots of mini-breaks along the way. On stage, my first proper job was Noises Off, which I loved. But after a year in that, I still only had two words on my CV and thought it would be better to go off and do some rep. In the early Nineties, the TV series Joking Apart by Steven Moffat, who’s since done Coupling and other sitcoms like that, was without a doubt the most enjoyable job I’ve ever done, and it came to have a minor cult following. I keep meeting people who are always talking about it. Some jobs finish and you draw a line under them and that’s it, but this one has kept going. A fan has bought the rights off the BBC to put it on DVD, which he’s releasing in May - and most stalkers don’t go that far. It’s crazy but I’m delighted about it. Joking Apart is farce, but it’s brilliantly constructed. It’s one thing I can say I know, because of that, I can retire happy. And the people who made Cold Feet had seen it so I guess it was useful in that way too.

Career highlights to date
I’ve done a really good mixture of telly, stage and radio stuff. I don’t have a career plan as such. I’m always surprised by what I get offered next - people say, come and do Ibsen or come and do Chekhov. Some actors have a checklist or a calendar of when they want to do things and then they do it and rip it off the list. My career plan is much more haphazard. One of the pleasures in life is surprises. That’s what makes acting scary and exciting.

Favourite productions
I played Tesmen in Hedda Gabler with Francesca Annis and we toured that and I really enjoyed that. Claire Luckham wrote a play about Down’s syndrome called The Choice, which was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done, with Toyah Willcox in the Studio in Salford. I was last in the West End in Three Sisters with Kristin Scott Thomas, which was very enjoyable.

Favourite co-stars
Josie Lawrence - I did Michael Frayn’s Alarms and Excursions with her at the Gielgud, I like her a lot. And Nicholas Tennant, who I’m working with at the moment. It’s a bit of a punt taking a two-hander with someone you’ve never met. But Nick is a really good actor and really good to work with in that you can have completely frank discussions about tiny issues and it’s totally ego-free. We’re all just discussing the point and not playing games with each other. It does make the working practice easier. If there’s only two of you in a play, you are equally responsible – there’s nobody else to blame if it goes wrong. So it’s a greater risk and there’s no hiding. Some people feel it’s better to be in a big show because you can do a few scenes, and if it’s bad, it doesn’t stick to you. With only one or two actors, you’re completely exposed. That’s daunting and exiting at the same time.

Favourite directors
I have had some really good tips from a lot of different directors. I worked with Peter Gill at the National years ago on a platform. He was extremely pedantic about phrasing - it’s nothing to do with voice, it’s just a question of how to get the sense of a line across to an audience, which is extremely important. And I worked with Frank Hauser on a Bernard Shaw play in Chichester. He would keep barking out his one note which would be, “I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you”. I wish more directors did that, because if they don’t believe you, then how on earth is an audience going to believe you? I also worked with Annie Castledine on three plays. She’s combative and we had some really good rows, healthy creative rows. I enjoyed working with her. Also Michael Blakemore I’ve done a few plays with and I like the way he goes on. He’s a former actor himself. You realise that perhaps he could do the part you’re struggling with ten times better, but he manages to draw out of you in a very witty and urbane way what you should do without doing it for you.

Favourite playwrights
I did a reading at the Royal Court of a Howard Brenton piece three weeks ago. He did a Q&A after and said something really revealing: that his first mission in any play is to entertain, and if you’re going to get your message across, you’ve got to grab the audience and entertain them first or they won’t be interested in your message. A lot of people want to browbeat you first off and the entertainment comes as second priority. That doesn’t work. So Brenton gets my top vote.

What roles would you most like to play still?
By and large, my only artistic decisions have been to take parts with lots of words. I like playing complications. I love this play. It’s oblique and daring and funny and cruel at the same time - which is a perfect combination.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
I used to live in Dublin and every year we used to get a box at the Gaiety Theatre to see the panto. My initial excitement about theatre came from that. I could see the actors preparing to go on. I loved looking into the wings and seeing the actors getting ready, I loved the sight of this person gathering themselves. The last thing I saw on stage that was really good was Mary Stuart. I managed to get in during the last week. I was right up at the top, and the play was addressed to the whole audience, we felt involved and completely riveted. It was superbly done. And Don Carlos as well had me completely absorbed, that was brilliantly done. Richard Coyle was particularly brilliant. Phelim McDermott did a Devoted and Disgruntled workshop about what’s wrong with theatre today. I ran a discussion as part of that called “Why do you not want to go to theatre?”. The answers that came back from theatre professionals were that there’s too much shouting and nobody can understand what the hell’s going on - and these are all practitioners. How many times do you come out thinking “oh yes, that was superb”? They said only five to ten percent. You have to go a lot to see things you really like. If you go once a year, and say you really enjoy 20 percent of what you see, then you’ve got to go for five years before you see something amazing. That’s why it’s important to go and see theatre all the time. I have occasionally walked out during the interval. Life’s too short if you’re really not enjoying it, but I still go to see as much as I can.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
No advice at all. I’m not a political animal like that. I have no production skills and I don’t understand funding so I don’t feel qualified to give advice like that.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would swap places with… hmm, the world’s your oyster with this… I would probably swap places with Tony McCoy, the champion jockey. And I would have to win as many races as he did, but I would be determined to enjoy them more than he does. He’s very hard on himself, but he’s great to watch. I love going to the races and seeing people like that. If I had just a glimmer of the excitement and passion and danger that’s involved in jump racing, I would swap as long as I didn’t fall off.

Favourite holiday destinations
The Dorset coast is somewhere I like very much. And Morocco.

Favourite books
At the moment I’m reading I Didn’t Do It for You by Michela Wrong. That’s very good. It’s about Africa.

Favourite websites
I’m not a big surfer of the web, but I thought of an idea for a website the other day. I lost my bag on the train and thought, surely there’s got to be a website for if you’ve found something. The finder could describe in detail what they’ve found, the person who’s lost something could describe it in detail and that then could be put it into a search engine, which would come up with the item. It would be a national lost property database. That would be better than relying on the railway company to find it in the mountain of lost property.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I was a law student a long time ago so I suspect I would have done that. I suppose I’d be a defender of hopeless causes at the Old Bailey. But I really don’t want to do anything other than what I’m doing now. When you have such a strong desire to act, it’s something you can’t deny.

Why did you want to accept your part in Members Only?
Occasionally you read something and it makes your fingers tingle and I think you have to follow that instinct. This play is funny, plausible, plausibly absurd, and cruel.

How would you describe your character? Have you modelled him on anyone?
I haven’t modelled him on anyone consciously. It’s about two people who work very closely together in an office in Paris. They’re architects, and they are to all intents and purposes married in that they spend more time with each other than they do with anyone else in their lives. As with many relationships, there’s an imbalance of need between the two of them. My character feels that the other owes him something. Nick Tennant’s character has just secured a major contract, which we’re celebrating at the top of the show. So when he shows signs of having a life outside the relationship, my character’s inherent touchiness makes him react in what seems to be a petty way and turns a trivial argument as to whether he will go to my birthday party into a question of the very nature of friendship. It’s a very French row. I don’t think you’d get English people engaged in an argument like this. It’s like in Art with the three guys. One does a painting the others don’t like, and they have to decide based on that if their friendship is real. That’s a rather French argument. If it was in England, the injured party would simmer quietly and bitch about his mate in a pub. But in this case, he confronts it and that’s very French too. I’m really glad that it’s set in Paris. You’re reminded occasionally of the French influence; and our director is French. Although the translation really doesn’t read like a translation. It reads like English with all the English idioms and sounds very anglicised.

What’s been your biggest-ever falling out with a friend?
What I like is it’s something completely outside my own experience. I may have felt those passions, but being English, I couldn’t necessarily express them. So I’ve never had any kind of falling out like that.

Are you – like Adrien in the play – a member of any private clubs?
I have a habit of joining clubs which I never use. I’m a member of several Soho drinking clubs that I don’t go to as I don’t drink very much. And I’ve joined various things. It’s like the first day at university when you sign up for lots of things. If, for example, it’s a golf club, I join because I like the game, but I can’t stand the whole club aspect of it with the committee and the rules and the petty politics that go on. I wouldn’t want all that. Some people have gangs of friends and gangs of people they play sport with, but I’m not like that in a cliquey sense.

What’s your favourite line from the play?
What’s so good about it is it’s not a series of one-liners. You can’t really take one line out to sum it up. If you take one line out, then it would be out of context. It all fits in context all the way through as a whole. I do have a scene I like, though, where my character cross-examines the other character in a way which is almost like being in court. Really it’s just a form of emotional torture.

What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during rehearsals of Members Only?
The director is Marianne Badrichani and she has a very large flat in west London with a big space where we rehearsed. We rehearsed at her place just the three of us most of the time. And as she’s French, we had the most civilised lunch breaks of any time in my life. She cooked for us and it was wonderful. I would thoroughly recommend working with a French director - meal breaks are not only recognised but celebrated.

What are your future plans?
I’ve got a telly show coming out in June called Coup for the BBC about the coup in New Guinea. I play Mark Thatcher in that. It was very interesting.

- Robert Bathurst was speaking to Caroline Ansdell

Members Only opens at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios on 3 April 2006 (previews from 28 March) and continues its limited run to 22 April 2006.