James Fleet is perhaps best known to TV audiences for his role as Hugo Horton in the long-running BBC series The Vicar of Dibley. From its first appearance in 1994, the show has been on and off UK screens until its two-part culmination earlier this year. Now Fleet returns to the stage, where he began his acting career, to star in Richard Bean’s political sex farce In the Club.

He has a notable film career, having appeared in Charlotte Gray, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility, Phantom of the Opera, Blackball, Kevin & Perry Go Large, and most recently, Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 adaptation of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, entitled A Cock and Bull Story. His recent stage credits include Mary Stuart, Three Sisters, Art and The Late Middle Classes, in which he was directed by Harold Pinter, and he has also done a wide range of radio and television work.

In the Club, Fleet plays hapless MP Phillip Wardrobe, who has a busy day ahead of him, balancing his less-than-irreproachable political career with his attempts to start a family. As he prepares for his girlfriend to fly in from Kettering for an afternoon of fertile frolics, his plan to be voted President of the European Parliament is foiled at every turn by his unpredictable colleagues: uncouth Yorkshiremen, irate Turks and amorous Frenchwomen.

Fleet is joined In the Club, which is directed by David Grindley, by Sian Brooke, Dermot Canavan, Anna Francolini, Huw Higginson, Carol Macready, Carla Mendonca, Richard Moore, Gary Oliver and Roderick Smith.

Date & place of birth
Born 1954 in Staffordshire.

What made you first want to become an actor?
I joined the drama society when I went to university. I studied engineering in Aberdeen and they let me join the university drama society – I used to make the scenery. I did it purely to meet people and get a girlfriend, have a social life, I think. I don’t know, maybe that seed was already planted and I just didn’t know. Certainly I’d never been to the theatre; I didn’t know anything about acting or plays when I was 19 or 20. But it was something I liked straight away.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I probably wouldn’t have gone into engineering, because I wasn’t any good at the maths! I’d have probably worked in a shop or something.

First big break
Getting into the RSC. I did rep in Scotland, because I went to drama school in Glasgow. When I came to London I got into the RSC very soon after arriving, and I think that was my big break, because I had a steady wage, and I was getting seen by lots of people. Then this wonderful casting director called Sarah Bird, who saw me in something at the RSC, gave me this fantastic part on the telly, with Edward Fox, in a Simon Gray Screen Two thing. It was the first big part I had, and that was when I fell in love with filming. It was lots of sitting in cars, being driven around!

Career highlights
The Vicar of Dibley I suppose. It was great seeing people you’ve worked with over ten years - when see them again and it’s kind of like a family thing. I loved that. I loved being married to Emma Chambers and having kids. But that doesn’t sound very ambitious does it? I’m not sure if I would like it as a program, it was just that I was in it. If I’d have been a viewer, I might have thought it was a lot of twee nonsense! I like filming at night shoots and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s so exciting, when there are big lights everywhere, and it’s cold. I love all that, I love this huge event that you’re part of, and they’ve got all these trucks, and blokes with wires and so on. Then you’ve got to step out and you’ve go to say your lines. I love that, it never gets boring.

How did you feel when The Vicar of Dibley finished?
I was quite sad. It was a laugh though. It had run its full course, we’d all grown old! It was all getting a bit ridiculous. I think programmes should finish, they shouldn’t go on for ever like Only Fools and Horses, where they’re all about 800 years old. But you know, they haven’t destroyed the set. It’s in storage somewhere in the Gormenghast that is the BBC. It’s in a room somewhere all locked up, so they might always bring it out in times of national emergency … something like the death of the monarch!

You’ve done various things in your career, including radio, TV, film & stage. Do you have any preferences?
It’s nice to chop and change. I think I act best in the morning, I like getting up early! Then I can sit in the make-up caravan and have a cup of coffee and talk to the make-up people about their private lives. And I like that team thing. I like finishing and then going home and sitting with your feet up at night. The theatre is the complete opposite. It’s not family-friendly. You lounge around all day in your dressing gown, and then you do mega stuff in the evening. But what’s great about theatre is that you get to do it over and over again, so you expand as a person because you get more confident. If you think of film, you just have to just jump in. With this, you get to stretch yourself and make it fit … like a leather jacket.

Have you ever been tempted to do a musical?
No, I can’t sing. I love music in films, but musicals? I don’t get it really. I couldn’t do something like Moulin Rouge or Chicago or something. I enjoyed doing (the film of) The Phantom of the Opera with Joel Schumacher. He’s great, he’s 6’4”, really enormous, really skinny and dressed in denim with cowboy rhinestone ties and rings and so on. It was like working for Bill in Kill Bill! I was only in the first ten minutes of the film, and it’s the best bit. It’s where there are millions and millions of dancers dancing this Egyptian kind of thing. I made the huge mistake at the interview when I met Joel of saying “well, who’s writing the music for this?”. I couldn’t believe they were going to use Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, because I didn’t think it was any good! I thought they must have written something better - which is the wrong thing to say at an interview.

Favourite co-stars
Probably Kristin Scott Thomas (with whom he appeared in Three Sisters at the West End’s in 2003). Yeah. She has this wonderful ambiguity when you’re acting with her. Her mind is doing something else while she’s talking to you, and that draws you into her very richly textured world when she’s on stage. Most actors just plump for one thing, but she keeps two or three going at the same time.

Favourite directors
I manage to get on with them all. I’ve been directed by Harold Pinter, and I’ve been directed by Peter Hall and quite a lot of famous directors. Yeah, I kind of get on with them all, there’s no particular favourite.

Recently you were in director Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock & Bull Story, an offbeat take on Tristram Shandy. What was that like as a filming experience?
Very very different. He (Winterbottom) doesn’t film like anybody else. He does it all on digital camera, and he shoots all the time. There’s no continuity, and you can make it up as you go along. Then you do it again and again. It’s different every time, and you can say whatever you like. You can stand up, sit down, move wherever you like. And then somebody, some genius person, must watch 800 hours of footage and edit it. But you’ll notice that the finished result is very close to the original script that you read. You think you’re improvising and changing it, but the bits they use keep you on message with the script. But it’s very free and I liked it a lot, though it’s very tiring, as you film all the time. You do millions and millions of takes, because there’s no film to pay for – it’s all digital, so they just shoot everything.

Favourite playwrights
It’s case by case, isn’t it? There’s something about something which just catches your imagination. If it’s good writing, you can tell pretty early on. You can tell actually just by looking at the list of characters’ names whether something’s going to be good or not! It’s nice to have some change though. I don’t want to get stuck doing light farces or political sex comedies!

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I saw a play here at Hampstead a couple of weeks ago, Glass Eels, which has got great acting in it, really nice acting. Before that, what did I see? I can’t remember.

Favourite books
I’ve got the new William Boyd book, what’s it called? And I’ve also got on the go The Company of Wolves, which I’ve inherited from my wife, who’d finished reading it, which is sitting by the bed as well.

Favourite holiday destinations
Well, we very rarely go on holidays as a family. We just kind of argue about what restaurant to go to. I’ve got a motorbike, and I like to take it to pieces, potter about with it and clean it up. I like tools, and I like setting all my tools out and looking at them. I inherit that from my family background I think, and it all ties in with the engineering somewhere along the line. I like the oily feeling of wiping your hands on a rag. So I think I’m quite practical, and I do lots of building stuff around the house. Where we go on holiday I don’t know. We used to go and see educational things, because I always felt it was a waste of time to be just relaxing, but now I think I’d quite like a beach holiday. Having years and years of tearing off to Florence and looking at pictures and so on, I think I’d just like to sit on a beach now and do nothing! I’ve slowed up and grown lazy.

In the Club is described as a political sex farce. Do you find that those elements are quite compatible?
Yes. I think they’re quite compatible. It’s not particularly heavily political, but yes, it does involve all of those elements. Politicians do have to often live away from home and stay in hotels. That kind of hotel life – “Do not disturb” and chatting up people in the hotel bar – it’s kind of a mixture, like conferences are.

Do you have any political role models for your part?
No, I don’t. It’s just an amalgamation of all the news broadcasts I’ve seen over the years I suppose. It’s mostly me. I’ve played a politician before, and I never do any kind of research! I’ve played a prime minister, and a Labour MP, so I feel like I know all about the world of politics, but actually I don’t know anything at all. I’ve been to the Houses of Parliament once, to sit in the public gallery. I generally get it all from the telly.

Do you normally approach your work in a certain way?
You have to be completely open-minded. I approach every job thinking that it’s going to be fun, and if it’s not fun, I’ll find something in it that I like. Some people expect it to be difficult and go into it in a combative way, saying “This is what I want to do with the part”. I don’t do that at all – life’s too short. I’m the easiest, nicest actor, because I’ll just wear whatever you tell me to wear, do whatever you want. It sounds like I don’t give a shit, doesn’t it? (laughs) But you’re part of a team, and actually they have a lot better ideas than I do, so I may as well just do as they say.

What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that happened during rhearsals?
We were all quite pleased in rehearsals, I think. It’s a bit of an unknown quantity, because it’s a new play. Richard Bean is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and we all just laugh at the lines we say. We’re all very keen to see what an audience does. You think you’ve got the show speeding along nicely, and then you run into an audience, and you think “I can’t say that line there, because they’re laughing at the thing that just happened”.

What are your future plans?
Hopefully, this play will go into the West End and lots of people will see it. It’s funny. I worked on a film (Kevin and Perry Go Large) with Brian Rix’s daughter, Louisa Rix and I said to her, “you know, I think your dad was one of the reasons that I became an actor.” I saw him on TV in a farce – they used to televise farces when I was a boy – and I can’t remember the plot or anything about it but I just remember people’s trousers falling off, and the wonderful world that they lived in. And she said “so many people have said that”. He obviously made a huge impression. I don’t know what he’d think about my trouser-falling. I seem to be very inexpert at getting my trousers to fall off at the right point! He’d probably have a lot of tips!

- James Fleet was talking to Stuart Denison

In the Club opens at Hampstead Theatre on 2 August (previews from 25 July) and runs for a limited season until 25 August.