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A chat with Robert Bathurst about his role in Blue/Orange

Robert Bathurst, who stars in this new touring production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, has nothing but unstinting praise for the quality drama.

'It was the best script I had read for ages,' he enthuses. 'So much of what you get sent, especially in television, is all plot and no character. But Blue/Orange is character-driven. Often, when you’re working in television, the director will say to you- don’t worry about the script. Just kick it around and make it your own. Blue/Orange is completely the opposite. If you follow the clues about the characters, you’ll find that Joe has put them down on paper with clarity and precision. There’s absolutely no waffle.'

How would Robert describe his namesake, the character he plays in Blue/Orange?

'Robert is the Senior Consultant in a psychiatric hospital, who is ambitious to become a Professor. He feels that such a promotion is his due and he’ll go to considerable lengths to achieve what he wants. He’s in his 50s and so he realises that he has to take his opportunities now, irrespective of who gets in his way.'

In the play, the case of a patient, a young Afro-Caribbean man, becomes the cause of considerable disagreement between Robert and his junior colleague, Bruce. Both men are smart and highly articulate with a speed of thought that exhilarates and stimulates the audience.

'To an extent, Joe Penhall toys with the audience,' says Robert. 'He makes the discussion so compelling that people won’t know what they think about the rights and wrongs of the case. Robert is an experienced operator; he’s very canny and although he is Bruce’s mentor, you do wonder how the younger man will survive the cut-and-thrust of the debate between them. In any profession, you’ll find a similar level of competition. I don’t think that it’s peculiar to psychiatric medicine. Robert is arguing that this person, Christopher, should not be confined to the hospital and it is interesting how Robert, perhaps the least sympathetic of the characters, is the man who wants to give the patient his liberty.'

Robert is delighted to be touring again, having recently taken to the road in Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, both plays by Noel Coward, and he’s looking forward to returning to Manchester where he spent five years filming Cold Feet. He continues: 'Going to the theatre is more of an event for people outside London, I think, and at least you can be sure that the audience speaks English, which is not always the case in the West End.'

Robert must be one of the busiest men in his profession with extensive credits on stage, on television and on the radio. It was the quirky sitcom Joking Apart, an early venture for Dr. Who  showrunner Steven Moffatt, which provided the breakthrough opportunity for Robert, a process cemented by the success of Cold Feet. Since to some extent Robert has already played Moffatt’s alter ego in Joking Apart, it’s surprising that a space hasn’t been found for him aboard the Tardis.

'I haven’t had the call yet,' he admits. 'Steven has done brilliantly: he has the most extraordinary grasp of structure.'

In Cold Feet, Robert represented the corporate conformist, the unsympathetic straight man against whom the other characters could bounce off.

'I do play nice guys but I also get handed bastards,' says Robert. 'Often the biggest challenge is to play someone decent and make him dramatically interesting as well. I tend not to talk about my ambitions, the parts I want to play. It’s a bit of a hostage to fortune. If you don’t ever get to play them, you’ll seem like a failure. I can say, however, that I’m currently buying the stage rights to a couple of books of poetry which I feel have a dramatic spine.'

As Robert suggests, he’s packed plenty of contrasting roles into his thirty year career. He decided to become an actor during his schooldays, although it was for a Law degree that he won a place at Pembroke College Cambridge. He lost no time in joining the Footlights then going through one of its starry phases with Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie much in evidence. Robert eventually was elected President of the Footlights, not a job for a shrinking violet.

'You do have to have a certain amount of steel,' he says, darkly, pointing out that in his year 'not everybody went into show business. Some of them built the Channel Tunnel instead.'

Having taken part in several Footlights tours, Robert had to come to a firm decision about his future.

'I couldn’t see myself still doing revue comedy in my thirties. I didn’t want to get stuck in that genre but I was very green about the business.'

Despite his inexperience, Robert landed a nice part in Michael Frayn’s backstage farce Noises Off during its lengthy run at the Savoy.  At one performance, there was as much drama in the Stalls as there was on the stage.  

'I had to stop the show when a fight broke out between a couple who’d been kissing and canoodling during the performance and the people in the row behind them. Up in the Circle, the audience thought that it was all part of the play.'

At the same time, Robert’s agent was pressing him to follow the tv presenter option and he was eventually offered a job in support of Esther Rantzen in her long-running consumer show, That’s Life.

'I had no real intention of doing it but I went through the auditions and got to the final one with Esther and I was asked to join the programme. But I felt that had I accepted, I’d be marked down as one of the That’s Life boys rather than an actor. I have absolutely no regrets, although it did occur to me a year later, while I was holding a spear at the National that I could have been opening supermarkets rather than saying my single line in St. Joan.'

At this period, Robert was also experiencing a run of bad luck. He was cast in the apparently less-than-inspired pilot for Blackadder and yet not included when the first series was commissioned and his character was killed off after ten minutes in the opening episode of Red Dwarf. Robert briskly refutes any suggestions of misfortune, however.

'It wasn’t rotten luck, it was what happens to any actor,' he argues. 'We all have our knockbacks: the pilot that doesn’t go to a series, the drama that only lasts a season, the play that closes early. It happens and you just have to be pragmatic about it.'

Robert and his wife Victoria, an artist, have four daughters and he laughs off any comparison to Mr. Bennett the embattled paterfamilias of a family of five daughters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett was wont to retreat to his library when all that girlish chatter proved too much for him and Robert escapes to a harbour on the Sussex coast for a spot of mackerel fishing.

'I like to bob about a bit,' he says. 'The fish are either too greedy or too stupid not to throw themselves at my bait.'

At other times, Robert goes to the races and he is an avid follower of National Hunt racing where horses have to jump over a number of obstacles, either hurdles or fences.

'I’m completely in awe of the jockeys who go out at every race, risking their lives for our entertainment. I’ll often stand at a fence and watch the horse sail over or I’ll go down to the start and listen to what’s being said between the jockeys.'

Robert will be hoping for a trouble-free tour with no Noises Off type noises off. But you can never be wholly relaxed when it’s live theatre.

'I was playing Alex, the hero of the cartoon strip in the Daily Telegraph and we were in Eastbourne on a stage with a very steep rake. At one point in the performance, I rose from my chair, which had castors on it, and I watched as the chair rolled down the slope and into the orchestra-pit. The ushers just stood around, worrying, as I learned later, about Health and Safety.'

With the sparse set prescribed by Joe Penhall for Blue/Orange, there should be no chance of anything similar happening on this tour. Shouldn’t there?