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Bafta contender James Nesbitt: The likely lad

He may not be the bookies' favourite for a Bafta tomorrow night, but Ballymena-born James Nesbitt would certainly triumph with the critics' vote, writes Andrew Johnston.

Published 09/05/2015

James Nesbitt
James Nesbitt

According to the latest Radio Times readers' poll, James Nesbitt is the outsider in the race to be crowned Best Actor at the British Academy Television Awards tomorrow night for his work as distraught father Tony Hughes in BBC One's gripping drama The Missing.

With just 9.43% of the popular vote, Nesbitt seems unlikely to snatch victory from the clutches of favourite Benedict Cumberbatch, for Sherlock, who is on 64.15%, nor indeed from Marvellous' Toby Jones, who has 15.09% of the tally. Even Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries) is ahead on 11.32%.

But if Nesbitt's career has taught us anything, it is never to underestimate the man.

Born in Ballymena, Co Antrim, on January 15, 1965, Nesbitt grew up in the nearby hamlet of Lisnamurrican. His mother, May, was a civil servant, while his father, Jim, was the headmaster of the local primary school and the family lived in the house next door.

Nesbitt Sr marched in the Ballymena Young Conquerors flute band, but their rural setting meant the Nesbitts were, for the most part, unaffected by the Troubles, aside from an incident in the early 1970s, when James and his sister, Andrea, narrowly escaped a car-bomb outside Ballymena County Hall.

Years later, Nesbitt told Mail Online: "I remember my dad going inside to pay his taxes, leaving me and my sister waiting in the car. Suddenly, this guy came running up to us, shouting, 'Get out, get out, there's a bomb.' As we scrambled out of the car, I saw my dad running towards us, waving frantically. He hurried us away and the bomb, which turned out to be in the car beside ours, exploded soon after.

"When we were allowed back, the whole car had been blown apart. My dad had picked up a dozen eggs that morning and there they were, eight of them, on what was left of the back seat, somehow still perfectly intact. I'll never forget it."

In 1976, the Nesbitts - including James and Andrea's sisters, Margaret and Kathryn, to the relative metropolis of Coleraine, in Co Londonderry, where the future thespian was to discover his passion for the arts.

When he was 13, Nesbitt was taken to audition for the Riverside Theatre's Christmas staging of Oliver! He duly won the role of the Artful Dodger and continued to perform with the theatre until he was 16.

Extras work and singing gigs followed, as well as spells working as a bingo caller and a brake man on the rollercoaster in Barry's Amusements in Portrush, until another actor's misfortune gave him his first big break.

When the professional actor playing Jiminy Cricket in a production of Pinocchio broke his ankle two days before the performance, Nesbitt stepped in.

The job got him his Equity card. Even still, there was an aborted degree in French at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown to come before Nesbitt embraced acting seriously. He enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama, part of the University of London, but it was a rocky start.

"When I first came to drama school, I was a 'Paddy' the minute I walked in," he reminisced to Eamonn Holmes in a 2008 ITV interview. "I remember them all saying to me, 'Yeah, Brits out' and I was like, 'It's a wee bit more complicated than that, you know." He graduated in 1987, at the age of 22.

BBC television plays, touring stage productions and West End roles led to Nesbitt's feature film debut, in 1991's Hear My Song, though a resulting attitude problem meant his success was almost over before it had started.

"I disappeared so far up my own a*** afterwards," he told The Guardian in 2001. "I thought, 'Oh, that's it, I've cracked it.' And I'm glad that happened, because you then find out how expendable actors are."

Knuckling down and recommitting to his craft, he worked away in the likes of Boon, Lovejoy and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as well as landing a recurring role in Ballykissangel.

But it was ITV's Cold Feet in 1996 that really introduced the world to Northern Ireland's new screen star. The relationship-based comedy, in which Nesbitt played the male lead, Adam Williams, ran for five series and won the 1997 Golden Rose of Montreux and the 1997 British Comedy Award for Best ITV Comedy.

Meanwhile, the star himself bagged the British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actor in 2000, the Television and Radio Industries Club Award for Drama TV Performer of the Year in 2002, the National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performance in 2003 and the TV Quick Award for Best Actor in 2003.

From here, the world was Nesbitt's and he took high-profile roles as a pig farmer in Waking Ned, as a cross-dressing unionist politician in Wild About Harry and as an incompetent bank robber with a penchant for musicals in Lucky Break - his first lead movie role.

These were all well-received, but 2002's Bloody Sunday offered more substantial fare, with Nesbitt earning wide praise for his turn as civil rights leader Ivan Cooper.

Sadly, the glowing reviews were somewhat negated by death threats against the Protestant star (even though Cooper himself is also of that faith) and attacks on Nesbitt's parents' home.

Nevertheless, it was a defining moment in his career and today Nesbitt divides his work into "pre" and "post" Bloody Sunday categories.

"Post" highlights include the wildly popular BBC One show Murphy's Law, penned by Bangor's Colin Bateman, which ran for five series between 2003 and 2007, Five Minutes of Heaven - in which Nesbitt received joint-top billing alongside fellow Ballymena man Liam Neeson - and a small role (in every sense) as a Dwarf in Peter Jackson's £2m-grossing Hobbit trilogy.

In between, mini-series after mini-series - Jekyll, The Passion, The Deep - as well as ubiquitous film work has meant he is rarely very far from a screen of some sort.

Away from acting, Nesbitt's personal life has been less plainsailing. He has talked at length in previous interviews about the infidelities that put his marriage to Sonia Forbes-Adam under such strain.

The pair met on a world tour of Hamlet, married in 1994 and have two daughters together, Peggy (18) and Mary (13), but in the mid-2000s, stories began to circulate in the media about Nesbitt having affairs with a 22-year-old legal secretary and a former Miss Ireland, as well as allegations he spent £250 a week on cocaine.

"It was never anything to do with my wife," the rueful thespian told the Daily Mirror in 2013. "Any time I did anything like that, drink was involved. I don't think I did anything sober. I just regret all the hurt that it caused to my family."

And, if the newspapers could be ruthless, Nesbitt has always taken it on the chin: "Obviously, different publications have different ways of reporting stories and of garnering information, but they very rarely invent things," he said to The Independent in 2008. "The papers can be intrusive, but they're only as intrusive as they're allowed to be. If I were to blame anyone for all that stuff, I'd blame myself, never the Press."

His and Forbes-Adam's marriage survived for some time, but in 2013, the couple separated, citing the amount of time Nesbitt had spent in New Zealand filming The Hobbit.

A friend of the couple told the Daily Mail that year: "There have been no affairs, or cheating. They simply made a rational decision to separate and have actually been living apart for quite a few months now."

Yet, throughout it all, Nesbitt's professional life has thrived and now, with the Bafta nod for The Missing, the Ballymena's man's remarkable run continues, some 37 years after he first trod the boards.

A life so far

  • James Nesbitt was born in Ballymena in 1965
  • He made his feature film debut in 1991's Hear My Song
  • He gave his breakout performance in the ITV series Cold Feet (1998-2003)
  • James courted acclaim and controversy in equal measure in Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday (2002)
  • He has won a British Comedy Award, a British Independent Film Award and an Irish Film and Television Award
  • He is nominated for Best Actor in tomorrow night's British Academy Televison Awards for The Missing

Belfast Telegraph

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