Nigel Harman: I loved my role as bad guy of Downton
One of the small screen's baddest bad guys of 2013 is singing Jingle Bells down the line to me from London.
He's peeling a satsuma at the same time ... No, it's not some awful thriller: it's Nigel Harman – aka Lord Gillingham's Mr Green from Downton Abbey – calling to talk about directing Shrek: The Musical in Belfast, a full ten months before the tour arrives at the Grand Opera House (he's a busy guy who apparently won't have time for promotion nearer the time.)
For admirers of the boyishly good looking actor with the wide-set eyes, the bad news is that he's not coming back to the Abbey but can still be seen on demand in Sky Living's Mount Pleasant series, playing a much nicer character than the violent Mr Green.
"Having a murder on Teletubbies" was among the comparisons made in the complaints to ITV over the controversial Downton rape storyline, in which the visiting valet violently attacked much-loved maid Anna Bates, in what was seen by some critics as a desperate ploy by writer Julian Fellows to pull in more viewers. If so – at figures of 9.2 million – he succeeded.
For his part, Harman (40) claims the storyline amazed him. "I was really surprised by the level of reaction to it, but it also kind of restored my faith in the power of TV to shock people," he says in a nasally, though quite well-spoken, London drawl. "There's so much beige television now, not that I watch much of it, apart from sport. It was great to get people talking this way."
After the hullabaloo died down, Harman went on ITV's This Morning programme to defend the series, saying it had been a "bold and risky idea" to include such a plot in Downton. He was highly convincing in the scene when he confronts Lady Mary's maid Anna and tries to kiss her against her will, then punches her in the face and drags her into the laundry.
Although the attack was not shown, viewers could hear Green hitting Anna before she emerged later in her underdress, with cuts and bruises to her face. Afterwards the traumatised maid was seen cowering and sobbing in a corner.
"I'd worked with Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle before and we had a rehearsal and went for it," Harman explains. "And what we wanted to do was to try and not signal about what was to come. We went for something – as it would be in real life – that was very shocking."
One does wonder, though, if his wife – an actress whose identity he keeps under wraps – found it disconcerting to watch him in such a nasty and visceral scene.
"Ah, my wife was upset because the acting was so bad," he jokes, deadpan. "And by my hair – she didn't like it at all in that."
He has been married for two years and has a 20-month-old baby girl and a dog, Agnes, who is recovering from surgery on her hind legs. Notoriously private, he refused to comment on internet rumours at the time of the small private wedding he had with just family and close friends. He still won't be drawn on it, or his wife's name.
"It's just not that interesting to talk about," he almost yawns. "I can tell you Agnes is doing much better and is back swimming ..."
His legion of females fans would beg to differ. He has been a heartthrob for many since his days as Dennis Rickman in EastEnders, from 2003 to 2005.
He was working as a lorry driver for Sainsbury supermarkets (despite his elite Dulwich College education in London), when he was cast in the role of Dirty Den Watts' son. As he recalled after he got the news, "I was sitting there in my Sainsbury's fleece, with Mrs Bloggs's groceries in the back, and I just laughed my a**e off."
In a 2003 interview he said that he actually auditioned for a character called Tim and had no idea that he was set to join the the Watts family as the unknown son of the soap's most iconic figure. The beefcake role made the young actor squirm, as he told the Independent: "It's Dennis, not me ... I am a bit embarrassed ... I don't get off on it. I walk into the living-room in the morning in my jogging pants, with my hair all over the place, and my flatmates say: 'So, you're supposed to be one of the sexiest men in the country?' And I go: 'I know. I don't get it either.'"
These days he prefers to watch rugby to soaps, and has "no idea" how to respond to the frequently expressed criticism that EastEnders is too gloomy and suffers from a lack of the humour that lifts Coronation Street.
"I'd rather watch a good match or go to the pub or the theatre," he dodges, conceding that he has enjoyed being reunited with his former EastEnders and Guys & Dolls co-star Samatha Womack, on Mount Pleasant.
Alongside former Coronation Street pub landlady Sally Lindsay and Daniel Ryan, the good-looking duo of Harman and Womack play a young glamorous couple who have moved into the drama's cul-de-sac to escape their dodgy past. The pair have admitted that while they have a laugh on set, they often clash like a married couple in real life because they spend so much time together on the show.
"He kept telling me to be quiet quite a lot," Samantha has said of her co-star. "I tried to get him to harmonise with me, and I think sometimes he was probably, like 'Go away'!"
I tell Harman I interviewed Samatha a while back and found her charming, and ask him about a rumour that she is being lined up for his Shrek: The Musical production (the cast has yet to be announced).
"No, she's not – but go on, write that and we'll see what she says," he says mischievously. "She'd be great in it. She's lovely. I wouldn't say favourite leading lady, as I don't have one, but I've been blessed to have had really good ones. Not including Michelle Pfeiffer, unfortunately."
He's referring to a false credit line which had him co-starring with Pfeiffer in the Hollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. He did appear in a stage production in his youth and like most serious actors, says the theatre is his first love.
He has rubbed shoulders with A-listers Leonardo di Caprio and Michael Sheen, however, in the political thriller Blood Diamond, set during the Sierra Leone Civil War of 1996–2001. Harman had a very small role but got to share some of the stars' facilities.
"I was in the make-up trailer with Michael Sheen and in walks Leo, and says hello," he recalls, mustering some energy at last. "I nearly wet myself – I think he's an absolutely brilliant actor."
Hollywood stardom isn't on Harman's list of priorities. He's more interested in finding a theatre for a play he wants to direct next year. But first he has to get into some high-waisted trousers and designer sunglasses for his role as Simon Cowell in the X Factor musical I Can't Sing, which kicks off at the London Palladium in March. He had a bit of "small talk" with Prince Charles and Camilla at the sneak preview of the show at the Royal Variety Performance last week and although he wasn't at all excited about that, the Harry Hill-penned comedy has got him almost as thrilled as he was meeting Titanic star Leonardo.
"I was asked to get involved and I read the script and basically wet my pants!" he told ITV. "It's completely nuts. I sat next to Simon Cowell for the launch and he was howling, and the more risqué it gets and the more he gets it in the neck, the more he was laughing."
Cowell has given the show his backing and has advised Harman to "just be a d**k" every night on stage. So is the music mogul a nice guy in secret?
"Is Simon Cowell secretly nice?" he drawls, chomping on his satsuma. "I suspect he is. I only met him for five minutes. I didn't know what to expect initially but he's very charming and laughed a lot. The show's going to be all singing and dancing – a lot of fun."
After I Can't Sing, Harman makes his directorial debut with the touring production of the hit animated film, which will begin in July next year. He played Lord Farquaad in the original London production of the show and won an Olivier award for his performance. Playing the role on his knees for the full run, though, he strained his back and had to have physiotherapy twice a week for a year.
This time he'll be seated in front of the stage, giving orders. So is he apprehensive directing for the first time? He seems so laid-back it's hard to imagine.
"I get nervous about it sometimes but I'm excited too," he says. "I was surprised how much I could waffle on while directing. There was no way I was going to say no to the challenge of realising the production for the UK and Ireland. It's very special to me. This production is visually stunning, and the story has the magic ingredient of moving at great pace, while still being surprisingly intimate. The music's fabulous too and the Grand Opera House – what a venue."
He's not put off by our odd outburst of trouble here and might find the time to visit his maternal ancestor's homestead in Cork. His mother's parents, the Mannings, were both from Cork and his great grandfather was a fisherman "who wrote books".
He likes the Irish, having "partied a bit" while appearing in the Gate Theatre's production of Harold Pinter's play Celebration in the autumn of 2010, and enjoyed supporting winners Cork that year at the All Ireland Final in Croke Park.
He was last in Grand Opera House to see an ex-girlfriend appearing in a Cannon and Ball panto production of Cinderella in the late Nineties.
"I did a pilot for a chat show (The Friday Show) with Eamonn Holmes and my dressing room was a disabled toilet in the BBC. It was very nice, but hopefully I'll get a better space in October.
"Seriously though, I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be brilliant family entertainment. It might be over the heads of three-year-olds, but great for four and over."
Shrek: The Musical runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from October 8-19, 2014. For details, visit goh.co.uk