James Nesbitt on new series of Cold Feet, embracing growing old and how his daughters control him
As the much-loved comedy-drama returns for an eighth series this month, Una Brankin gets a sneak preview and talks to its Northern Ireland star about parallels between his storyline in the new series and his own life
They are more quietly spoken than their Cold Feet characters, with the exception of cuddly John Thompson, who sounds exactly like the kind-hearted Pete and has a similar air of vulnerability about him.
James Nesbitt, on the other hand, mumbles - at a mile a minute. Fay Ripley is much more stylish and understated than the mouthy Jenny. The porcelain-skinned and tactile Hermione Norris might be even posher than Karen, while the charming and surprisingly scruffy Robert Balthurst has none of the bluster of the booming arch-conservative David. (He can mimic James's Norn Iron accent brilliantly, by the way).
Of the five principal cast members, James Nesbitt is the easiest for the onlooker to remove from his character Adam, the flirty widower with a lot of growing up to do. That's probably down to the wide variety of other parts the versatile Coleraine-born actor has played since Cold Feet hit the small screen 20 years ago - including his current leading man role in the popular Stan Lee drama Lucky Man.
And while his Cold Feet co-stars have had other good acting jobs down through the years, they haven't been quite as prolific or high profile as our Jimmy. As a result, it's a challenge - whilst sitting opposite them at a London press conference for series eight - to see them as anyone other than the likeable Manchester-based characters created for them by Cold Feet's creator Mike Bullen, more than 20 years ago.
Bullen put much of himself into the central character of Adam, but it was James who gave him his Northern Irishness. From the outset of pre-production, the actor "fought hard" to keep his distinctive Coleraine accent and vernacular to play the likely lad and he relished filming in the past for Adam's stag party in his old hunting ground of Portrush, with his fellow cast members and Irish actress Victoria Smurfit.
"I've bought this property in Portrush - my dad's still in Coleraine - so I could put up this lot if we ever came back to film there," says James, evidently unbothered by the planning hurdles blocking the completion of his mansion.
"I'd like to see Adam bringing his son - what do you call him? Matt - yeah, he could bring him to see where he grew up. We're not doing that in this series, but Adam hasn't lost any of his Irishness. He's still there with his Irish accent - I'm not into Ulster Scots.
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"And there are a lot of Irish in Manchester, which is basically a big village of people that keep you grounded. They're delighted to see us back filming there, but they don't get too excited about it."
Two decades on from the famous scene in which he serenaded Rachel (Helen Baxendale) with a rose protruding from his naked buttocks, James is looking good - better than he did back then, in fact. Of slender build, there isn't a pick on him. Like many leading actors and actresses, he has those proportions that work well on screen and his expressive face has become more rugged and manly.
He suits the streaks of grey in his hair transplant, which he has credited with giving him back the confidence that balding took from him - although he was an expert at hiding any lack of self-assurance back in the day.
It's rumoured that he has a girlfriend from Northern Ireland and wants to settle back home, but he insists the Portrush spread will be solely a holiday home. He bases himself in Didsbury when filming Cold Feet but lives in south London, a mile away from the £1.6m house his ex-wife Sonia Forbes-Adams shares with their two beautiful daughters, Peggy (21) and Mary (16).
He has remained on good terms with Sonia, a former actress he married in 1994. They even attended the upmarket Wilderness musical festival in Oxfordshire together with their daughters in August.
"Wilderness is very middle class - I saw David Cameron with his bodyguard at the portaloos, waiting to go in," James recalls. "I won't go in a portaloo - I'll hold it in for five days rather than spend £5 to use one. I like camping but at Wilderness I was in this s****y little one-man tent covered in s***e. My idea of hell.
"I'm not really a festival-goer but I've done a lot of camping over the years," he adds. "When the kids were young, about 20 of us used to go and do that. They loved it. There's nothing kids love more than just being able to run around a field with each other and hide and play. There is so much distraction, so much going on these days, it's easy to lose sight of what's important.
"When I was growing up, I had a Slade poster and a Manchester United poster in my bedroom and that was it. No mobile phone, computer, games or whatever. That's what glorious about camping, if you can get them away from their screens."
Coincidentally, James and his co-stars get to re-create their youth at a music festival in the new series of Cold Feet.
"The weather was just so bizarre when we were filming those scenes - it was boiling one minute and raining the next," he says. "It made continuity quite difficult. They had to use CGI on Faye's dress to disguise the muck on it.
"But you don't notice any of that that when you watch it on screen. There's also a bit of dancing. It was fun. You have to throw yourself into these things. You'll see Adam taking control of a barbecue too, which is something John (a teetotaler) would be doing in real life, not me - I'll let other people do it. Because other people are usually better than me at most things like that. If I'm controlled by anything, I'm controlled by my daughters."
Getting back to that thatch, Adam is seen over-dyeing his hair in the opening of series eight, much to the derision of his cute teenage son Matt. By the end of the episode, he has let the greys back in, following a humiliating incident in which he tries to woo a much younger woman. As a result, he is confronted by Matt, who tells him he's pathetic. James plays the scene beautifully, portraying Adam's shame with great subtlety. It's all in a flicker of those dark blue eyes.
"Adam definitely undergoes a change in this series; there is a moment of clarity, maybe a moment of self-awareness," says James. "It's almost like he's been waiting for this moment for a long time. And sometimes it takes people longer to get there than others.
"Where Cold Feet has been strong over the years is in identifying things like that in the human psyche. Adam has always been scared of this moment because he thinks that it then somehow changes him for the worse. It takes away some of the real spark to his own identity, his individuality.
"But actually, as he finds, it hopefully enhances it. It's just a natural progression that everyone has to face in life. We all have to go through different chapters in life and write new chapters. I think this is one that has been waiting to be written for a long time.
"Also, from an audience point of view it's important Adam got to this stage. Otherwise it just gets a bit boring. It's also important that Adam got his likeability back. I was concerned he'd lost it."
The actor draws parallels with Adam's changing relationship with his son Matt, and his own relationship with his two daughters. Peggy is at university; Mary did her GCSEs this summer.
"I've got a 21-year-old and a 16-year-old embarking on their lives. I want to be around for them as much as possible, but yet they want to be away, which is natural," he reflects. "And I've got to consider what's happening with the rest of my life.
"One of the traps parents fall into is becoming far too friendly with their teenagers. I completely understand the notion of communication. That's one of the great things which has changed, certainly for my generation, the ability to communicate with your children and listen as well.
"But as great as it is to be friendly, I think it's also important that your parents are something to rebel against. Having two children I'm constantly learning, the more grown up they get. I think people will relate to Matt laying down the boundaries for his father, rather than the other way around."
He's flattered by compliments on his trimness, crediting regular gym sessions, golf and "self-discipline", although he still enjoys the odd boozy night out (while his Cold Feet co-stars are more into herbal teas, according to Fay Ripley). He seems to have lost the cockiness of his youth that led many, back home, to regard him as 'full of himself'. At almost 54 years old, he has finally embraced the ageing process.
"I think the minute you say you're not ready to grow old, that means you are ready to grow old," he says. "There's something about confronting it. It's challenging the notion of it. That's why you say you're not ready. But what is unspoken is, 'But I have to'.
"Most of the time we dismiss it. We're in denial. So, I think that's quite astute. There's Adam thinking: 'What am I here for? Matt is my legacy. Do I have other chapters to write in my life?' All of these things collide.
"We ask ourselves these questions all of the time. Those of us who are of this age are at a critical point in our lives. Our children have grown up or are growing up. If ever there was a right time for Cold Feet, in a sense it is now. The characters are getting to their 50s when life is supposed to get settled. But life can also unravel then as well, as we see in this series."
Future projects for James may (he won't confirm, as yet) include a musical, which "might" come to the Grand Opera House. Back at the start of his career more than 30 years ago, he trod the boards there as a teen angel in Grease; he also played Jesus in Godspell with the Ulster Youth Theatre in 1981.
Although he has appeared on the big screen, from the Hobbit trilogy to Woody Allen's Match Point, the stand-out roles in James's career have been on TV. He was unforgettable as NI Civil Rights movement leader Ivan Cooper in Bloody Sunday, a project that awakened him to the plight of victims of the Troubles, whom he continues to campaign for. He once interrupted a conversation Bill Clinton was having with Uma Thurman at a glitzy reception, to thank him for his help in brokering the Good Friday Agreement, trampling the actress's dress in the process.
More recently on television, he shone as the tortured father of a lost child in the drama series The Missing, and as killer dentist Colin Howell in The Secret. As Adam in the new series of Cold Feet, he gets to show a broader range of emotions than ever before, as the character matures and looks back on his life. In one particularly poignant scene, he shows Matt video footage of his wedding to Rachel (who died in a car crash when Matt was a baby).
"It wasn't hard to cry in that scene," he admits. "Truthfully, I found that very moving to watch. A lot of it was from the very first pilot episode 20 years ago. We miss Helen a lot; we talk about her all the time.
"Also, it was just looking back on my own life. Looking back at the importance Cold Feet has had in my career. That was really right at the nascence. At the beginning. It was such a lovely thing to be able to do in this series."
The eighth season of Cold Feet begins on UTV on Monday, January 14 at 9pm
With plenty of ensemble scenes and a major storyline bringing the cast together for much of the action, series eight of Cold Feet harks back to the original series one to five, before the 2016 reboot, when the friends were at their most close-knit. The opening episode is riveting - dramatic and comedic in equal parts.
After a few knockbacks, Adam starts to question whether he's lost his mojo until he catches the eye of attractive young barista, Gemma. He's initially cautious, but when she makes the first move and he decides to go for it, Matt's reaction takes him by surprise.
Mature student Jenny's been throwing herself into uni life but that looks set to change after some unexpected news. Meanwhile, Pete bravely saves a young lad from drowning but his efforts aren't as appreciated as he might have liked.
Karen's shocked to learn that Josh has dropped out of uni but is more understanding than David, who is adamant Josh needs to finish his course. Josh stands his ground causing David to take stock of his own career path. Is he really still trying to live up to his late father's expectations?
David and Nikki have been living together happily, getting by on minimum wage jobs. But when Nikki's divorce settlement comes through, it's a game changer; suddenly they're back to living the high life. Will David be able to cope with being financial dependent on Nikki?
Both Matt and Karen throw Adam some hurtful home truths. Question is, can this leopard really change his spots?