Notorious for the chaotic, alcohol-soaked lifestyle that provided the stories and cast of unforgettable characters in his weekly Low Life column in The Spectator magazine over two decades, Bernard was immortalised by his friend and fellow hack Keith Waterhouse in his 1989 play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
The title referred to the notice The Spectator would print in the hard-living hack’s absence when his daily hangover proved too great an obstacle to filing his column.
And the play, a 55-minute monologue first performed by Peter O’Toole, is now returning to its roots via a series of shows in Bernard’s spiritual home in Soho’s Greek Street where, in his day, he could be found reading the racing pages, knocking back drinks and smoking like a chimney.
“Given the setting,” says Robert, who will take the lead and only role in this latest revival, “this is the show at its purest.”
Later, the play saw such luminaries as Tom Conti, James Bolam, Dennis Waterman and Robert Powell taking the role of the infamous dipsomaniac who could write like an angel. It isn’t The Cold Feet star’s first shot either at inhabiting Bernard’s rackety lifestyle, which has come to epitomise the louche, bohemian atmosphere of Soho in the Seventies and Eighties before gentrification and money drove out the artists.
He starred in a sold-out production – the premise of which is that Bernard has found himself locked in the pub overnight and regales an imaginary audience with anecdotes of his life – in the Coach & Horses in 2019, which was well received by those familiar with the Bernard legend.
Each immersive show, which turns the pub into a theatre, is performed in the bar for just 70 people.
Growing up, the actor was well aware of Bernard’s journalism, both in The Spectator and Penthouse “which used to get passed around at school”.
Today Bernard divides opinion, he admits: “Between those who met him before 11am and those who met him after, and those who saw him as a very fine writer and those who only saw him in his cups. This is essentially a celebration of his writing. He spun a beautifully crafted story.”
But despite, or possibly because of his great gift, Bernard was a hard-drinking carouser and womaniser of the old-school.
“I deliberately put out a trigger warning on social media, explaining that this show contains references to smoking, gambling, alcohol and sex,” Robert explains wryly.
“So, if you don’t like it, don’t come. Somebody wrote back, ‘Ah, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Bring it on!’”
Drink – usually vodka on the rocks – finally did for Bernard who died in 1997 aged just 65, by then a diabetic and amputee with four failed marriages behind him.
One commentator referred to his Spectator column as a 15-year suicide note. “He was on record as saying he would never live anywhere beyond staggering distance of the Coach & Horses,” Bathurst, at 66 a year older than Bernard at his death, continues from the bar as he nurses a pint of bitter. So does the actor like him?
“I don’t have to. I don’t believe acting is a political exercise. I know it’s unfashionable to say that,” he admits.
“But I think you should be able to play somebody with whom you disagree completely. All I see is his writing which I love.
“He was an entertainer and that’s what I respond to. Whether he was entertaining in real life, I couldn’t say. I’m sure his coterie felt he was.
I’m currently reading Christopher Howse’s book, Soho in the Eighties, and they all seem to have had a high old time.”
By comparison with Bernard, Bathurst has had a relatively sedate, if hugely successful career. He first got the acting bug via panto when his family lived in Dublin.
It continued at boarding school in West Sussex before he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge where he read law.
“I got called to the Bar with no intention of pursuing it as a career. But I have to
say that sitting in the public gallery at the High Court in the Strand is the best show
There’s no trace of theatrics in the family. “The closest I get to any theatrical connection is that my great-uncle George was the model for Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy.”
At Cambridge, he was an active member of the student comedy sketch troupe, Footlights, alongside Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rory McGrath and Jan Ravens.
After he came down in 1981, he toured Australia with Hugh and Emma and Stephen Fry in a sketch show. “England had just defeated Australia in the Ashes so we called it Botham, The Musical which had absolutely nothing to do with him at all.”
His parents, he says, were bemused but supportive. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
They died in their mid-80s, within a month of each other, in 2009. So, they lived long enough to see Bathurst’s great success in the first run of Cold Feet.
Had he any notion it would take off in the way that it did? “No, nobody knew, not even ITV,” he smiles. “It was launched on a Sunday night when the Grand Prix had overrun so that anyone who’d primed their VHS recorder only got half of it.”
But all that changed when ITV entered it as something of a makeweight in the Montreux Comedy Festival of 1997 where, to everyone’s astonishment, it won the Rose d’Or. “Even then, we had no idea it would run for five series, first time round and then come back in 2016 until 2020.”
Alongside James Nesbitt, Helen Baxendale, John Thomson and Fay Ripley, Bathurst played Karen’s (Hermione Norris) stuffed shirt management consultant husband, David Marsden.
“It wasn’t really about anything – just six people living in Manchester and how they got on. The key was in the characters that writer Mike Bullen created,” he says. “As time went on, it became apparent that David had never really had a friend.
“My challenge was to convey a chink of humanity behind his blinkered world view. We were gradually invited – more out of politeness than anything, I think – to suggest ways in which our individual characters might develop.”
Which brings us to the now-infamous incident with the motorbike. He felt that David, suffering a mini-midlife crisis, might decide to buy a bike. In fact, it ended up being a 40th birthday present from his five friends.
On the petrol tank, there was the painted legend: Born To Be Mild, a nod to its self-effacing owner. “I rather liked the idea of Granada paying for my lessons and test,” he continues. “But then the filming was switched to an earlier date and so, when I emerged from my gravel drive on my new Harley, I’d had absolutely no experience of riding it.
“I was only going at about 3mph but I crashed the bike on the kerb, just missing one of the cameras. Director Simon Delaney said it was the single funniest day of his life. At the end, he gave me a piece of the smashed indicator mounted on a plinth.”
None of this might have happened had Bathurst, having successfully auditioned, accepted the offer to become one of Esther Rantzen’s “boys” on That’s Life! “I was 23, the show was getting 18 million viewers a week but I absolutely knew I wanted to be an actor.”
So, why audition for it? “Because I think you should always walk towards the gunfire and see what happens.”
And can it really be true that he once auditioned to play James Bond? “Yes and no,” he laughs.
“They were trying to persuade Timothy Dalton to accept the role and using me, among others, as sort of leverage to let him think he wasn’t the only one in the running.”
Would he have made a convincing 007? “Me and stunts don’t really go together. I could play The Saint but not Bond. About as dangerous as I get is hand-to-hand irony.”
In the event, and in no particular order, he’s played international banker Alex from the Telegraph strip cartoon in London and on a world tour.
He left Lady Edith standing at the altar in Downton (boo!). He was John Le Mesurier opposite Ruth Jones in a biopic about his real-life wife, Hattie Jacques, and then as Sergeant Wilson in the remake of Dad’s Army on TV and film.
This varied professional good fortune is matched by a happy home life in Sussex.
Married for almost 40 years to painter Victoria Threlfall (“a supreme colourist”), the couple have four daughters: Matilda, Clemency, Oriel and Honor in their 20s and 30s. Only Oriel has been involved in film and television production. “No grandchildren yet; can’t wait.”
Next up for Bathurst is a couple of audio tapes: the first three Lord Peter Wimsey/Dorothy L Sayers detective stories; and a time-travelling spy yarn called Salvation.
“For the moment, I’m keen to get Jeffrey Bernard in my back pocket with the thought I can always return to it as and when,” he says. What a way to make a living, as Bernard himself put it.
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