Graham Kibble-White hears about Robert Bathurst's close shaves with comedy success...
The Comic Strip Presents, the idiosyncratic mix of parody and savage slapstick that revived TV comedy at the start of the 1980s, returns to Channel 4 this winter with a characteristically ribald take on British romcoms.
It's pretty obvious which movie inspired their first film for five years, Sex Actually.
Penned by original writers Peter Richardson and Pete Richens, this tale of wife-swapping in suburbia unites Comic Strip regulars Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer with a host of comedy actors, including Doon Mackichan and Robert Bathurst.
"It's all about four couples living in this close somewhere in London, who are swingers," reveals Robert.
"My character, Charles, is a judge and he's married to Carol, who's played by Rebecca Front.
"Two of their neighbours have recently died, drowning in their waterbed at one of their parties. They were the sort of jump leads for the whole swinging operation, so the others who are left behind are rather washed up with nowhere to go.
"When a new couple move into the house where the duo formerly lived, the people around are rather excited at the prospect of welcoming them in and restarting the whole thing again.
"I'm a fan of the Comic Strip films and Peter Richardson's writing," adds the 47-year-old actor, "so I jumped at the chance of working with him.
"The script just made me laugh. It's extreme and sort of cartoony, although I wouldn't overstate that. It's very broad brush comedy.
"The Comic Strip films have their own style, they don't worry too much about truth, but they have a convention which is appealing and acceptable."
The Comic Strip began as a stage show in 1980, featuring the talents of Alexei Sayle, Arnold Brown, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
In 1982, they appeared on the launch night of Channel 4 with their memorable Enid Blyton spoof Five Go Mad In Dorset, and helped kick-start the alternative comedy boom that raged throughout the rest of the decade.
"I remember the cabaret they used to do in the Boulevard Theatre in Soho," recalls Robert fondly. However, despite being an admirer, he's keen to stress his appearance in one of their productions doesn't make him a member of the act.
"This is just another film under the aegis of The Comic Strip," he insists. "I wouldn't ever say I was part of that group."
Nevertheless, throughout his career he has skirted around the fringes of alternative comedy, appearing in the unbroadcast pilot of Blackadder, the first episode of Red Dwarf and editions of Whoops Apocalypse and Chelmsford 123.
"I witnessed it all, that's true, but I was never part of the great comedy rock'n'roll movement and had no taste for it either. I'm not very gang-y, really. Even back in my university days when I was working on revues, I was impatient to go off and do stuff on my own."
Although he's since made his name in both drama and comedy, it's clear he relishes the challenges of the latter.
"You're more exposed with comedy," he says, "and you can't get away with it. If people aren't laughing, then it's rubbish. If it's drama, the audience can accept it on different levels, but with comedy you either make them laugh or you don't.
"When you're working on a good piece which is well-written and interestingly presented, it's great. But there's nothing worse than hacking around in a comedy which isn't any good.
"Often you don't know when you're filming if it's going to be a success or not, because there's no audience. You have to use your own judgement. Generally speaking you work on the principle that if the sound man is laughing, you're doing too much and need to cut it back a bit."
Something that did seem to be proving a success was Robert's sitcom My Dad's The Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the show was recently axed.
"We made two series and I thought they were very good," he sighs. "I think we could have easily done a third. The things that are going on in Parliament at the moment would be more than enough to provide the writers with prime material, daily.
"When the show started, the BBC's kids' department invested a slice of money into it, so they put it out on the children's channel, which tainted it in a lot of people's eyes.
"It was never purely a kids' show. A lot of adults enjoyed it and it was very astute. At first it was repeated on Sunday afternoons on BBC One, but then the second series was stuck after EastEnders on a Friday, and went out with a ghastly laughter track. It was always designed as a Sunday night family wind-down programme, so it never really flourished there.
"The scheduling isn't anything to do with me, but I think it was bizarrely handled. During the first series it was scheduled in six different slots on a Sunday afternoon. My parents couldn't even find it."
Although there will be fans mourning the loss of that series, there are doubtlessly even more people who'd love to see Robert and company resurrect the ITV1 drama Cold Feet, which ended in 2003.
"The idea of doing this seems to be gaining momentum," he says, "with no impetus from any of us.
"One of the characters in it is dead, so I'm not quite sure what we'd do about that. You'd have to have a seance or something. There is certainly a curiosity value in seeing how the characters would have developed, but apart from that I'm not sure.
"I think there are reasons for and against bringing it back, and it's probably better not doing it, to be honest. It needs some time before we could even think about it and certainly it would be wrong to do anything now.
"But, honestly, this is pure surmise, and it's not something I've even considered."
* The Comic Strip Presents is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm