"I could see the opportunity for new stories and dilemmas. There was stuff I wanted to write about" An interview with Cold Feet creator Mike Bullen
Cold Feet is a British drama series that first aired in 1998. Starring James Nesbitt, this was a show that observed three couples as they battled the differing struggles of romance. Topics on the show involved societal taboos abortion, marital affairs, drug consumption, unwanted pregnancies, intergenerational sex and divorce. It was a critical and commercial triumph, earning a mass viewership, a mass Bafta following and one 1999 US remake. It ended after five series, but was subsequently revived/rebooted in 2016, reuniting five of the original cast members. Taking Helen Baxendale’s place of Adam Williams love interest was Liverpool actor Leanne Best as Tina, while Ceallach Spellman joined the cast as Adam’s son Matthew.
The third of the new series will air in January 2019 and writer Mike Bullen took a call from Eoghan Lyng to discuss the show from his Australian home.
What drew you back to the story as a writer a decade after the original series?
Fourteen years in total. I’d been asked in the interim many times to bring it back, but I never could think of enough stories. In the interim years, the characters had children. Having gone through that myself, I realised that your life, it doesn’t become dull, but it becomes more about the children than about yourselves. You become a supporting character in your own story. It was really determined by the ages of the kids, they were getting to an age where they were old enough that they were starting to drift off by themselves.
So, the characters, we’re looking at that period of their life. There’s a difference to my parent’s generation. When they reached their fifties, they were “officially old”. They were set in their ways and life didn’t change. In this generation, the world is your oyster again. You can travel, start new careers, find new partners. I could see the opportunity for new stories and dilemmas. There was stuff I wanted to write about. During the period where the show was off air, I suffered a bout of depression. That was a story I wanted to tell in the rebooted series.
How was it to give the new series an independent stamp without deviating from the original series?
It’s really interesting, there’s a lot of shows doing that at the moment,some more successfully than others. A show I watched with interest was the Gilmore Girls. My guilty pleasure, my daughters loved the show growing up. I was intrigued how they were going to bring it back, it seemed of its era, it wasn’t truthful. It conjured a world people wanted to believe in. When they brought it back, all they did was try and re-create that artificial bubble. Things have moved on, it’s the era of Trump. Things are much more cynical now. That romanticism seems out of place.
I think the reason we’ve got away with it is we tried to be truthful to a real world then. It was an ordinary world with a slight spin to make things more comedic or dramatic. That’s the approach we took again. We were faithful to the past as we had the same characters and they had moved on, it wasn’t a sitcom where nobody moves on. They brought their old characters with that. People thought it a big risk to bring the show back. It never felt that to me as I knew there was enough material to write it out and make it interesting. The characters allow for comedy and drama. Even David, the most comedic character, gets real emotional stakes as well. Technology’s caught up, so the main challenge for writers’ is jeopardy scenes. These rushing to the airport scenes are harder when you can just ring people!
How do you think Leanne Best takes over from Helen Baxendale and where the two artists differ?
That’s a question I need to think about. The original series, the characters that is, were based on real people I knew. All except for Rachel [Helen Baxendale] who was sort of an idealised, romanticised girlfriend. I always found her the hardest to pin down, she was sweet and idealised. I don’t know how she would have aged if Rachel had lived. Nowadays, I wanted Adam’s women to be more realistic and I think Leanne’s character Tina hasn’t got her edges smoothed off. She takes no prisoners, she says how she feels. There were plenty of moments of that in the newer series, the characters being more realistic as the older they get. More in keeping with middle aged people. They’re different in that way.
How does your life resonate with the character’s if they do?
I’ve got two daughters, David and Karen have two daughters. They’re twins, mine are two years apart. Inevitably, some of their characters came into the script. I haven’t asked, but one of my daughters might see some similarities if they watched the shows. I live between Australia and the U.K. Australia’s home, where my wife and daughters are, though the daughters are at university. Then, I go to the U.K. for the filming of the show, and that feels like home when I’m there. I used to think you needed one place for home, but I don’t now. You bring home with you, which I think is how Adam feels at the beginning of the reboot. I’m happy between both countries.
John Thomson and Fay Ripley worked through themes of depression and intellectual inadequacies in the last series. How did they respond to these extra layers?
Yes, John did the scenes of depression very well. He’s a wonderful actor, there’s a scene in the original series where his wife has left him at the airport, taking their son with her. He’s still holding his boy’s teddy and breaks down. It’s a very powerful scene, John was offered the tear stick, whatever they call it, but he did the crying without them. He said he could do it and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.In the past John has suffered issues of his own and that was something he could draw on by himself. He’s a very instinctive actor, when he feels someone, it’s real. That was his series,
Fay’s is the new one. I don’t know how much I can give away in the new series, but she has a scene where she says to a character who has just entered “thank you for bringing me a story line”. Actors love working on new storylines with their characters growing. Of the rebooted series, I think this is the best, which makes me wonder how we can do another one.
James Nesbitt played a Northern Irish man in conjunction with the Good Friday Agreement. How pertinent was that in the original show to watch a likeable Northern Irish lothario as lead?
Honestly, that never came up as a question. My only issue with James being Irish was that he was supposed to grow up in Manchester with John’s character Pete. It took me a little while to accept it , but it's his charm and every man manner that makes him who he is. I don’t get involved with casting processes too much. I have an idea in the mind what the character should be like, so that’s my weakness. Avoid your own weaknesses. I based Adam mostly on myself, we’ve departed over the years.
Cel was another nice surprise. Cel was a revelation. When they were auditioning for that role, I said send me when you see someone you like, but make sure they’re age appropriate. I hate it when kids are too old for the part. Cel’s about seven years older than the part, which fails my test. But when I saw the tests, I was blown away. He is such a good actor. He’s a lovely person, his humanity shines through. You could believe that he was Helen Baxendale’s son, there’s a resemblance there.
In the last series where Cel and his girlfriend contemplate an abortion, we gave him the pro life argument. I am pro choice personally, but I like dramas that explore two sides of an argument. He nailed the “you’re forgetting the child” speech. I like writing for him, he can take anything. It’s always fun to watch Adam and his son onscreen.
There were nice homages from Robert Bathurst to James Bond recently when working with the gangster. Bathurst was a contender for The Living Daylights: did you envision David as a Bond type?
I didn’t know that about Robert. Was he? That’s brilliant! I think David would have pretentions of James Bond as he would be the only one who could move through a casino convincingly in a tuxedo. He can do his Bruce Lee martial arts, so he can look after himself, but David would probably be more Johnny English than James Bond! David is based on a real person I knew, I was being a little unfair by making him upper class. They’re all middle class, but he’s the closest to upper class.
If anyone’s James Bond it’s Karen. She has some real anger, you wouldn’t want to mess with her. In the original, there’s an episode where she chases after her stolen car, running through a multi-storey car part. I’d like to think Hermione got her part in Spooks because of that!
What projects are you working on?
I don’t know what I can say about the third series of the rebooted show. Everyone feels it’s the best, we have stories that have lent themselves to this group. There’s one scene where I show to people completely out of context and I’ve not yet had one person who isn’t teared up at it. I don’t want to give anything away about the stories, if people invest in the show, then I’m confident they won’t be asking for their money back. When we killed off Rachel, we knew that was it. We stopped when it was popular and we didn’t want the show to go into decline. I’m wondering if we should call stop now, because I’m not sure we can improve on this series.
I’ve written one book which is available in all bargain bins [chuckles]. I’ve started thinking of a new idea for life after Cold Feet, which I’m not entirely sure what it is yet. I’ve spent a few days working on it with a few writers. I’m working on an Australian film. I’m beginning to look beyond Cold Feet, which can be all consuming. This series is coming out in January, so I’ve had three, four extra months to think what I should do. I’m finally beginning of thinking of moving on.