With roles in the crime drama Touching Evil and the steamy Reckless, former Soldier Soldier star Robson Green has made good on his avowed intention to move away from the cheeky chappie image that first made him famous. Yet at first sight, his latest starring role as a feckless estranged husband in the one-off ITV drama Rhinoceros, appears to have bucked the trend.
The first time we meet Green's character - a flash ex-footballer called Flynn - he's literally caught with his pants down before being berated first by his girlfriend and then by his ex-wife Julie, played by Niamh Cusack. But the first impressions of this unlikely lad are soon confounded as he teams up with Julie to search for the couple's autistic son, Danny (Raymond Pickard), who's gone missing in rural Wales. "Flynn is very confused," says Green. "His career as a footballer is over, his marriage has failed and he can't seem to deal with the fact that his son has learning difficulties," says the actor who has gone through many changes in his life himself. The former shipyard worker has reinvented himself as an actor, pop star and, most recently, Coastal Productions, which is heavily involved in promoting young acting talent in the North East and co-produced Rhinoceros.
The role of Flynn, who over the course of the two hour drama has to reassess his attitude to his failed marriage and rebuild a relationship with his son, was one which required plenty of research on Green's part - in this case into the area of learning difficulties. "I read lots of books on the subject of people with special needs, in particular from the parents' perspective," says Green. "The one factor that kept recurring was the focus that the child gives the parents. In some cases it made parents even closer and stronger, but sometimes it divided them, as is the case with Flynn and Julie. Eleven years on you can still see the sparks of when they were once together."
Robson Green has won loads of awards for acting. Dramas such as Reckless, Student Prince, Touching Evil and Grafters have made him a household name and led to Hollywood offers. Then there was that short-lived singing career which saw him, with his mate Jerome Flynn, knocking Oasis off the top of the pop charts and making a fortune in the process. But there still remains one person the Geordie actor wants to impress. That's the English teacher who told him to forget a career in showbiz when he was at school in Northumberland.
Robson, 34, caught the performing bug after playing the lead in a class production of Joseph The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat when he was nine. But his tutor told him he'd never be any good and to get a job in the local shipyard. 'He was the careers officer and when I told him I wanted to be an actor he said: "You'd better forget that. You can't do it."' Robson recalls. Then his teacher told the dejected miner's son: "You need experience of the acting profession in your family, and you have none, so forget it."
Twenty years on, Robson, back on ITV week in Rhinoceros, can smile at the memory - confident he's had the last laugh. 'I haven't seen him since I left school but I really hope he watches telly.' he says. Another person who failed to spot the actor's early heart-throb potential was a girl he fancied at school who gave him a brutal rejection. These days women would fight to be in her shoes, but Robson admits he was very different back then. 'I was the kid who never got a girlfriend,' he says. I suppose I was an ugly kid with an awful haircut. My teeth weren't so good and my dress sense was - well, let's just say ahead of its time.
'I'd go up to girls and ask them out and they'd turn me down flat. I remember there was one girl who I had a big crush on, called Donna Potts. The first day I saw her I thought she was extraordinary and very pretty. The trouble was, I had this terrible notion that she was interested in me, too. So one day I went up to her and she was with a group of girls and I went: "Donna," and she said: "Before you even think about it...no!" and all the girls were giggling and I felt totally humiliated and rejected.'
He hoped that becoming an actor would change his run of bad luck with women but he soon had more important things on his mind, like finding enough food to eat after quitting his job at the shipyard to pursue his dream. 'I had no work, the horizon looked bleak and I thought: "Oh my God, what have I done?" I didn't have a girlfriend, Mum and Dad didn't have any money and I was living in a bed-sit. I thought I'd made a huge mistake. I'd given up a secure, well-paid job for a career I didn't really understand. My parents were against me doing it. I got veg from my dad's garden and bought a book called Food For Free to help me get by. I used to go mushroom picking and I'd cook my own bread. I'd spend the rest of my days reading books, looking out of the window and going for walks. I was on the dole for three months before my next theatre job. Gradually things got better.'
That's the understatement of the year. After landing the role of Jimmy the porter in Casualty, followed quickly by Tucker in Soldier Soldier, Robson's never looked back. He's now hunted by Hollywood, too - studios are vying to sign him up with offers of scripts. None have tempted him so far, and the down-to-earth actor retains a healthy cynicism about Hollywood, especially when he was sent a script rejected by Sylvester Stallone. 'They told me Sylvester had seen it first, like I should be flattered. It was about this bloody lunatic who goes round shooting everybody. In another script a woman was being chased by a killer and I'd have played a guy on a motorbike who comes along and clobbers him with the butt of a gun and saves her. As if I'd do that! I mean me dressed in leather saying "Hasta la vista, baby" just wouldn't ring true.'
American television networks have tried to woo him as well, but so far Robson, who now has his own company Coastal Productions, has stayed put in Britain. 'If you want to do Hollywood then that's the way in and if I was single and ruthlessly ambitious in terms of my career then I'd be there now, but I'm not. I'm not saying I'll never go and do something there but I'm not going to go over and get a place and settle down there.'
Robson has recently finished filming a new series of the hit ITV drama Touching Evil, playing Detective Inspector Dave Creegan. Then he will be filming another drama, The Last Musketeer, in which he'll play a fencing teacher who goes to work at a private girls' school. In Rhinoceros he plays Michael Flynn, an ex-soccer star whose world is turned upside down when his teenage son Danny, who has learning difficulties, goes missing. Michael is thrown back together with his ex-wife Julie, played by former Heartbeat star Niamh Cusack, and as they try to find their son, years of repressed hostility are exorcised in the heat of their rescue mission.
To research the role, Robson read George Best's autobiography and Tony Adams' book Addicted. 'It helped explain the thought process of someone who's life is so high profile,' he says. 'In that sort of career your whole world would be catered for, but if an injury took away the only thing you could do in life then it must be hard.' It seems highly unlikely to happen, but Robson is confident that he'd have no worries if his career ended tomorrow. 'I'd be fine,' he declares with a smile. 'Not a problem. I've done enough to fulfill a career in acting. 'It's a job that I enjoy but it's not everything. When I go home I vacuum, wash dishes, walk the dog and I don't even think about acting. On Saturdays I go and watch football matches with my wife Ali. That's what it's all about!'
Robson Green's face is creased with smiles and laughs as usual. He's the golden boy of TV so he should feel good. Since starring in Soldier Soldier, he's had hit after hit with Touching Evil, Reckless and Grafters. Next from the ever-Green stable is Rhinoceros, on ITV on Sunday, a two hour drama which he believes is the most moving piece he's ever done.
Soccer-mad Robson, 34, a life-long fan of Newcastle United, stars as a once-great footballer who finds that the son he hoped would be an England player is autistic. 'It's very simple and moving,' he says. 'After a serious injury my characters football career goes pear-shaped. His marriage fails and he just can't deal with his 16 year old son's learning difficulties. He puts the boy out of sight and out of mind to let the mother, played by Niamh Cusack, bring him up. He doesn't want to see the boy because it makes him feel like a failure. But he has to confront these failings when his son goes missing. It's a very emotional part because it means you have to confront guilt - any guilt that you may have harboured.'
Before filming Rhinoceros, Robson read books about people with special needs and also spent time with people who have Down's Syndrome. "I'm really chuffed with the piece, I think it's wonderful, and so is Raymond Pickard who plays my son.' Robson has been married to occupational therapist Alison for eight years. They aren't parents yet and he can't be sure how he'd react if faced with a similar situation in real life. 'It's a question I can't answer because it hasn't happened,' he says. 'This story is about unconditional love and whatever any child of mine would be like, I'd hope I'd give it all the love it deserved.'
And might he become a dad? Suddenly, the normally talkative Robson becomes almost monosyllabic. 'Might do, yeah. Who knows, given the time and space.' And in fact Robson has vowed to cut back drastically on his work load. 'I won't do any more eight-part television series,' he says. 'The second series of Grafters, which we'll film later this year, will be the last eight-parter I'll ever do.'
He wants to spend more time working with his own company, Coastal Productions, which co-produced Touching Evil, Grafters and Rhinoceros, and developing his latest passion - the Live Youth Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne, his home city. 'Hey, I'm paid a fortune so I'm not complaining, but I need to spend more time on what I've got in Newcastle, especially the theatre. 'It gives a chance to a lot of talented youngsters to learn the technical and creative side of TV and film. I've got every thing I need and it gives me a kick to help others. It's not about making money, it's about helping young people.'
Robson's now so busy with TV productions that his days of pop stardom seem an age ago. In fact it was 1995 when he and his Soldier, Soldier side-kick Jerome Flynn topped the charts with Unchained Melody. They've since gone their separate ways, with Jerome starring in a new BBC drama series, Badger, due to be shown this summer, and as Bobby Charlton in the movie Best, about soccer's George Best, which is still filming. 'I've not heard our old hits for at least a year-and-a-half because radio stations never play the records.' Robson chuckles. 'But I still hear the songs in shops and airport lounges. I'm never going to say it was a bad thing, because how would that make the people who bought the records? And I had great fun with all that.'
Robson Green is in control. At 34, he's brimming with creative energy, a man in a hurry to enhance his status as one of British TV's hottest properties. Audiences feel an enormous affection for him, and he can pick and choose the roles he plays. His latest project, Rhinoceros, caught his eye because of the dynamics between the two main characters. "I liked the script because I was fascinated by the relationships."
His character Flynn, an ex-footballer whose career is ended by injury just as his wife Julie (Niamh Cusack) gives birth to a son, Danny. Flynn's unhappiness leads him to self-destruct and he abandons his family. The story then jumps forward 11 years. Danny, who is autistic, has run away from the home where he lives, clutching a wooden rhinoceros as a lucky charm. During the search Flynn and Julie meet again, stirring strong feelings. Playing an errant father did nothing to change Green's views on family life - he doesn't want children yet, if at all. "I think I'd be a good dad, but kids don't cross my mind," he says. "I've never admitted this before, but I have actually questioned it - you know, does nature provide you with a mechanism of yearning for a child?" He laughs. "Well, it didn't with me."
And his wife Ali, an occupational therapist? "We both feel that children are way down our list of priorities. We're just enjoying being with each other. There's no room for anyone else. Who knows about the future?' He says their decision has nothing to do with his parents' divorce. Robson's father, a miner, and his mother, who took two menial jobs to help ends meet, went their separate ways when he was 12. "People say, 'Oh how sad for you', but I went 'Yeess!' My parents divorced because they weren't happy together. It was just a case of stop arguing and get on with your lives. There were no big family meetings. We just got on with it."
He still watches Newcastle United with his father. They sit by a former idol from seventies soccer, Malcolm Macdonald. Green read the autobiographies of Tony Adams and George Best to learn how to play a footballer forced to look back on his career in slow-mo replay. "I'd never played guilt before," he says. "Flynn can't handle his loss of fame. He has to confront his neglect. He drives a Porsche 911 that's seen better days - a metaphor for him, a broken man. His character asks you to understand that there are reasons why sometimes people can do terrible things, emotionally, to the people they love."
Green talks about good writing as though it's an insurance policy for actors working in a risky business. Coastal Productions, his own company, searches out scripts for him. "I want to find the popular route into important, emotive subjects," he says, before revealing that he received a card from Alan Bleasdale congratulating him on Grafters. "I was over the moon about that. If you can get 13 million to watch Boys from the Blackstuff as he did, then you are demonstrating that mainstream drama can tackle big subjects, like how poverty affects people, in a way that attracts large audiences."
Green is full of praise for his Rhinoceros co-star, Niamh Cusack. "She will rip your heart out," he promises. "Niamh nearly had me in tears. They'd go 'Cut,' and I'd say, 'Crikey, you rang the bell with that one.'" Next up for Green is another Touching Evil drama, and then another series of Grafters. He'll also play an investigative journalist in Gladio and a fencing coach in The Last Musketeer. In between all these he still finds the time to run a youth theatre project in Newcastle. Around 300 youngsters are learning about getting a break in show business from a man who has not forgotten his roots.
What's on TV
As a keen Newcastle United supporter, Robson Green leapt at the chance to play not just any footballer, but a great one, in this week's drama Rhinoceros. 'I got the best of both worlds,' says the 34 year old actor, who plays former footballer Michael Flynn in the bittersweet tale. 'I didn't have to train, but in order to create archive footage of my character as a top player, my head was morphed onto the body of a famous football star. The drama is set in the Seventies and the player used was Arsenal's Liam Brady, jumping in the air after scoring a goal. Having my head "placed" on Liam's shoulders was a dream come true for a footie fan like me. Mind you, it would have been even better if it were Alan Shearer,' he laughs.
Ironically, Robson met the England captain and Newcastle United star shortly before filming Rhinoceros. 'I sat next to Alan on a plane,' he says. 'He's delightful and intelligent. The other passengers queued for his autograph non-stop. That kind of fame would drive me nuts but he dealt with it with humour. 'I'm a huge fan and felt a bit nervous asking him to sign the script I had on me, but he was happy to. I was really chuffed.'
Robson is set to increase his heart-throb status when he stars in Rhinoceros as the roguish Flynn, who is reunited with his estranged wife Julie (Niamh Cusack), when their son Danny goes missing. Robson, a star of many TV hits such as Reckless, Grafters and Touching Evil, is quick to shrug off the pin-up tag. 'People have labelled me a heart-throb but I don't think they really exist anymore,' says Robson, who lives with his wife Alison in Northumberland. 'It's a misused term. I did a lecture at a girls' school recently and found it demoralising that they had never heard of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, who were true idols of their time. People say nice things about the way I look and my eyes, but it doesn't really register with me.'
Never one to believe his own hype, Robson keeps his feet on the ground by fishing, walking and indulging his passion for astronomy in his spare time. 'Alison bought me a celestial globe which allows you to plot the co-ordinates of the stars,' he says. 'It makes you feel like a small cog in a big wheel. 'I've enjoyed great success, but I don't take it for granted. If I complain about something, like a noisy hotel room on location, I'll suddenly feel guilty and think, "Shut up you wally," and remember that I'm lucky to be doing a job I love.
When Robson Green returns to our screens this week in the comedy drama Rhinoceros, video recorders around the country will go into overdrive. Hits like Soldier Soldier, Reckless and Grafters have guaranteed Robson superstar status. So, even if he never worked again, the gorgeous Geordie could still maintain a lifestyle most of us only dream about (although his fans would be shattered).
But there's no danger of fame going to his head. In fact, the down-to-earth 34 year old has found the perfect way of keeping his feet on the ground - he rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck into the housework! 'It can be hard to stay grounded when there are people around to cater for your every whim,' he admits. 'But it's vital to keep a grip on reality. So I do the ironing and the washing up when I'm at home. There's nothing like a few household chores to set your priorities straight. 'I'm always shocked when I hear actors talking about their cooks or cleaners. If something needs doing at home I'll turn my hand to it - whether it's painting a room or doing a bit of dusting. Why not?'
It seems Robson's wife of eight years, occupational therapist Ali, really has bagged a dream man. The pair live quietly in a beautiful country house in the Northumberland hills, a short hop from Robson's home town of Newcastle. It's here the couple prefer to spend their precious time alone together. 'There's a lot of trust between Ali and me,' says Robson. 'She's never been one to hang around on the set when I'm filming. She has her own life to lead and far more important things to do.'
Still, Robson's well aware of the temptations that come with being a star name - although he says he never gets propositioned by female fans. 'In this world, you have to take your pick,' he says. 'But why would I ruin everything I have? It would be daft.' He gestures towards the bar of the hotel where we've met for the interview and adds: 'If that bar was filled with young women, I just wouldn't go in. It's best to avoid that sort of situation.'
Commanding much attention from the opposite sex is something that actors and footballers have in common. So perhaps it wasn't a huge leap of imagination for Robson to play the character Flynn - a gifted footballer down on his luck - in his latest project, Rhinoceros. Robson stars alongside former Heartbeat favourite Niamh Cusack in the story of an estranged couple who put aside their differences when their son goes missing. There's no denying Robson's enthusiasm for the project. 'It really is my bag,' he says. 'A good romantic comedy with a gilt edge.'
Robson and Niamh formed an immediate bond while making the film, which is set in the Seventies, although Robson says he was less keen on the styles of the period. 'I had to have one of them shaggy hairdos that were all the rage back then,' he recalls, with a grin. 'The last thing I wanted was for people to watch it and think: "Oh look, it's Robson in a wig." But it really seemed to work. I look completely different with long hair.'
With several more projects in the pipeline - including a new series of Grafters and Touching Evil - there's little chance that anyone with a TV will fail to recognise Robson Green over the next few months. And he's not complaining. 'I know I'm very lucky to be in this position, but I've worked hard to get here,' he says. 'Nothing makes me happier than getting stuck into a new project. It's the ultimate buzz.' Along with a nice sink full of washing up, of course.