Interview: Matthew Cottle

Matthew Cottle in rehearsal for Dear Uncle.  Photo by James Drawneek
Matthew Cottle in rehearsal for Dear Uncle. Photo by James Drawneek
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There are two new plays from Alan Ayckbourn to look forward to this summer. Nick Ahad meets cast member Matthew Cottle.

Speaking to Matthew Cottle is like stepping into a time machine.

As one of the three characters of BBC sitcom Game On, he became a part of a zeitgeist that came to define a generation.

The Lads’ Mag Nineties, BritPop, Cool Britannia, they were all exemplified by this sitcom that was so of its time, that it took its name from a catchphrase of the decade.

Sitting in the café of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre with Cottle, a decade and a half since he left RADA and stepped straight into TV ubiquity, appearing in three television sitcoms in 12 months, he is outwardly a man unchanged.

In Game On he played an uptight banker, who was forever being bullied by his agorophobic flatmate, in particular, menaced into always making the tea.

Cottle takes his seat, cup of tea in hand, his mug has a sticker on it that bears the name Matthew. It’s the sort of thing you could imagine Martin, the character he played in Game On, holding.

“Oh yes, ‘make the tea’,” says Cottle, with a chuckle and a smile.

It is as though the years have not withered him. He looks just the same as he did when he was in Game On – and a number of other television series in one heady year.

“I was just out of drama school and in one year I had three sitcoms on the BBC. I thought ‘this is great’. Then all three came to an end,” Cottle chuckles.

In the mouth of another actor – perhaps Ben Chaplin, the brooding, good-looking actor who played Cottle’s flatmate in Game On and went on to Hollywood movies – such a sentence would sound melancholic, moody.

Cottle’s demeanour means he makes it sound like a terribly good wheeze. He is the sort of man you would most likely describe as a “pleasant chap”.

His good mood is helped by the fact that he is coming off the back of another exceptional 12 months, this time full of theatre work.

Cottle is currently rehearsing in Scarborough, where he will spend the summer appearing in rep in Alan Ayckbourn’s two new plays, Dear Uncle – an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Neighbourhood Watch.

He was in Yorkshire earlier this year where he appeared on the stage of Sheffield’s Crucible in David Hare’s Racing Demon and prior to that was in the National Theatre production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art.

He says: “If I could have another year like the one I have just had, where I’m working in theatre, doing these fantastic plays, then I would be very happy.

“I don’t really have any burning desire to appear in a soap or anything. I love working in theatre.

“I don’t have lots of ambitions, I like working, but when I’m not I run, watch box sets, take the kids to school, so I’m not desperate to do more TV or anything. Although the money would be nice. Wait, don’t write that – the producers of one of the soaps might read it.”

He doesn’t actually say “oh crumbs”, but it is as though it is implied in the sentence. This gentle nature and – one would use the word bumbling if it didn’t have perjorative connotations – makes Cottle the perfect foil for Alan Ayckbourn, the master of comedies of manners.

Cottle has apppeared in a number of Ayckbourn plays, but is working on a new script with the writer and director for the first time this summer.

“It is incredibly exciting,” he says.

“When you are in a rehearsal room with him, you forget that he is ‘the Great Sir Alan’, he seems so down to earth and really gentle in his directing. I do feel very lucky.”

With a gentle chuckle he’s off to change for an afternoon technical rehearsal, name- badged teacup in hand.

A director who writes

Although regarded as one of the country’s foremost playwrights, 2011 marks Alan Ayckbourn’s 50th year as a director.

“I always consider myself a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time.”

The first play he directed was Gaslight in 1961. His production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge earned him his first Olivier nomination for directing in 1987. Ayckbourn’s directing career has spanned over 300 productions from Scarborough to New York.

Dear Uncle, SJT to Sept 30. Neighbourhood Watch Sept 8 to Oct 15. Tickets 01723 370541.