For Bill Nighy, when it comes to socks it’s Love, Actually

The actor tells us why he always likes to be well turned-out

�Bill Nighy is one of those interviewees who celeb journalists like myself look forward to meeting. Wonderfully voluble, endlessly charming and with a flirty smile which quickly wins you over, he’s the sort of actor who can make talking about mid-calf dark blue socks sound sexy. Goodness knows how we got on the subject.

“Never trust a man in patterned socks,” he says roundly, “or lime green for that matter.” He mentions his favourite brand of socks, which I cannot reveal here for fear that he will be mobbed by boxes of them from women of a certain age. That, he mulls, however, wouldn’t be too bad as he loves to slip on a new pair of dark blue mid-calf socks every day. It’s apparently the rustle of the tissue paper around them that does it for him. “Slightly decadent,” he murmurs.

Like I said, he is different.

We meet in one of London’s smartest hotels. Clad in a light-grey suit, blue shirt and tie, he feels that one ought to look one’s best in public. With his trademark black-rimmed specs, he’s here to talk about voicing an elderly Father Christmas, Grandsanta, in the CGI-animated family comedy Arthur Christmas. It is an Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) film and answers the question as to how Santa delivers presents to 600million children in one night.

Nighy had to audition for the role. “I don’t have to audition for work any more but I wanted to be in this film really badly,” he explains. “I loved the script and I wanted to work on getting the right focus of the voice. My character has a little bit of Steptoe and Son and of Uncle Alfie. He even has his own expressions like a ‘rodney hole’. God knows what that means.’

He was attracted to the character because just his voice would be doing the work. He hates seeing himself on screen.

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“I try not see my own films. It’s not that I am vain – although I am – but there’s always a huge disparity between what I do and what’s on the screen.

“Working on stage is different because you can’t see yourself. Once you are over the tyranny of the first night with the critics and the expectations – which is as near as I get to total trauma because so much adrenalin is needed you are almost in an altered state – you could give an absolutely incredible performance at a matinee when no-one is there and it is absolutely thrilling. The stage gives you a genuine opportunity to express yourself. If I’m required to be funny and the audience laughs, then I don’t really care about anything. I don’t care that I look terrible – and old.”

A long-time Kentish Towner, the 61-year-old has been a successful actor for ages, particularly in roles that require him to be a louche, urbane charmer like rock god Billy Mack in Love Actually.

Born in Caterham, Surrey, to a car mechanic and a psychiatric nurse, he was an altar boy who made it to grammar school and joined the school theatre group.

‘At first, I wanted to be a writer so, after leaving school I went to the National Youth Employment people who said there were no jobs for writers. Then we tried ‘authors’ and the man looked in his big book of jobs and said there was a job as a messenger boy at The Field.

“I also tried for the Croydon Advertiser but I had only two O-Levels and they said come back when you have five. I couldn’t be bothered and I was encouraged to try acting and went to drama school in Guildford.”

He spent his 20s in regional theatre, his 30s at the National Theatre and his 40s in British films. While at the National, he met his former partner, the actress Diana Quick, and they have a 27- year-old daughter, Mary, who is an actress.

He still works on stage regularly and has had a long association with playwright David Hare. A couple of years ago, he starred with Julianne Moore on Broadway in Hare’s Iraq war play The Vertical Hour.

Nighy has an alter ego as a rock star, having done films like Still Crazy, playing the lead singer of a 70s band, and, of course, Love Actually. His new single, out at Christmas, is Make Someone Happy, the Jimmy Durante song. Proceeds will go to one of his charities, Starlight, which makes seriously ill children’s wishes come true.

He says his best-ever Christmas present would be to be blindfolded and taken to a spot where a band is assembled with Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass guitar, Keith Richards on rhythm, Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend on guitars, Van Morris and Aretha Franklin singing. And they say to him: “Hi Bill, happy Christmas” and gig for two and a half hours of solid R’n’B.

If he couldn’t have that, he wouldn’t say no to all those mid-calf dark blue socks but an interesting and enduring actor like Bill Nighy is worth more than that.