Playing Santa Claus has given me cold feet about dark drama

When asked what he’d like for Christmas, James Nesbitt replies without a moment’s hesitation. “I’d like to be 30 years younger,” the actor deadpans, before bursting into an infectious laugh. “But I know that’s just wishful thinking!”

Despite his desire to reverse the ageing process, the 58-year-old star looks pretty good to me. Slim and fit, he possesses the looks and energy of a man three decades his junior. Smiling and joking on a video link from his home in Northern Ireland, he also gives off a twinkle that could light up the night-time sky.

His theme tune might as well be the classic Smiths’ track, This Charming Man. That lighter side very much comes to the fore in his latest film, The Heist Before Christmas. In the festive comedy, which goes out on Sky Max and Sky Showcase at 8pm on Christmas Eve, Nesbitt plays a feckless bank robber in a small town in Northern Ireland.

Dressing as a very bedraggled-looking Father Christmas, he blends into the crowd of competitors during the town’s annual charity Santa Dash, using the confusion created by the sleigh of Santas to break into a bank and run off with £80,000.

The robber escapes into nearby woods where he is shocked to bump into another Father Christmas, played by Timothy Spall. This one claims to be the real thing and to have just fallen out of his sleigh. In the woods, the two Santas meet two young brothers, Mikey (Bamber Todd), a troubled boy who loathes Christmas but is desperate to help his hard-up mother, and his younger brother Sean (Joshua McLees), who clings tenaciously to his belief in Father Christmas.

Cue a heartwarmingly seasonal adventure that will delight all the family. Nesbitt is well known for playing darker roles in such haunting dramas as Bloodlands, The Missing, Murphy’s Law, Occupation, Five Minutes of Heaven and Bloody Sunday.

And so, he acknowledges: “It was quite a departure for me after the last few years of very dark drama. It was lovely to be able to do something that took me to more slapstick, more physical comedy.”

Did he not miss playing a permanently grief-stricken character, though?

“No! I’m happy to leave that be for a while. As much as I enjoyed all that, those roles can be quite gruelling. But this was just great fun.”

The Heist Before Christmas also plays to Nesbitt’s genuine love of the festive season. The actor, who has two daughters with his ex-wife Sonia, recalls with deep affection: “The kids seeing their stockings at the end of the bed before opening the door and looking at all the presents laid out for them. It’s just such a glorious time for children, and you get so much joy out of seeing them have such a wonderful time. I’ve always loved it.”

He also has fond memories of the festive period from his own childhood, too.

“I remember so clearly the thrill of Christmas. When we went to see Santa every year, it was so exciting,” he smiles.

“I also remember the impossibility of sleep on Christmas Eve, then coming down in the morning to see if Santa had been. I’d be shouting, ‘Oh, look, mummy, daddy.

He came! And his reindeer drank the milk!’ Christmas was really important to me as a child. My memories of it are very joyous.”

Nesbitt recollects, for instance, the day he received his most treasured Christmas present.

“I was 5-years-old and I got my first bike. Nowadays kids get things throughout the year. But when I was a kid, I got a present on Christmas Day and my birthday and that was it. That made it more special.

“On Christmas morning, I used to love seeing all the kids out on their new bikes. Mine was a little blue and yellow bike called Nippy, and that was what I’d wanted more than anything. I remember when I walked into the living room, it was like there was a spotlight just on Nippy, and everything else was in darkness. It was as if it was glowing. That’s a very golden memory.”

Not all of the Cold Feet and Hobbit star’s recollections of his childhood Christmases are unreservedly happy, however.

“When I was a boy, I used to go with my dad to pick up the turkey from the local farmer. Everything would still be attached to it – the head was still on, for example.

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“Dad would hang it for a week or so under the stairs in the cubby hole. At some point, I’d always forget and go in there to get a toy. Then I would be confronted by the beady eyes and the scraggy neck of a turkey swinging around inside. I’d be terrified and screaming. I can still hear my father going, ‘James, it’s only the turkey!’”

Funnily enough, The Heist Before Christmas is not the first time he has played Father Christmas.

The actor, whose three older sisters are all teachers, recalls: “I once went to one of my sisters’ schools dressed up as Santa. Even though I was wearing a terrible costume and an awful beard, I can still remember the absolute wonder on the kids’ faces because they need to believe. The minute they see that suit and that beard, there he is.”

That sense of wonder is one of the elements that most appealed to him about the film.

The actor, whose own personal favourite screen Santa is Richard Attenborough (in 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street), says: “I love the idea that the little boy, Sean, has this unshakeable belief in Father Christmas, and that has lasted forever.

“It doesn’t matter how much the world changes, it doesn’t matter how much technology dominates, it doesn’t matter how much more materialistic people are – the one thing that has stood firm is a child’s belief that they have an individual relationship with Father Christmas.”

Nesbitt continues: “It’s magical. I just love the notion of hope it gives. Children believe there really is that goodness in the world.

“In the film, this family is going through real hardship, and that is very true to life. We really are holding up a mirror to a lot of what’s happening in society today. But the idea that there’s one person who will make sure everything’s okay – I just love that.”

The actor adds, “I think that’s an important message, which will chime with a lot of people, particularly at the minute. It opens a window into the cost-of-living crisis.”

It is true The Heist Before Christmas does not shy away from depicting the financial difficulties that are currently afflicting so many people.

“It’s hard for people at the moment, and it’s important not to forget that. When we see the genuine struggle of Mikey’s and Sean’s mum in this film, I hope that does resonate with people,” Nesbitt says.

“I also hope that there will be pause for thought even on Christmas Eve. I hope people do really see that it’s time to think about others and about charity and about how much worse off some people are.”

He continues: “Mikey is being forced into embracing adulthood and cynicism and crime at far too young an age.

“But actually, he’s trying to somehow make sure that his brother has the Christmas he deserves. In a way, Mikey is demonstrating his love for his mother by doing everything that she doesn’t want him to do – and that is quite painful.”

Filmed in Belfast, Newtownabbey and Monkstown in County Antrim, Nesbitt’s new comedy-drama is a terrific showcase for Northern Ireland. “I love that the backdrop was my home. And isn’t it fantastic that a Christmas film set in Northern Ireland has nothing to do with The Troubles?”

The actor, who does a lot of work for charities trying to bring about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, continues: “It is continuing to evolve. Sectarianism hasn’t been wiped out, there is still division, politicians haven’t delivered on the so-called peace dividend, and Stormont [where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits] continues to lie dormant, which is, frankly, embarrassing. But there really is hope here.

“I love being part of the landscape of hope in Northern Ireland. For example, it’s great that Sky’s Christmas film is set here with a Northern Irish crew and Northern Irish actors with a message that will hopefully strike a chord with people.”

Indeed, he remains deeply optimistic about the future for the province. “You’ve only got to spend time with young people here to see that. As far as I’m concerned, the only people who are not making progress are the politicians.

“In a way, I’d like to cut a complete swathe through all the politicians here and start again. That won’t happen, but all you have to do is go out for a night in Belfast and you will see the difference.

“This place has changed like you wouldn’t believe.”

A lovely upbeat note to end on. But before we part, there is one more question. How does he envisage spending Christmas Day?

Returning to the theme of ageing, he laughs once again: “I am now that old guy who goes to sleep in the armchair after lunch with all the noise all around him and then wakes up with a start saying, ‘Oh, yes. It’s Christmas!’”

  • The Heist Before Christmas is on Sky Max and Sky Showcase at 8pm on Christmas Eve

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