Bespectacled Brit wit Bill Nighy is spreading joy this Christmas as a delightfully cantankerous Grandsanta, writes Lucy Carne
Going crackers for Christmas.
NEVER trust a man in patterned socks, Bill Nighy tells me.
The besuited statesman of British cinema is describing exactly what he wants for Christmas: socks.
No patterns, nothing psychedelic, no lime green, he continues, pausing to dramatically roll his eyes.
‘‘ I like dark blue, mid- calf. I used to go full- length but that’s too eccentric, and I’m over that now.’’
Nighy describes his love of socks like an excited child gleefully ripping open a present on Christmas morn.
‘‘ I always am thrilled when you crack open a new pair of socks. It’s quite decadent,’’ the 61- year- old actor says.
‘‘ I sometimes buy six at a time and I’ll have six days of new socks. You just go ‘‘ Crack!’’ each morning and get the tissue paper out. It’s a thrill.’’
Christmas is Nighy’s time. With his elegant suits, groovy strut and roguish smile, he belongs on a snowy London street, spreading festive cheer.
He stole the show in the Christmas classic Love Actually, playing the washed- up rock star Billy Mack, who rediscovers fame ( and wins Nighy a legion of middle- aged admirers).
Now he is starring as a cantankerous retired Santa in Arthur Christmas.
The first digital 3D offering from Aardman Animation ( makers of Wallace and Gromit ), Arthur Christmas is set at the North Pole, where the role of Santa has been passed from father to eldest son for centuries.
Christmas HQ is an iced Pentagon with international elves running a hi- tech delivery operation that drops two billion parcels across the world in one night.
In his rocking chair, watching the Christmas enterprise unfold, is toothless Grandsanta ( Nighy), who comes out with cracking one- liners like ‘‘ Oh, my baubles’’.
Incumbent Santa ( Jim Broadbent) is due to retire. His slick, powerhungry eldest son Steve ( House star Hugh Laurie) is ready to take control.
The youngest son Arthur ( James Mcavoy) is madly devoted to Christmas but, because of his clumsiness, has been consigned to the Letters Department to answer children’s requests.
But when one child accidentally misses out on a gift, it’s up to Arthur, Grandsanta and an elf called Bryony ( Extras star Ashley Jensen) to deliver it.
On first reading director Sarah Smith’s script, which she co- wrote with Bruno and
Borat ’ s Peter Baynham, Nighy desperately wanted a part.
‘‘ I was very, very nervous going up for this job,’’ he said. ‘‘ I wanted to be in it really quite badly.’’ He said the script was perfect – a rarity in animation and live- action film.
‘‘ I thought if they do this correctly, it will linger. It could be a perennial.’’
When he first auditioned, Nighy thought he was going for the role of Father Christmas.
‘‘ But they said ‘ No, you’re this guy with no teeth and no hair’,’’ he said.
He was, he admitted, terrified of humiliation during the audition.
Despite roles in Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, The Boat That Rocked, Enduring Love, Notes on a Scandal and The
Constant Gardener , Nighy has squeamish personal problems, leaving him unable to watch himself on the screen.
‘‘ I have enough difficulty going to work, let alone surviving seeing myself,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s not about being vain, because I am. It’s not even the sound of me.
‘‘ It’s the fact that the acting is never going to be as good as I had in mind.’’
Nighy is equally uncomfortable in front of a microphone. He spent a nervous few days at Abbey Road Studios recording the Christmas single Make Someone Happy, which appears in Arthur Christmas and raises money for the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
‘‘ My actual professional experience is limited,’’ Nighy says of his rock- star persona. ‘‘ I’ve spent a couple of weeks in the studio for Still Crazy and a couple of days for Love Actually.
‘‘ Other than that, I’ve sung in the bath. I still don’t know when to come in at the right time.’’
Having flunked high school in Surrey, south of London, Nighy told his local youth employment centre he wanted to be an author.
At 15, inspired by Bob Dylan, he ran away from home to head for Persia, because he liked the sound of it. He made it to the south of France but, hungry and broke, he found the nearest British consulate and asked to be sent home.
‘‘ I just wanted to be in a good trench coat and hat with a girl in the rain in Yugoslavia,’’ Nighy says of his teenage aspirations.
Instead, he became a messenger boy for a hunting, shooting and fishing magazine. He later fell into acting.
Despite the anguish and personal turmoil, acting sometimes brings Nighy joy. ‘‘ There are moments when you think you’ve done something which belongs to you,’’ he says.
If Nighy isn’t tearing open packets of socks while watching his favourite actor Will Ferrell in Elf on Christmas Day, he says he has just one wish.
‘‘ What I’d really like is to be taken blindfolded to a spot where a band had been assembled,’’ he says.
Charlie Watts is on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, Keith Richards on rhythm guitar, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend also on guitar and there are two singers – Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin.
‘‘ I’d like them all to say ‘ Hi Bill, sit down and enjoy yourself. Happy Christmas!’ And then play 2 ½ hours of solid R’N’B.’’
Now showing Village Cinemas ( 2D & 3D)