Byline: POLLY GRAHAM, Showbiz Editor
NEIL Morrissey is visibly squirming as he talks frankly for the first time about his affair with actress Amanda Holden.
Head lowered, the Men Behaving Badly star refuses even to utter her name.
"I never really spoke about it because I couldn't deal with the stuff which was going on and being slung at me. Everything went in the air."
Since Neil's five-week romance with Amanda, the wife of Family Fortunes star Les Dennis, was exposed two years ago he's been rocketed to the status of No.1 adulterer - the king of all love-rats.
"It was so unfair to be involved in some kind of slagging match, which is what it turned out to be," he says, shifting uncomfortably on an armchair in London's trendy members-only club, Soho House.
"I was like, woaah, this is not it at all. It was a bit of fun for a few weeks and it was all over and done with.
"As far as I was concerned it wasn't behind anyone's back."
So you were led to believe that Amanda was no longer with Les when you were seeing each other?
"Yeah, right," Neil, who was single at the time of the affair, confirms, flashing hurt puppy-dog eyes at me. "As far as I was concerned it was all above board."
Les, who wed Amanda seven years ago, would probably beg to differ. The first he knew of the liaison was when pictures of the couple on a romantic weekend in the West Country appeared in a newspaper in May 2000.
The scandal caused Amanda - currently starring in BBC's Cutting It - and Les to split, but they patched up their marriage. Meanwhile Neil was cast as the rotter.
"Everyone regrets any unnecessary hurt it causes, I know I do too, but that's all over and done with now. Amanda and I have no contact at all. I've so moved on."
Moved on Neil has and he is now happily co-habiting with his blonde girlfriend of nearly two years, TV producer Georgina Hurford-Jones.
It is for her sake and "everyone else involved" that Neil is uncomfortable about talking about the fling with Amanda which blossomed when the pair co-starred in TV drama Happy Birthday Shakespeare.
"I wonder why people are so fascinated by all that?" he asks."I suppose it's the same reason people buy Barbara Cartland's books.
"It's also two people at work and where do you meet people?" he shrugs, relaxing at last. "We are all actors and in the industry you become friends.
"The whole thing was brought up in a conversation with a friend of mine the other day.
"They said: 'Your name has become synonymous with adultery.' It is a terrible, terrible thing to be associated with. I haven't had that many girlfriends, Christ almighty. It's just people's perspective of me. There comes a time when I have to say - I'm just not like that.
"I'm not a cheeky charmer in real life. I wouldn't say I was shy but I am not like that and I'm not great at chatting up women."
Neil actually comes across as an extremely likeable and friendly happy-go-lucky chap.
He says: "I don't get out a lot. I'm happiest at home watching telly with a Chinese takeaway.
"That's our evenings, most of our evenings, and I like it like that."
Neil, who in June will star in the new BBC drama serial Paradise Heights - along with The Royle Family's Ralf Little and Where The Heart Is star Pam Ferris - seems genuinely content with Georgina, who he calls Georgie.
"We have just had a nice break for her 30th birthday in Paris," he says. "It's a great relationship. But she doesn't like me talking about it. For anyone suddenly put in the spotlight it's difficult.
"We live together," he said, before adding, strangely "at the moment."
I ask if, as he approaches his 40th birthday, he is at last ready to settle down with Georgina.
"This is crass questioning," he scornfully insists. "How do I know if we are going to settle down? We are fairly settled - any more settled and we'd be on our backs." It's no wonder he's touchy about relationships after a string of failed romances.
He was divorced from actress Amanda Noar after three years together but they have a son Tom, soon to be 13, who he obviously dotes on. The marriage ended when Neil fell for his co-star in ITV's Boon, Liz Carling, now best known for TV's Goodnight Sweetheart. They were engaged for a time but split, and then Neil began dating another colleague, movie star Rachel Weisz, who he met while filming the TV drama My Summer With Des.
That lasted two years before Mummy star Rachel's Hollywood career tore them apart and he embarked on the ill-fated affair with Amanda.
Ask him about how he met Georgie, who works on Channel 4's V Graham Norton, and the jovial Neil is back. "We met years ago. She was working on the Patrick Keilty show in Belfast and I was on my way to Donegal because a mate of mine has a hotel there. I did the show, met Georgie and the next day when I went to the cashpoint - there was Georgie.
"I said: 'Come to Donegal' and that's how we became friends. She became an honorary bloke for the weekend. She's a good substitute lad."
The other subject that brings the endearing grin back to his face is son Tom. "He's a fantastic lad," he beams. "Nearly as tall as me and does really well at school.
"Just as cheeky as any 13-year-old should be. He's a good man.
"He doesn't appear to be brewing any major teen problems, but God he's interested in girls.
"He sort of talks to me about it. 'What do you think of Britney Spears dad?' 'She's cool, son'.
"I think he thinks I am fairly cool at the moment, but I don't suppose he goes around school bragging that his dad was Number 1 with Bob The Builder."
Neil is, of course, very big with the under-fives for lending his voice to cartoon character Bob and scoring a No.1 chart hit with Can We Fix It?
He laughs. "Some parents frighten their small children by introducing me as Bob. 'Please don't do that,' I tell them. I don't have a hard hat and dungarees but I do sound like him. It confuses them and they get freaked out by it."
Neil has come a long way from when he was a mischievous 10-year-old who, along with his brother Stephen, got caught pilfering.
They were sent to separate children's homes for seven years away from their Irish-born mum May, dad Larry and brothers Danny and John.
They said good-bye to their parents, both psychiatric nurses, in a courtroom in Stoke-on-Trent, where they grew up. Steve was taken away in one car and Neil in another.
Neil emerged seemingly unscarred. He moved to London and won a place at London's Guildhall drama college.
After toughing it out as a jobbing actor and a stand-up comic, he got his first big break in 1986 as biker Rocky in Boon, as well as a small role in the Hollywood movie Mutiny On The Bounty.
Then he became a household name as hapless Tony in Men Behaving Badly, which is now set to be revived.
His brother Stephen, though, developed schizophrenia after surviving a motorcycle crash in his early twenties.
He died alone in his flat in 1997 after a lifetime of drink and drug addiction.
Neil's dad died of a heart attack on a golf course in Cyprus just three months later.
Surviving the double blow was perhaps Neil's toughest time, but somehow he manages to find the bright side of life.
"It does make you do other things. You think life is too short so I will go and spend more time with mum and I will write that script.
"With my brother I asked myself: 'Why wasn't I in touch with him for such a long time?
"I saw him a few times when I was a student - then he had a bad motorbike accident and was ill, and then he became mentally ill. There was nothing anyone could do to help him. It was one of those tragedies.
"He's at peace now. On his birthday all the family go and bury a can of beer next to him."
In times of trouble, Neil has always had a trusty gang of male friends to turn to.
"We have a pint, a game of footie and a few cans," he concedes before insisting his wild days of alcohol- fuelled nights out are over.
"The other day we were watching the football and laughing at ourselves because we were having a discussion at half-time having a cup of tea - a couple of us with herbal tea.
"It used to be one big session but we are kind of over that now.
"Ten years previous we would have been having a shot of vodka at half- time. I don't like hangovers. I've had enough of them to know."
It is his 40th birthday on July 4, a fact that doesn't particularly seem to bother him.
"Everyone is making a big deal about it and I suppose it is scary to think that half my life has gone," he admits.
But ever the optimist, he still can't help grinning.
"I'm lucky," he says. "The older I get the better life gets. I guess that I can hardly complain."
Picture: DAVID POOLE; FLING: With Amanda Holden; TORN APART: With Rachel Weisz; LIVE-IN LOVE: With Georgina…