Christopher Biggins is a familiar face to TV viewers and pantomime audiences across the land. Phil Penfold chatted to him.
Despite the fact that he has been entertaining people for well over half a century and that he’s one of the most instantly recognisable faces in show business, Christopher Biggins has a rather surprising one word answer to offer when he’s asked what advice he gives to would-be performers. “Don’t”.
He explains: “I really don’t want to throw a bucket of cold water over all those hopes, dreams and aspirations, but I honestly believe that the profession is overcrowded. There are just too many people going for too few jobs. So hundreds, thousands, of them are going to be deeply disappointed. OK, you are knocked back from one audition, and you shrug it off, and you go for the next… and you are rejected again. And again. And again. That’s a terrible blow to your ego, your belief in your abilities, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you be better doing something else?
“But I do also say to them that if they feel they must go for it, that it is within their bones, and that they have patience and confidence, then maybe, just maybe, they will get the break that they deserve.
“I’m very saddened by all the youngsters who think that they’ve made it just because they’ve appeared on a reality TV show – they are around for maybe a year after it, and then they just slowly fade from view. The perfect example of what Andy Warhol once said – that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame!”
We are talking in a snug corner of the lobby at Bradford’s Midland Hotel. But Biggins’ infectious guffaws – it would be an insult to the joyous noise to call it a mere laugh – echo around the space and he is hailed with great affection by complete strangers.
The world and his missus know Christopher Biggins and he’ll be up the road pretty soon in the Bradford Alhambra’s latest pantomime, Aladdin, in which he’ll be playing Widow Twankey opposite the Alhambra’s panto king, Billy Pearce. This will be the first time that the two have shared a stage and both are looking forward to it. As are the audiences – advance bookings are, apparently, going along nicely.
Biggins’ conversation is peppered with reminiscences, observations and compelling honesty. And if laughter is indeed the best medicine, then Biggins is a great advert. Though before he returns to Bradford he tells me he’s going to recharge his batteries.
“I’m off to a German health spa to see what they can offer by way of therapies and if they can get these old bones working again.”
Biggins was born in Oldham (and is very proud of the fact) but his family moved south to Salisbury only a few weeks later. His mum did hotel work, and his father was a mechanic, and they lived for while in a caravan in the hotel car park.
This has given him a life-long aversion to both cotton wool and caravans. “I can’t stand either of them”, he says with a shudder.
“Why anyone would find any joy staying in a metal box and doing all your own cooking and catering beats me. Although one late actor friend did own a proper Winnebago and drove to wherever he was playing around the county – parking outside wherever he could and running a supply cable into his vehicle from the theatre itself. That’s what I call chutzpah. Give me a hotel every time. Comfort, and everything you need right there. My idea of sheer hell would be a caravan holiday.”
He isn’t, however, immune to sadness. His mother, who encouraged her son to indulge in his passion for performance, died only a few months back. “It was a release in so many ways”, says Biggins quietly. “She had dementia, and for a long, long time, she didn’t know who on earth my brother and I were. But I went to visit her – it turned out for the final time – and I sat by her bed for maybe three hours. She just lay there, with her eyes closed. And I quietly got up to go, gave her a kiss, and I said quietly ‘I don’t know if you can even see me’. And a little voice from the bed said ‘Of course I can see you, you’re so bloody large!’ Those were, honestly, her last words, bless her. At the funeral, when I gave the eulogy, I told that story and it got a huge laugh. She would have loved that, she really would. You should celebrate a good life, not be miserable about it, I think”.
He agrees that one of the saddest things that we all have to endure as we grow older is the loss of some very good friends and family members. “You realise that, as the years pass, your circle is slowly diminishing.”
He laments, too, the dearth of eccentric characters. “Where are people like Kenneth Williams, Irene Handl and Dora Bryan? I love the story of Dora – who lived in Brighton – going into a local phone shop with her new mobile and complaining bitterly that she couldn’t get the thing to work properly. The salesman looked at her, shook his head, and said ‘That’s because, Madam, you have brought in your TV remote control.’”
Biggins first started playing pantomime dames when he was just 24. “It was Mother Goose, at Darlington, in the old Civic, and I was insulted. I said ‘Dame? At my age? Dames should be at least 60 years old. But then I saw that they were offering me £1,000 a week and I quietly gave in. That was back in the days when a seat in some parts of the auditorium was about 15p. I never could work out the maths of how they made the show pay for itself!” He believes firmly that “audiences north of Watford are the best ones to play to – they’ve come out to have fun, and to have a right good time. South of Watford they sit on their hands more and the attitude is ‘Go on, we’ve paid good money, make us laugh’”.
He made his name with roles in TV series such as I, Claudius, Poldark and Porridge, but says he doesn’t want to act any more. “I really find it a strain learning a lot of new lines. Ok, if there was a simply stunning role on offer, I might do it – but I have the feeling that it would be with a lot of cue cards held up out of view of the camera!
“Orson Welles always did that. Never learned a line in his life. And these days, you don’t get any preparation at all. There’s no rehearsals, no working things through with your fellow performers. It’s a case of in to the studio and off you go. That’s not the way I work. Pantomime means weeks of rehearsals, getting to know the rest of the cast, making sure that all the routines are well prepared.”
While he’s in Bradford Biggins will celebrate his 70th birthday (on December 16). “I didn’t feel as if I was 50 when that came along”, he says, “Nor 60. And I don’t feel 70 now. No way. At 60, I had a huge dinner party at a London hotel, which was enormous fun. This year, it’ll be two shows on the day, and we’ve got the following day off. So I’ll use that to recover from a mild hangover.” When the Yorkshire audience finds out about the anniversary you suspect they will all join and sing him Happy Birthday. For a moment, Biggins is genuinely touched. “Oh,” he says quietly, “how lovely, how lovely that would be!”
■ Aladdin, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, December 8 – January 20. Box office on: 01274 432000.