Christopher Biggins has been a mainstay of British entertainment for nearly five decades. Best known for his penchant for playing pantomime dames, his career hit the headlines in 2007 after he emerged victorious from the I’m A Celebrity… jungle.
He has been able to use his celebrity status for a number of worthy causes, including raising funds for Irish children’s charity Hope, and launching a hybrid tea rose called Olivia to benefit the Claire House charity.
How did you get into theatre?
I went to a private school in Salisbury and my great aunt insisted that I have elocution lessons, as all my family talked with a Wiltshire burr. My elocution mistress, Mrs Christian, saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue acting. It was she who first got me interested in the theatre and I was thrilled.
What was your first big break?
I suppose it was when I got a part in Porridge on television, which I did for about two years. I’d done lots of theatre before that, and had been to drama school, but Porridge was really my big break. It was marvellous. Ronnie Barker was a fantastic comedy actor and very generous; if he felt a line might be better said by somebody else, he would give the line to them.
Which actor, other than yourself, have you wanted to be and why?
Laurence Olivier. He was a great classic actor, but also a wonderfully camp performer – and he was very theatrical. He was just brilliant. I remember watching him doing lots of theatre at the Old Vic when he ran it. I saw him do some fantastic performances throughout that period. His Othello really stood out for me, it was really brilliant.
What’s been the biggest highlight of your career?
Winning I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here in 2007! Doing the show was a fantastic experience, but unbelievably tough. I loved every moment and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But I would never do it again!
Do you enjoy watching reality TV?
I used to like it but now I’m bored of it. It’s not going anywhere. I do still think I’m a Celebrity… is the best, without question. It’s simply a fantastic show. I’ve certainly never been tempted by Big Brother, especially after the last series, which was just ghastly.
What’s your favourite charitable cause?
It’s difficult to say, as I have so many. I do a lot of work for charity and enjoy it enormously. I have five or six main charities that I work for and also do things for friends. My involvement with Hope, an Irish charity that looks after children in Calcutta, is very important to me. I’ve done lots of fundraising for them: I’ve been over to India twice, and go to speak at ladies luncheons in Ireland and the UK. It will always remain one of my top charities.
You’ve become a mainstay of the pantomime circuit. What is it about panto that you find so appealing?
It’s just a fantastic form of entertainment. My feeling is that if people have enjoyed a panto they’ve seen me in, more often than not they will book for next year’s panto too, and perhaps even for shows in between. So we’re a breeding ground for theatre.
Does it irritate you when people pooh-pooh panto?
Yes, but they don’t do it so much now. Panto’s become rather chic, with people like Ian McKellan and Simon Callow doing it. That’s good news. And nowadays, of course, we’ll put on a production that is like a full-scale West End musical with dancers, singers, fantastic sets and wonderful costumes. People can say what they like, but I am very pro-pantomime and will always love it.
You’ve described declaring bankruptcy in the mid-nineties as “the best thing that ever happened to me”. How so?
Well, it made me much more aware of money. I’d got carried away and was just spending money. I didn’t understand what it was like to be an actor out of work but, when I was declared bankrupt, it made me much more aware of money and I cleared my debt within the year. I now have about six different accounts – a VAT account, an account for the taxman, an account for my own money, and this and that. So I get everything sorted out. Once you’ve been declared bankrupt, you’re only allowed to have one credit card. Now, as soon as my bill arrives, I pay it on day one.
Christopher Biggins plays Mrs Smee in Peter Pan at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea from 13 December 2014 to 11 January 2015. Tickets can be booked online.