You’ve been a supporter of Make-A-Wish Foundation since 1989. How did that come about?
It was weird because I got a phone call from this charity, Make-A-Wish, and they said there was a kid they were looking after who wanted to ride an appaloosa horse along the beach with me, and I was a bit confused by it all. But then I found out all about their work, and I tell you, I’ve never loved a charity so much in my whole life. With these kids with life-threatening illnesses, it’s not really one of those charities you can publicise or push. Make-A-Wish isn’t a cure, it’s escapism for kids from the traumas of hospital treatment and everything else. You get kids saying they want to drive a chieftain tank or go on a TV show, and that one day is something so special for that kid and that family that they will talk about it for the rest of their lives, even if the young one’s not around, do you know what I mean? But it just means so much to me. I fully endorse them and I’ve been doing it for so long because they are so genuine in what they do.
In 2011 the charity celebrated its 25th anniversary with a ‘Pass the Parcel’ event, setting a World Record for the biggest ever pass the parcel. What stood out for you about that experience?
It’s just a nice novel idea isn’t it, do you know what I mean? When they said they were going to do a pass the parcel thing that’s going around the country, I thought that’s not going to work! But that’s the great thing about them – they’ll push back the boundaries and have a go. But I think it’s the novelty of it all, and it’s nice that we’ve broken a world record.
How else did you help the charity celebrate their anniversary?
Make-A-Wish have loads of volunteers and I can’t tell you how enthusiastic they are and I do get to meet them as I travel all up and down the country, here there and everywhere. They brought all their volunteers down to Oxfordshire and asked if I could surprise them, so I did, and I basically got ‘em up playing games and the like. It was basically to say thank you for their enthusiasm and hard work, because sometimes people don’t appreciate that it’s not the easiest job in the world.
You became a household name in 1976 on Swap Shop, and previously had roles as a child actor. Did your parents encourage you to go into showbiz?
When I was a kid I used to annoy my family by doing Des O’ Connor impressions from behind the sofa, dancing with a straw hat and a cane, and they used to think it was it was a bit of a joke. But then we went on a family holiday to Rhyl in North Wales and went to an end of pier show. Halfway through the show a guy said “Right we’re having a little talent competition, can anybody here sing, dance, do impressions, play the drums?” and I ran down the aisle, got up on stage and did a Des O’ Connor number, and won the talent competition! So it sprang from there, really. The great thing is my parents never encouraged it, but they never discouraged it either.
What was it like working with Ricky Gervais on Extras?
A comedy nightmare. Because he just makes you laugh all the time. A lot of comics keep all the best gags for themselves because they want to make themselves look good, and he’s totally the opposite. One of the other things about Ricky is that when he writes something, he’s so unbelievable, that he gets away with it. People are always surprised that he’s got Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson doing all these things, but the reason they do it is because his writing skills are second-to-none. Whereas some of the other scripts, which are like ‘let’s take the mickey out of Keith Chegwin’ are fine, but they’re not clever! You can see why Ricky gets all these big names because what he’s writing for them is so grossly unbelievable that they’ll do it. The biggest compliment of all was when he phoned me up and said would I do Life’s Too Short as well.
You could perhaps be described as the unstoppable juggernaut of daytime TV. Do you see yourself ever retiring from show business?
I don’t think people like us retire do they? We just keep going, until nobody uses us. But I’ve always wanted to go round the world so maybe when I’m 65, I might do that.
You can support the work of Make a Wish Foundation by making a donation to them via their Charity Choice page, or if you'd like to fundraise for them sign up as a fundraiser here!