Christopher Biggins isn’t Lukewarm about career highlights as he prepares to make Edinburgh Fringe debut

Christopher Biggins
Christopher Biggins

If you fancy sitting down for a nice chat, there are few people more interesting than Christopher Biggins.

Having enjoyed a colourful career that surprises even himself when he looks back on it, he has plenty of wonderful anecdotes and memories.

And, with a strong opinion on everything and as a celebrity who is as adored by today’s kids as previous generations, he’s definitely worth listening to.

“What we’re going to do is essentially a chat show,” says Christopher of his Late Lunch With Biggins show, his Edinburgh Fringe debut.

“I’ll do a little sort of opening and then I’ll have two different people from the festival on each show plus a local, perhaps the provost, or a piper, and at the end of the show we’ll have a competition and somebody will go away with a bottle of whisky.

“My partner is from Greenock, too, so I love Scotland. When I went to the Edinburgh Festival last year, somebody said I should do something there, and when I mentioned a chat show everything billowed from that.”

It seems almost surreal now to remember that this man was a proper, serious, heavyweight actor in his early days.

Christopher was fantastic as Nero in I, Claudius, a 1976 BBC TV series that captured Ancient Roman times via the writing of Robert Graves.

With Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Patrick Stewart and others, it was gripping, serious stuff.

How on Earth did he get from that to the outrageous, outspoken star turn he is today, and which Christopher Biggins does he prefer?

“I started off as an actor!” he laughs. “I did things like I, Claudius, Poldark playing the sex-crazed vicar, lots of things like that.”

He was also, of course, Lukewarm in Porridge, while Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads and countless other British TV staples have also featured Biggins in a wide variety of roles.

“When I did Porridge, it gave me a name and people used to call me Lukewarm the Cook. Suddenly, because of that, I was able to develop a personality.

“But I remember when I was asked to do my first pantomime, I was absolutely amazed. Funnily enough, I was quite insulted! The reason for that was because every pantomime dame I had seen was in their 60s.

“They were much older but suddenly here they were, asking a 24-year-old to do pantomime, and I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’

“These people kept asking and asking and asking, until eventually they mentioned money.

“This was in Darlington, at the Civic Theatre, and they told me it would be a thousand pounds a week.

“I couldn’t believe it. Tickets were one-and-six! So I thought, well, I’d better do it. Of course, once I did it I loved it. I absolutely loved it and I have been doing it ever since.

“Some people were snobby about it back then but nowadays everybody’s doing it. It is hugely popular. In fact, it’s never been so popular. Ian McKellen’s done it, Simon Callow’s done it, and that’s been fantastic.

“It was the same when I was asked to do my first TV show for children, I was insulted. I told them I don’t do that, I’m an actor.

“But they also persevered and once again money was mentioned and I thought I had better do it.

“So I did it, too, and of course I loved it, too. I did Rentaghost, which was really fantastic and I loved doing it.

“I have been very, very lucky in the things I’ve done and I have had a very varied career.

“Sometimes I have to check my biography and I am amazed! It looks fantastic. Mind you, I am old, I’m 70 now.

“I am proud of the fact that I am still here, still doing things 54 years after I started in the business.”

What if someone approached him now, tried to pluck him from his light entertainment and celebrity stuff, and tried to get him to do some really heavyweight intellectual work again?

Would it be too weird, too much of a gigantic leap back to his serious acting days?

“I think it would,” he admits. “I’ll tell you something that I really loathe doing now – learning lines. I find that very tricky.

“I love improvising and doing things without thinking, and that’s what I like to do now. My favourite toy is the Autocue.”

What does he remember most fondly from such a career?

“This may surprise you but the greatest thing for me was winning I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!,” he admits. He won in 2007.

“It was an extraordinary feat to actually do that. You have no idea of how you are being perceived or how you are doing, because you are locked away in a jungle, living a jungle life with no TVs in luxury hotels.

“Every day, when Ant and Dec come in, you’re on the edge of your log, thinking it’s going to be you that’s being evicted.

“I managed to get through to the last two with the awful Janice Dickinson, that terrible American model,” he recalls of the lady he didn’t get on with terribly well.

“When I was sitting there with her, I was convinced that she had won. To this day, I can still remember thinking ‘Oh, well, I’ve got this far.’

“When they mentioned my name, I was unbelievably shocked. Not as shocked, however, as she was. She was furious!

“What was I then? Sixty? A 60-year-old gay man, to win I’m A Celebrity! To have the love and affection of the country, that was astounding.

“Do you know, I’m still living off it to this day. People still come up and say, ‘Oh, we loved you in the jungle, I voted for you!’”

Clearly shocked to find himself a winner, Christopher believes getting so many votes demonstrated something about today’s younger generation.

They don’t judge anyone, but simply go with the person they actually like and enjoy watching and listening to.

“I think they know what they like and what they don’t like,” he says, “and I think that’s good. I find the change in people now is quite huge.

“But we’ve seen the best and I wouldn’t want to be a young actor now because it is very difficult.

“We’ve had marvellous actors who are brilliant but have done nothing – it’s nothing to do with talent, it’s to do with being in the right place at the right time.”

He was certainly in the right place at the right time when he did The Celebrity Chase.

Clever clogs that he is, Christopher became the first person ever to answer all six questions correctly while going for the higher offer.

“That was wonderful,” he laughs. “Then again, I was also on Tenable and was appalling, disgustingly bad!”

Late Lunch With Biggins will be at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Dome through August, at 2.40pm, prices £9-£15