For children of the 70s and 80s the present cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is full of more blasts from the past than a documentary about the Big Bang. Currently driving us down memory lane in our fine-four-fendered friend are three huge stars from the golden age of variety and kids' TV: Gary Wilmot (playing Caracatus Potts), Lionel Blair (playing the dagger-nosed Childcatcher) and, most thrillingly of all, the estimable Christopher Biggins (Baron Bomburst). Tom Bowtell caught up Mr Biggins to chat about the show and was very shocked when he swore.
Christopher Biggins, whose CV stretches to about 11 sides of A4 and includes everything from appearances with the RSC to cameos in Bad Girls, is still gurgling with delight at his involvement with Chitty: “I don’t think I’ve been so excited for a long long time in my career. I’m loving it. The first exciting thing is to be appearing at the London Palladium, I mean if you think that just over there – [Christopher points over there] – Judy Garland dangled her legs in the orchestra pit and sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I mean it’s magical. Added to which it’s a fantastic show and I’m doing it with the most fantastic actress Louise Gold who’s playing my Baroness – we’re like an old married couple. It’s fantastic.” Christopher says fantastic about as often as most people blink, yet one genuinely feels he means it every time.
While Biggins has done just about everything in his career short of becoming Prime Minister (give him time), this is the first time he has appeared in a major West End musical: “I’ve done Joseph and I’ve done the musical of Vanity Fair and I did Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and obviously I’m always warbling away in Pantos, but this is my first West End biggie.” And what a biggie it is: “I think Chitty has captured the essence of what children want: everything is bigger, everything is better and everything is colourful. When the car appears there’s a real shiver around the audience and when it flies kids must be f***ing amazed!”
"When the car flies, kids must be f***ing amazed!"
As well as having done everything, Biggins also knows everyone and is renowned for his social forays – “Oh I’d go to the opening of an envelope”. It is thus no surprise that he has close personal links to Chitty: “I’m a huge fan of the film and Truly Scrumptious was played by Sally Ann Howes, a wonderful friend of mine who’s a fantastic actress.” Biggins clearly has a thing for scrumptiousness because he has even closer ties with the current incumbent of the stage role. “Yes, Scarlett Strallen, who is my god-daughter and Bonnie Langford’s niece is playing the part here – and her sister Summer is also in the show as a dancer and understudy for Scarlett, so we are one big happy family!”
The Happy Family atmosphere of the show is something that Biggins talks about a lot, it is clearly something that, consciously or not, he brings to most projects he is involved in. He is also very aware of Chitty’s current status as a home for the icons of the eighties and nineties – stars of the recent past to have appeared at the Palladium include Russ Abbott, Wayne Sleep, Michael Ball, Lionel Blair, Jason Donovan and Gary Wilmot. “It’s rather nice, isn’t it? Television went through this period of dropping people who were over a certain age and the theatre has now enveloped them back into the fold. And now I see that they're coming back on TV as well – Angela Rippon is being brought back to read the news.” His jovial tone darkens for a moment: “I think they thought ‘oh let’s get rid of the old people’ and then realised that the younger people weren’t as good as they thought!” So with yesterday’s men on the comeback trail, only a fool would rule out a TV return for On Safari…
Ah yes. Children’s TV. It had to make an appearance at some point: does Christopher get annoyed by being known as The Daddy of Kids' TV when he has done so much more than that during the course of his career? “Not really, no. I’ll tell you what I always wanted when I started out as an actor; and that was to be known as myself as an actor, and not because of some character I have played. So what I get now, which is fantastic, is people shouting ‘hi Biggins how are you?’ The public is very friendly and I love that. And it’s not just the kids stuff they remember me for: suddenly after 25 years a complete stranger will come up to me and say ‘I think your Ossie Whitworth in Poldark was fantastic’ and you think ‘oh God! After all these years! I’ve been remembered! Great!’ It makes it all worthwhile.” Biggins considers that appearance in the Poldark saga, along with his performance as Nero in I, Claudius, to be the highlight of his career.
"Rentaghost was probably the most happy TV experience I've had"
Having established that Biggins doesn’t mind too much to be quizzed on his kids’ television background, I delve deeper for some details about Rentaghost, the long-running children’s comedy series which provided many children (myself included) with their first brush with surrealism: “Rentaghost was probably the most happy TV experience I’ve had – it was just a riot. It was all due to the most brilliant director-producer – a mad Irishman called Jeremy Swan, and it was he who instigated all the completely insane stuff like the pantomime horse. We used to cry with laughter.” Unprompted, but right on cue, Biggins lets rip with a wind-passing story: “I remember Sue Nichols and I were in a scene and we were standing at the back and I passed wind and we just lost it and started guffawing, so we thought they were bound to go back over the scene so she signalled a T to her dresser to get us a cup of tea, and then at the end of the scene they said ‘right, on to the next one’ and I said ‘no! we’ve got to do it again – I farted and she had tea!’ but the director Jeremy said [Biggins segues into a broad Irish accent] ‘no! Let the public see what amateurs you are!”
Christopher’s other most famous television role is in On Safari, giving a television debut for to the young Gillian Taylforth (“she’s gone on to be a fantastic actress”) and patenting the phrase “Safari so goody!” Was the phrase a Bigginsian invention? Or was it scripted for him? “Tony McLaren [the producer] and I were talking about the show and I came up with Safari So Goody, and it sort of stuck. It’s been fantastic really. I’ve always had convertible cars and lorry drivers always yell to me ‘Safari So Goody’ when I stop at traffic lights.”
As well as being the self-styled Godfather of Kids TV (and the real life Godfather of Scarlett Strallen) Christopher Biggins is also renowned for being the überdame of British pantomime, an art form of which he is fiercely defensive. “I get very angry when people poo poo pantomime. It’s very important because people come for the first time ever to the theatre to watch panto. And if they enjoy it then they’ll hopefully come to next year’s show, but more importantly, they’ll start coming to other shows at the theatre. But if they see a bad pantomime or a bad show then that will just kill them off.” Biggins is pleased to see Pantomime returning to a major London theatre this winter in the form of Aladdin at the Old Vic, and has the following advice for the panto-virgin Sir Ian McKellen, who is playing Widow Twanky: “Ian will be a wonderful dame. The secret of being a great dame is for everyone to love you! As a dame I am everybody’s favourite auntie, favourite mother, sister, godmother, anything you like and that’s how it should be. He can be a bit saucy about it as well, which will be interesting.”
"I get very angry when people poo-poo pantomime"
Another, rather less traditional, dame played by Christopher Biggins is Queen Victoria. He snorts at the memory of this part: “Jonathan Meades – who is this fantastic, wonderful film-maker, did this thing on BBC 2 on Victoriana in which I did indeed play Victoria and it was hysterical! I was sniffing cocaine and doing all sorts of things. We had such fun doing that.”
The fact that he has played such a wide range of bizarre roles on stage and screen reveals, in microcosm, the extraordinary scope of Biggins’ career. It is clear that despite the fallow periods he has undergone, it is something of which he is rightly, extremely proud. “Do you know, here I am, I’ve been in the business for some 38 years and I’m still paying the mortgage and I sometimes I look back on what I’ve done and it’s terribly exciting – and I’m still going! I’ve had a wonderful career and met wonderful people and if you can say that you can’t complain too much.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is currently booking at the London Palladium until March 2005, and Christopher Biggins is set to appear in the show at least until the New Year.