Devon Radio Presenter Judi Spiers Interviews 'I Claudius' Actor Christopher Biggins
PUBLISHED: 21:47 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 February 2013
Judi discovers how Christopher Biggins got the part of Nero in the iconic I, Claudius on the strength of a lager commercial <br/><br/>"I was dressed in raw silk, and every day I was in the studio they used to put fresh flowers...
Judi discovers how Christopher Biggins got the part of Nero in the iconic I, Claudius on the strength of a lager commercial
"I was dressed in raw silk, and every day I was in the studio they used to put fresh flowers in my hair." This was the wonderful Christopher Biggins talking about his performance as Nero in the groundbreaking I, Claudius. People often underestimate 'Biggins' - as almost everybody calls him - as an actor. He's renowned for his social forays and once declared, "Oh, I'd go to the opening of an envelope." It's very easy to think of him escorting beautiful and famous women, notably Joan Collins, to celebrity events and careering around a pantomime stage in drag. It's when you remind people of his performance in I, Claudius and his portrayal of the odious vicar Ossie Whitworth in Poldark, that a long-forgotten respect laces their 'Oh, yes!'
Actually I don't know what I'm getting hot under the collar about; it doesn't seem to bother Biggins, as he told me recently when he was in the Westcountry again, in the Rocky Horror Show.
"D'you know, the only thing that I ever thought was that I would like to be known as Christopher Biggins, and I succeeded in a way because people are very nice. I can remember sitting at the traffic lights and a lorry driver looking down at me and saying, 'Hello, Biggins. How are you?' and I love that. I love the fact that I'm known as myself, which is great."
Biggins is a rare breed in the industry. He knows a lot of people intimately, but never betrays confidences or behaves in a high-handed manner, which is presumably why so many of the great and the good count him as a friend. He puts it down to training.
"I was in Salisbury rep 30-odd years ago, and I was told to call people by their surnames - it was very strict in those days. I was working with people like Stephanie Cole and Robin Ellis, and those people were terrific to learn from, but I think, sadly, as an actor those days have gone now. You can't go in as a very lowly student ASM and learn like you used to be able to."
Biggins also has a very strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility in what he does.
"I've been very lucky. I enjoy what I do. I've had the most fantastic career. Of course there have been ups and downs, as in any career, but on the whole it has been wonderful. As you know, I was also in the movie of the Rocky Horror Show, playing one of the Transylvanians, which was a hoot. We did that for ten weeks, I got 100 a week, and I bought a sofa bed at the end of it. That's showbiz."
Plenty of those primarily thought of as comedy actors become po-faced and incredibly precious when talking about a serious part they have had. Not Biggins. Did he really get the part of Nero because of a commercial he'd done?
"Yes! I did a commercial for Heineken lager, and I was Nero at the Games. One guy is holding a fork at this man's neck and looking up at me. Should he kill him or not? My thumb is on the pedestal and it won't move either way so they call for Heineken lager. I take a sip and suddenly the thumb goes up. I walk down and then the thumb goes down and that was the end of the commercial.
"It was the most expensive commercial ever made at the time, directed by a man called Bob Brooks. It was brilliant. Everybody said it was going to win award after award. It was gonna run, run, run! They took it off the air within a week because they said you couldn't advertise lager on the death of Christians. No one thought to do an alternative ending where the thumb stayed up!"
He's equally amused when recalling the effect his Ossie Whitworth had on one particular theatregoer's wife.
"I was doing pantomime in Darlington after the series had come out, where I played this sex-crazed vicar, and I came back to my hotel and got into bed, and the porter rang and said, 'Mr Biggins, there are some fans of yours down here. Would you come down and meet them?' I was young and I thought, fans, oh how lovely, so I got out of bed and dressed and came down and I signed these things. Then this man came over and said, 'That's my wife over there,' so I carried on signing away, and he said, 'Room 27'.
"I thought no, no, misheard that. So I continued signing autographs, and he repeated 'That's my wife over there, room 27'.
"I was so young and nave and I thought, no I can't go. To this day I wish I'd gone to room 27, but I never did!"
Then, there's the legendary name-dropping, or 'name-checking' as I prefer to call it. Well, how interesting would a story be about an elderly lady asking you to dinner with some other elderly people for a 97th birthday celebration? But when the 'elderly lady' turns out to be Bette Davis and the birthday party is for George Burns, and seated around the table are Shakira Caine, Syd Lawrence, Frank Sinatra and Dan Ackroyd, and Mr Sinatra says, "Christopher, call me Frank," well, then it all takes on another dimension. He finished the story in peals of very infectious laughter.
"I said 'Frank, about eight years ago in London I played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls,' and he said, 'D'you know, Christopher, so did I.' So I thought this is it, I can die now and go to heaven."
Dan Ackroyd settled on a less permanent solution. "Pinch yourself, Biggins, you don't often get an evening like this."
The lovely thing is that Biggins is still pinching himself.