Christopher Biggins, already the favourite to win this year's Celebrity Big Brother is best known as a media personality and pantomime favourite. But what a lot of people don't know is that Biggins was once a successful Shakespearean actor. And to celebrate that achievement he is one of the sitters in a new exhibition The Shakespeareans: Portraits in Paint and Words by writer Laura-Jane Foley and artist Janet Lance Hughes opening at The Club at the Ivy on August 12th 2016. The exhibition displays written portraits next to visual portraits so that the viewer obtains a fuller sense of the sitter than is usually obtained through word or image alone.
And for those who can't get to the exhibition, here's a sneak peek at Biggins' portraits - in words and paint.
(Image by Janet Lance Hughes)
"Have more than thou showest, Speak less than thou knowest".
(Fool, King Lear)
It's hard not to like Christopher Biggins. I've met him several times over the years and he always greets you like a long lost friend. His face breaks into a wide smile at the slightest provocation, even his resting face is jovial. He's warm, friendly and whilst he enjoys a good gossip, holds more secrets than the secret services. He's trusted and kind. When we meet, he is currently in the fun, but time-consuming, process of assembling 70 gifts for a close friend's 70th birthday; every inch of his dining table is covered with trinkets.
Biggins lives in a modern townhouse in East London. Although he's lived here for over 30 years, the house is very well-kept and has been recently updated. The sitting takes place in his kitchen: sleek and white, with stylish appliances, what looks like a fitted in microwave is actually a television. Throughout the house, art lines the walls. He started collecting about 50 years ago and he has an eclectic taste: "the one thing we don't need is wallpaper - because you wouldn't see it," he chuckles.
Christopher Biggins likes to be called Biggins. Whilst his partner and close friends call him Chris, he likes the affection with which people use his surname: "everyone calls me Biggins. My agent thought about making it official a few years ago and changing my name by deed poll, but of course I didn't. It's my name anyway." Interviewing Biggins is an easy task, as he admits "I love talking" and he has a lot of stories from a career in showbusiness that stretches back over 50 years.
Biggins grew up in Salisbury and left school at 16, "I went to Salisbury Rep and I went for one play and I stayed for two years. I started off as a student Assistant Stage Manager then progressed. It was the actress Stephanie Cole who said I must go to drama school and she suggested I went to Bristol." Biggins thrived at Bristol. It was the first time he'd ever mixed with his own age group. He'd been the youngest at Salisbury Rep and he'd grown up close to his parents: "I was an only child until I left home at 18 when my mother announced she was pregnant! But we never grew up together so my brother's a friend really."
Biggin's first encounter with Shakespeare was at school but his first stage role came at Salisbury Rep when he performed in Romeo and Juliet, "I played Potpan - which is very rarely done, a little character that's usually cut. Funnily, I went on to do a television film of Romeo and Juliet and I played the same part." Later, Biggins played Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, "it was great casting because it was so against type because usually Puck is played by a small person and I played it and I had a huge success with it, I'm pleased to say." He also played Stephano in The Tempest, a role he also reprised in a later film version. Biggins has also directed Shakespeare. He directed the retired ice skater John Curry in another production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre: "I loved doing it. I really did, it was fantastic."
"The king doth keep his revels here to-night: Take heed the queen come not within his sight."
(Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream)
Biggins tells a slightly risqué story about the time the Queen visited the Open Air Theatre to commemorate its 50th anniversary, "a few of us were allotted places to meet the Queen and I was allotted the dressing room, which was very small. There was no room for Prince Philip to come in so he stood in the doorway and the Queen came in and was introduced to me, this is Christopher Biggins and he's playing Puck and she said, 'how lovely' and then I showed her my costumes and she said 'how lovely, I've just seen Tittyana's.' I didn't say a thing!"
Biggins has no desire to return to Shakespeare, "the last Shakespeare I did was in the 90s. I wouldn't care if I never saw another Shakespeare ever again because I've been there, done that got the t-shirt. I've starred in them, I've directed them I've done everything and I loved it." Recently, Biggins nearly did sign up to see another Shakespeare play though - the rarely performed Pericles, "I was having a coffee recently and spotted a friend, he said he was doing Pericles in the West End, 'in the West End?' and he said 'yes at the Palace Theatre'. The Palace Theatre's doing Pericles? I was absolutely stunned. And then, another friend came in and I said, 'what are you doing?' and he said 'well, we have to tell everyone it's Pericles, but it's Harry Potter!'" Biggins was relieved, because in true generous Biggins style, he'd promised to go and see it, "I was thinking, 'oh my God, I'll have to sit through Pericles!' I don't mind Harry Potter!"
"With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come."
(Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice)
(Biggins with Janet at the sitting)
The Shakespeareans: Portraits in Paint and Words
From Friday 12 August to Friday 19 August.
At The Club at the Ivy, 9 West Street, London, WC2H 9NE