■ The actress and singer, 47, on her 30 years in panto, her memories of Sir Ken Dodd and loving her time in Benidorm
You’re currently starring in Sleeping Beauty in Chatham. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you in panto?
I was 17 years old when I did my very first panto and I was principal boy. I remember Ken Dodd was in the audience and he came to see me perform. I had to make a big entrance as Prince Charming and I fell down a whole load of stairs in front of the entire audience, cast and Ken. If that happened now I’d get up and laugh and carry on but back then I honestly thought, ‘That’s my career in show business over!’ But what seems like the end of the world when you’re young fades into insignificance and I’d forgotten all about that spectacular tumble down the stairs until you asked me that question.
What advice did Sir Ken give you afterwards?
I saw him backstage later and I was absolutely traumatised but he was so reassuring. I first met Ken Dodd when I was 14 and he helped me to get gigs on shows. The funniest thing he ever did was tell me to go and get elocution lessons to get rid of my Scouse accent. Weeks later, I landed a part in Brookside for six years and needed that accent!
Was Ken the biggest influence on your career?
He was a massive legend but he always wanted to help. I remember sitting with him at a party several years ago and we were talking about my son. I said that Jaxon was two and had really funny bones. Sir Ken said, ‘If you think he’s funny, send him to me for the day and I’ll teach him all I know,’ and Jason Manford leant over to me and said, ‘In that case, can I chaperone your son?’
You joined a slimming club and won a tin of tomatoes…
That was last year but I didn’t win the tin of tomatoes for weight loss, sadly. I won the raffle and I haven’t been able to go back since. I only went twice because work became so busy but can I say how thrilled I was to win the raffle because I have never won a raffle before. That tin of tomatoes meant a lot to me. I think I did a lap of victory.
Was it hard to sing at your friend Dale Winton’s funeral?
What’s really hard is when your contemporaries start passing away — the people like Dale who have been there forever. It makes you so aware of your own mortality. At least with Kenny [Dodd] he was 90 and had a good innings but Dale was just too young. I sang a Dusty song and a Cilla song at his funeral because he loved both of them. It was really hard to sing at my friend’s funeral but I just had to concentrate and make it about the words of the songs, which meant so much to him, and not about making pretty sounds.
You did a cameo on Benidorm as an airline employee. Have you ever been on holiday there?
I loved it when I was filming there, and I was talking to the partner of Derren Little [the show’s creator] recently and I was saying, ‘What’s the weather like in Benidorm in January? I might take my mum and son back.’ It’s packed in summer but it’s really been overlooked as a holiday destination. Maybe there’s a bit of snobbery there but I bloody loved it!
What was your worst ever foreign job?
When I was 18 I got a job singing at a casino in Portugal and on my last week there, my room got broken into and all my money was stolen. To make matters worse, I went down with chickenpox. I needed money and I was offered cash to sing at the Miss Portugal beauty contest in Vilamoura. The only problem was, I didn’t realise it was being televised on Portuguese TV and when I appeared on camera, I had a face covered with blisters and I had to stand and sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow as if nothing was wrong. I arrived at the airport the next day with the cash for an air ticket home and they wouldn’t let me on the plane because they said I was infectious. I had to stay a few extra days for all the blisters to disappear!
Is it good to be back in panto?
For the past nine years I’ve gone through the three ages of panto. When you are younger you play the principal boy, then you graduate to become the evil queen and eventually I’ll be playing the fairy godmother. I’ve done panto for 30 years now but I have a four-year-old son and I see panto through his eyes. You’ve been doing something for so long but then a child comes along and believes the magic, and suddenly working in panto is fresh and new all over again.
Any disasters this time round?
The story goes that when Cilla [Black] was in Liverpool playing Aladdin, she asked the audience, ‘Shall I kill him [the baddie]?’ And a Scouse kid shouted back, ‘No, sing to him!’ I haven’t had heckling like that, thank goodness.
What else do you get to do?
I get to fly. I’m not scared of heights, so it doesn’t bother me. So I sing and dance and fly and commute. And, actually, the commuting is the hardest bit of all.
Claire Sweeney appears in Ken Dodd: How Tickled We Were on Boxing Day at 9pm on BBC2