■ The actor, 38, on his new rail safety campaign, ice skating and his dream of returning to Albert Square
Rail safety seems an unusual campaign for you to get involved with…
It uses Thomas The Tank Engine to educate children about being safe on the railways and I’ve got kids so I got involved. It’s about the rules of the railway — what to do on a level crossing, or what happens if you drop something on the track. I’ve learned from home-schooling during Covid that if you can disguise learning as a story it works very well.
How has home-schooling been going?
It’s been going. We’ve been doing it. We’ve got a 13, 12, eight and a one-year-old. But knowing everyone’s in the same boat gets you through. I don’t know if they’re teaching things differently now to when I was at school but I’ve been useless.
This campaign sounds similar to old public information films. Do you remember the one about the Frisbee in the electricity pylon?
Yes! If I showed my kids that now they’d be horrified. I’m surprised our generation is so sane after the things we got fed on television. There are better ways of educating kids than scaring them. You need to teach them boundaries without terrifying them. Rather than saying, you’re going to die if you go on the train tracks, you’ve got to be more subtle.
Did any of those public information films make an impression on you?
Funnily enough, it was one about railways. There was a kid on a level crossing and the last shot was a close up of his face just as he was about to be hit by a train. Some of those were pretty hard-hitting. I wouldn’t want to get involved in a campaign that scares kids.
What was the secret of your popularity on Dancing On Ice?
I’ve got no dance experience at all so I just wanted to smile and enjoy it. I wasn’t the greatest skater but viewers could see I was putting everything into it each week. They voted for me because they could see themselves in me.
How competitive did people get on the show?
A couple of people got competitive but generally we were very lucky. The final three were me, Libby Clegg and Perri Kiely, and I would have been happy for any of us to have won. Perri is one of the nicest young men I’ve ever met and he should have won on talent alone. Libby was in the same boat as me but she couldn’t even see that what she did was sensational. I’ve shown that if I can win it, anyone can.
Will you be keeping up with your skating skills?
I want to, I didn’t think I’d miss it but I do. I took my ice skates out of the bag the other day and it was so sad — they’ve gone all rusty.
Should ice rinks reopen?
There are so many professional ice skaters who aren’t allowed to do their job because of Covid. If other sports can open up, I’m sure ice skating could.
Your partner is Stacey Solomon. What are the highs and lows of being in a celebrity couple?
The highs are we get to do things we wouldn’t experience if we weren’t on telly. The downsides are there’s a lot of pressure that comes with this job, and sometimes people want to jump on what you say and scrutinise it. You’ve just got to take the rough with the smooth. We’ve got lots of friends who are famous but our close friends are normal people — Stacey is from Dagenham, and I’m from Islington. Even talking about ‘celebrity’ is a bit weird as we don’t look at ourselves as if we’re famous celebrities. Most people are very nice and say hello.
Do you ever hear from your I’m A Celebrity pal and Star Trek star George Takei?
We kept in touch for five years but I haven’t heard from him for a while. The last time I saw him was when I was on Through The Keyhole and they did George’s house. I don’t know if he travels as much as he used to but he’ll always have a massive place in my heart.
Why did you get on so well?
Because he’s such a genuinely lovely dude and he reminded me of my grandad. It was a real comfort to have him on I’m A Celebrity. We were complete opposites but found a real love for each other.
Do you want to return to acting?
I’d love to. I left EastEnders then did I’m A Celebrity and haven’t been offered much else acting-wise. The three big things I’ve done are EastEnders, I’m A Celebrity and Dancing On Ice. I’d love to go back and do EastEnders properly. When I started on the show I caught meningitis and was off for a year. When I went back the producers had changed and I couldn’t get my character established again. So I’d like to go back again and have another go at it.
■ Hear Swash read Stay Safe With Thomas and download a free copy at networkrail.co.uk/thomas