■ The actor and comedian, 65, on what he said to the Pope and how he’s getting closer to his dream role
What made you decide to do BBC2 show Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome?
I love walking and have always wanted to go on a walking holiday but never got round to it — it’s difficult with young kids. I love the Italian countryside too — Tuscany is beautiful. And the whole idea, to work out what I believed, was a fun and challenging experience. I turn down a lot of reality shows but when it’s something that you’re going to learn from, that’s where I’m interested.
What effect did you hope it would have?
That it would give me a bit of time to be alone with my thoughts. As it was I was with a group of eight people, listening to their thoughts and exploring each other’s ideas and beliefs. Katy Brand had been a born again Christian but given it up, Greg Rutherford was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, Dana is a staunch Catholic, Mehreen Baig is a devout Muslim, Lesley Joseph is Jewish, and Stephen K Amos and Brendan Cole don’t believe — so it was a really interesting group.
You’re a bad snorer by all accounts…
I confessed to that very early on. I took an extra pair of earplugs and said if anybody wants them here they are!
And how would you describe your faith?
Two weeks before going away I found out my mum had given up her Catholic faith when she wasn’t allowed to baptise my older sister, Marg, because she was born out of wedlock. That was a big thing for me. My dad wasn’t religious but my mum brought us up as Church of England — that said, we didn’t go to church a lot. I started going again when my little kids went to a church school. I have a belief in something but not in the man or woman sitting on a cloud with all the harps and that stuff.
You were given an audience with the Pope. What does one say to him?
I told him my mum was a devout Catholic who lost her faith and asked how he feels about people who lose their faith. He said faith is a gift you’re given and, if you lose it, it’s not necessarily your fault. He kissed me on both cheeks and blessed my mum, which really moved me.
Do you get more anxious as you get older?
I think you probably do, yeah! I’ve had an interesting and full life. At 65, you’re staring at your own mortality. But when I leave here I want to know I’ve done the best I can. That’s my religion, it’s to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’ve never done anything in my work that’s dishonest, I’ve never trodden on anyone else to get anywhere so I think if you can sleep well at night and can give those values to your kids, you’ve lived as full a life as you can.
You’re preparing to make your debut at the RSC in May. How did that come about?
That was a call from my niece, Jodie McNee, who’s done big Shakespeare roles over the years. The director was looking for a Liverpool actor to play her father in Venice Preserved [by English Restoration playwright Thomas Otway] and I said, ‘Hello! It’s on my bucket list!’ I’m excited and nervous. I’ve done a few straight plays but this is proper Restoration tragedy. I never went to drama school so it’s like getting the training I never got.
You started out as a comedian — which comic do you rate?
Larry David makes me laugh out loud with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think my friend Stephen K Amos is a very funny man too. And Ricky Gervais, of course — I’ve worked with him. I still love Laurel and Hardy and all the old guys but there are some great stand-ups today, like Jimmy Carr. Then we still have people like Bradley Walsh, so we have a mix of the new wave and old school.
You’ve done a few reality shows — you obviously don’t mind laying yourself bare.
I wouldn’t do anything like Big Brother again! I choose wisely now and just do things I’m going to learn from, like MasterChef. I came joint second to Ade Edmondson, which was a great experience. I love Strictly but whether I’d go there at my age I don’t know!
Do you have a lot of friends in the industry?
I do but I live in Cheshire so I see them when I’m working with them or we’re in London. Lesley [Joseph] and I knew each other but we’d never worked together to solidify our friendship — that’s what we did on this walk and we’re great mates now. I’m just a dad at school when I’m at home. We’re doing a Family Fortunes night for the teachers and parents of the school this term so I’ll be hosting that again!
Do you still have career goals?
Even though I’m at the RSC this year, I’m not doing Shakespeare so that’s still on my bucket list. I’m getting closer!
Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome is on Friday at 9pm on BBC2
I wouldn’t do anything like Big Brother again. I love Strictly, but at my age — I don’t know!