AN icy north-westerly wind blows in off the hills, snatching the first leaves of autumn from the trees in Malvern Winter Gardens.
Brrr. It might only be September, but weather-wise, it does just feel a little bit like Christmas…
And well it might, too. For there’s a really festive feel in the park today and that’s because the cast members of this year’s Malvern Theatres panto have dropped in to launch this year’s production, Aladdin.
They’re all in costume and the first character to stand out is Mark James. His voice – a sort of cross between Jimmy Clitheroe and George Formby – cuts through the air like a knife going through barm cake.
And he’s barmy all right, oh yes. Mark’s back by popular demand at Malvern, this year in the role of Wishee Washee. He’s as mad as a bucket of frogs, as they say oop north.
Not surprisingly, Mark’s a huge favourite with Malvern audiences. And such is his success with the Worcestershire crowds that he’s planning to stage his very own personalised photo-call after each show, just as he’s done in previous years.
Meanwhile, a scantily clad Loula Geater, who’s playing Spirit of the Ring, shivers in the breeze. She really could do with borrowing some of Jamie Steen’s Widow Twankey layers, to be sure.
Elsewhere, Aladdin (Aaron Jenson) and PC Pong (Danny Rogers) lurk behind trees, no doubt hoping some genius – or even a genie, come to think about it – would work some wonders with the weather.
But now to Abanazar, the baddie (cue loud boos). He’s being played by Only Fools and Horses star John Challis – and this time he won’t have long-suffering Marlene to get him out of trouble.
I caught up with him once we had retreated back to the relative warmth of Malvern Theatres foyer…
Challis has never been short of work. Big Breadwinner Hog helped to get the career ball rolling back in 1969, then it was Dixon of Dock Green, Coronation Street, Z Cars, Soldier, Soldier, Heartbeat, Dr Who and a spell last year with the phenomenally successful Benidorm. But it’s Z Cars that remains a vivid memory for him.
“Z Cars changed the whole scene. It dealt with the nitty-gritty of police work, portraying what it was actually like. It also helped the careers of several actors who would later become stars,” he says.
I ask him about his working preferences. What suits best – TV, radio, film or stage?
He leans back and gazes into the middle distance. “I don’t really have preferences,” he says. “But stage is easier, I grew up working onstage. With TV there are a lot of other factors you constantly have to be aware of, such as the locations of several cameras on the set, that sort of thing.”
Challis is, of course, most famous for his role as Boycie in the long-running sitcom Only Fools and Horses. And he’s written two volumes of autobiography, Being Boycie and Boycie and Beyond. So will he always be Boycie in most people’s eyes?
“Yes, I suppose I always will. After all, it was a tremendously successful show, which at its peak had 24 million viewers.”
Challis starred as Captain Peacock in a 2016 remake of Are You Being Served. Did he think the days of the British sitcom were over?
“It was a privilege to play Captain Peacock, previously a role immortalised by the late Frank Thornton. But it wasn’t easy doing that show. In the end, it was done just as another episode of the series, rather than as a tribute piece.
“But I do think that sitcom has died in a way. Humour has changed. These days it can be rather sneering and then there’s political correctness to contend with. Humour was very different a few years ago… much kinder. Nowadays it’s not very kind but that’s called ironic.”
Challis is passionate about the preservation of wildlife. He’s a patron of both The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and also Tusk, a campaign group that tries to protect elephants from illegal shooting and poaching.
Down the years, he’s performed in 30 pantomimes, and is very much looking forward to his Christmas season in Malvern.
He said: “Out of those pantos, I did 25 in a row. I really enjoy them. Panto is about entertainment, that’s why they’re so popular. There’s been so much fun taken away by the PC brigade, but thankfully, many people still want this type of entertainment.”
And the villain? “Well, someone’s got to do it!” he says with a grin and just the hint of a leer that alter ego Boycie would most surely have recognised.
Aladdin runs at Malvern Theatres from Thursday, December 12, to Sunday, January 5.