‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do’

Christopher Marlowe at his home in Southsea
Christopher Marlowe at his home in Southsea
Princess Charlotte on her first day at Willcocks Nursery School 
Photo by The Duchess of Cambridge

KIERAN HOWARD: The royal tot may well get a new nursery playmate...

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A new play premiered in Portsmouth has been chosen for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Actor Christopher Marlowe will take Andy Pandy out of his hamper and head to the Scottish capital, writes Chris Owen

A middle-aged man in a blue-and-white striped babygrow with matching triangular hat might not look out of place on a stag night.

But should you bump into Andy Pandy wandering the streets of Southsea in the coming weeks handing out leaflets, don’t avoid him for he will only be rehearsing for one of the biggest thrills of his life.

For behind the distinctive costume of one of children’s television’s all-time greats is Portsmouth professional actor Christopher Marlowe.

And he and his fellow actors in the Southsea-based New Apollo Theatre Group are just about to create a first for Portsmouth.

For a show given its world premiere in a city pub two months ago has been given a treasured place on the fringe at the Edinburgh Festival later this summer.

Looby Loo – No Strings Attached is a bitter-sweet play about the picnic-hamper-living puppets 60 years on. And, of course, Christopher is playing the eponymous hero.

‘We tried it out at the Cellars at Eastney and the Florence Arms, Southsea – a world premiere – in March and April and the reaction was super,’ says Christopher.

‘Everyone said it was marvellous and we should do something with it. Somebody from Salisbury Playhouse saw it and said they’d like it, but then we had this idea to take it to the Edinburgh Festival if they would accept it. They did, saying it was ‘‘very Fringe’’.’

The group has been given a coveted 9pm slot in a 60-seat venue just off the Royal Mile where Looby Loo will run from August 4-20.

‘We’re very privileged to have been given such a late slot. Normally, if you’re new you have to perform in the morning.

‘It’s a first for me and something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s incredibly exciting and John would have been so proud.’

‘John’ is the late John Offord who founded the Apollo Theatre Group. He taught Christopher physics at St John’s College, Southsea, in the late 1960s. He died in 2007.

‘He was a lovely man, but a hopeless physics teacher. His policy with Apollo was to use trained actors.

‘I joined in 2002 when I took over a role in Educating Rita, and did about three plays with the old group.

‘It’s like everything has now gone full circle because Steve Pitt, from the Cellars, was taught drama studies at St John’s by John and he now helps run the New Apollo group.’

Christopher, who is in his 50s, lives in Devonshire Avenue, Southsea, and we talk in his conservatory looking out into his atmospheric garden featuring exotic palms and other architectural plants.

‘I love gardening and cooking and now I’m semi-retired there’s a little more time for them.’

But ‘semi-retired’ still means running the New Apollo group, which puts on comedies in the spring and usually some Gothic horror/thriller to coincide with Halloween. And in the summer there’s what he calls a ‘commercial’ play at the Kings Theatre, Southsea. On June 13 and 14 it will be Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus.

‘I love panto and I’ve reached the age now where I’ve become an established dame. It’s manic. Every time you come off stage you have to change your frock, your tights, your shoes and your wig.

‘I’ve been in Cinderella, Aladdin and Dick Whittington at the Kings and I’ve got another seven-week run this year at Ilford in Essex.’

Christopher says his only ambition was to tread the boards. ‘I always wanted to act. In the 1970s I was heavily involved in the big amateur scene with the Portsmouth Players, South Downe Musical Society and the Phoenix Players.

‘When I told people I wanted to do it professionally they told me I was mad.’

But he fulfilled his ambition and appeared in rep all over the country before getting ‘a little stint’ in the West End in Hello Dolly! with Danny La Rue in the leading role.

‘He was wonderful to work with – tough, but nice tough, professionally tough.’

He reels off some of the household names with whom he has worked: Noele Gordon (of Crossroads fame) in Call Me Madam; Paul Nicholas in Charlie Girl; Cyd Charisse, Lionel Jeffries, Dora Bryan, Nicholas Parsons...

They were parts which brought him to the attention of P&O cruise ships.

‘I worked on the old Canberra for 10 years – five or six-month contracts each time. Those were the days when they did repertory at sea.

‘We’d do a different show each night for two weeks – three musicals, three plays. Early in the year we’d be in the Mediterranean, or up to Norway and the Baltic, or over to the Caribbean.

‘And once a year we’d do a 90-day, round-the-world cruise from Southampton to Sydney and back. It was heaven – travelling, doing theatre and being paid for it.’

He proudly points out a plant in his garden he brought back from Tahiti from one of those cruises.

‘I’ve always loved my life and feel I have been blessed. I’ve done what I’ve always wanted to do and there are still new things to come, like Edinburgh.’

Looby Loo and Teddy would be proud of him.