We go out of our way to interview big names when they visit the city, and there have been some spectacular highlights over the years. Here’s our pick of snippets from just a few of them...
BRIAN BLESSED – 2019
What is lovely about the show is I just walk onto a stage as me. There’s no scenery, no nothing – though I do enter to the music of Flash Gordon, which absolutely brings the house down. And the first thing I say is ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!’ in a huge voice. And the place erupts. I have to say that about ten times a day, and have done for years. It seems to have become a kind of statement of celebration all over the world! A few years ago I was within 20 miles of the magnetic North Pole on a five month British expedition, which was a tremendous success. And as you get near the North Pole your hair nearly stands on end with the electricity. But anyway, I heard this noise, and the ice – which was very thin there – broke, and a great, Red October-style Typhoon class Soviet submarine came through the bloody ice. The conning tower opened up and the captain saw me and said: ‘It’s him! Please, say “GORDON’S ALIVE!”…’ So I shouted ‘GORDON”S ALIVE!’ at a bloody nuclear submarine. It’s happened to me on Kilimanjaro, on Everest – wherever I go. When Cameron was Prime Minister I went to No.10 with Chris Bonington to talk about saving elephants. I got there very early, but it was a lovely sunny day so I sat on a windowsill and nodded off, only to be woken up by the Prime Minister who said ‘What are you doing here?’ Then he made me a coffee and got me to say ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!’ to the entire bloody Cabinet. He said ‘That’ll wake them up!’ But it happens wherever I go.
TIM PEAKE – 2018
Once you’ve slowed the spacecraft down, Newton’s laws and gravity take over and nothing then is going to stop you from coming back to Earth… That’s why that engine burn has to be so precise – to the second. If it’s too long, then we come in too steep, and if it’s too short we go off too shallow. The orbit burn is quite gentle – a low rumbling noise and gentle deceleration, and of course after six months in microgravity, it’s strange to feel that. Then we wait. We go about a quarter of the way around the Earth and then separate into three parts; we lose our habitation module above us, then our service module beneath us.
The separation is very explosive – 14 pyrotechnic bolts going off right next to your head. Then it’s just this eerie few minutes when the spacecraft is tumbling end over end, really in a very uncontrolled fashion, just waiting for the top of the atmosphere to put the spacecraft back in the correct orientation. And that’s crazy… It’s that initial resistance that rights the capsule to come in heatshield-first. It’s smooth but loud, with a gradual increase of deceleration, which is thankful because we’ve spent six months without gravity. You don’t want to go straight to 8Gs [8x Earth gravity], which would be very punishing. By the time you’re getting towards 6Gs, where you’re clenching the stomach and you’re really having to work hard to breathe and it feels like there’s an elephant on your chest, you’re kind of ready for it. The noise then is like wind rushing past a car at high speed. In the initial stages it’s not wind, of course, it’s plasma going past the capsule, but then as you descend it’s air – and that is also slowing you down from around 25 x the speed of sound to just about the speed of sound – slow enough that the braking parachutes can be opened. And that involves heat! We get very, very hot inside the capsule.
It’s not pleasant inside the capsule! It hurts. It’s very aggressive, and the capsule is swinging wildly underneath the series of chutes – it’s a rollercoaster ride… Finally, when the main canopy opens, everything goes quiet and settles down, and then we have about 15 minutes before hitting the steppes of Kazakhstan. That is a hard landing, without a doubt. We have these soft- landing thrusters that fire about 0.6 of a metre off the ground to just try and cushion the blow a little bit. But it’s still a car crash when you hit. There’s no cushioning in that spacecraft, either – it just slams you into the ground. We cross our arms over our chests, make sure our tongues aren’t between our teeth, and we really do brace ourselves as if in an aircraft that’s about to crash.
SHAPPI KHORSANDI – 2017
We need to reclaim the flag of St George. It’s a beautiful symbol of multiculturalism, if you consider that St George never set foot on English soil. I think England was first in line when it came to flag picking: ‘What do you want?’ ‘White with red stripes, please.’ Wales was obviously further down the line. ‘They’ve run out of stripes Dai!’ ‘Oh, we’ll have a dragon then…’ But I take my flag on stage with me. Some people in the audience tend to be a bit against this whole idea of being patriotic, but for me patriotism isn’t excluding others, it’s just looking after those around you in the geographical space that you all share, and taking a real interest in where you live, and its history and culture. And all of this, obviously, is wrapped up with very funny jokes. I really appreciate Englishness as an outsider as well. I have the privilege of being an insider and an outsider, and there are all sorts of things that people say, such as the English being very reserved. But that’s such a blessing when you’ve got something to hide! Iranians would be right up in your face.
We left Iran in 1976 for my dad to come to England and work in the London offices of an Iranian newspaper, The National Daily. As a young journalist he had grabbed the opportunity to come here for a year or two, learn English, and be their correspondent abroad. So, we moved to London and it was this big adventure, and then the revolution happened in ‘79. My dad went back and his offices were mobbed, and there were crowds in the street chanting ‘Death to Khorsandi’ because he had been writing articles opposing the Ayatollah. That afternoon he had to go straight back to the airport and get out, and after that was on a hit list. In ‘84 Scotland Yard uncovered a plot to assassinate my dad in London, so it was all very dramatic.
RICK WAKEMAN – 2018
I’d been doing solo piano stuff for years, but the day David [Bowie] died I went to London and did the Simon Mayo show. At the end – literally at the last minute – Simon said: ‘You could nip into the studio next door and play us out with Life On Mars…’ – which was a track I had recorded with David originally. And I went: ‘What? Oh, bloody hell…’ Anyway, I did it, and they webcammed it, and it got a couple of million hits. Then I started getting a lot of people asking me why I didn’t release it. Now, I don’t like charity records – most of them end up losing money and are a disaster – but knowing David as I did I thought he would approve if it was for the right cause. So, I picked Macmillan Cancer Support, who look after all areas of cancer, from the patients to the families. They looked after my mother, who died of breast cancer. So we put it out for them and it did incredibly well. Then people said: ‘Do an album!’ And it was in the top five for eleven weeks, which did surprise me! And it was really nice to hear a track being played on Classic FM, and then on Radio 2, and also on a local radio station. That was interesting.
I did actually play live with David once, as part of a trio – me, him and Mick Ronson – at the Hampstead Country Club. It was actually there that he said: ‘I want you to form the Spiders from Mars with Mick…’ – but that same day I got asked to join Yes, and I took the Yes route…
PAUL MERTON – 2019
When I was about nine or ten I knew a lot of jokes which I’d remembered from comics, so I’d say to people ‘Give me a subject and I’ll tell you a joke about it’. Then when I got to the age of about 12 or 13 I realised it wasn’t enough to be able to repeat jokes, you had to create them yourself. Although I didn’t think of it as impro, that’s when I started making funny comments off the back of what schoolfriends were saying. So from that age onwards, really, I was preparing myself for the professional life I now have, on radio, TV and stage. For Just a Minute, Have I Got News For You and Impro Chums I don’t have to write anything! I don’t have to learn anything, I don’t have to rehearse anything… So it’s actually quite a lazy thing to do! I did a solo standup tour about 20 years ago and it drove me nuts, just hearing myself speak for two hours.
The one thing that gets a big cheer right at the top of the show is that I say ‘We’re willing to consider suggestions on any subject, apart from two… This is a Brexit/Trump-free zone!’ The cheer that gets is enormous! But that’s our only rule. People have had so much of that they just want to forget about it for two hours.
Most of the jokes I do on HIGNFY aren’t really about politics anyway, they’re just silly stories… So that cheer is a cheer of relief, I think. I did do a scene in the second half of one show where there was an opportunity to make reference to the Northern Ireland border, which I did, and it
got a big laugh but also a groan.
JO CAULFIELD – 2014
Yes, I know Peterborough very well, because I went to school in Rutland, so Peterborough was like the place we went to for the big shops. I performed there once, ages ago, and haven’t performed there since – and weirdly, I remember that gig because it was the first time I met Graham Norton. He had just started to do standup, having done some one man shows. I remember thinking this guy was hilarious, because he didn’t really know what standup was, and he was talking to the audience about topiary. And I was thinking: ‘I don’t think these people have ever seen a gay man, let alone know what topiary is.’ But when it wasn’t going well he would just walk into the audience, and that’s when you thought ‘Oh my God, this guy is just amazing…’ And then I gave him a lift back to London – and it’s just as well I did because we became friends and he gave me my first big break on his C4 show warming up the audience and employed me for years as his writer.
JOOLS HOLLAND – 2019
My grandmother had a piano that was given to her by her mother – who was called Britannia – as a wedding present, in Greenwich in 1938. They had it in their front room, and in the Blitz the windows blew in and the piano got charred, but still worked. In the 60s, when I was small, my grandmother would put me on her knee and say: ‘The Nazis got the outside, but look…’ and she’d lift the lid and inside was all nice wood. It also played piano rolls, so I could play old songs like Red Sails in the Sunset. Then my uncle, who wasn’t very much older than me – about 17 when I was about 8 – used to play a bit of boogie woogie piano, and I’d hear this and it would make me so excited. So I got him to show me, and then drove my poor grandmother and her neighbours mad by playing the piano endlessly. And that’s how I learned, by going mad on that piano. My poor mother now has dementia, so recently had to go into a nursing home, and so I’ve now moved that piano into my house. It’s like having a very old friend who has never changed. It’s a jangly old thing, but to me it has the sweetest sound.
KRISTINA RIHANOFF – 2019
Everyone always asks ‘Who is your favourite partner?’ but honestly, every time you partner with someone and you go through that intense rehearsal period, then get on stage and perform well and see the person developing in their ability, it’s always incredible. Every year there was a highlight of some sort, because as a teacher it is all about seeing that other person perform well. But… I have to say, my first year on Strictly with John Sergeant was my favourite! It was my first one, my first steps into showbiz from a very competitive world which was all completely about technique. And John was just amazing – a proper English gentleman, and we had so much fun. We just laughed and laughed during rehearsal, and the show has to have characters like him. There’s always going to be space for an Ed Balls or Ann Widdecombe! He had the perfect attitude and never took himself too seriously, and when it all got a bit negative with the press, where good dancers were leaving and he was still there, that was when he said: ‘Look, it’s just not fun any more…’ and he decided to step down. But he is always going to be my favourite person to talk about!
DES O’CONNOR – 2015
I came to Peterborough in 1954 in Ernie Wise’s car. He had a car, and I didn’t – I earned about five pounds a week, it was a bit hand-to-mouth – so he gave me a lift to Peterborough where he and his wife Doreen had a house, then I hitch-hiked to Northampton where my parents were living. So, I do have a bit of a history with Peterborough. In fact, I love the place. In my book Bananas Can’t Fly I wrote that the place I really got the bug for the theatre was the Embassy, Peterborough. I was stationed in Huntingdon, and I’d go there every Thursday night. I also played semi- pro football for Northampton, and we played at Peterborough. There are a lot of connections with the city, so I’m really looking forward to playing there again!
RANULPH FIENNES – 2021
I probably find the biggest interest is in the Transglobe Expedition – the first circumpolar journey on planet Earth. That was the most ambitious, the most difficult to mount – and against Foreign Office rules. You’re risking all manner of problems in the Antarctic, including having to sit for eight months in total lockdown, waiting for the sun to come back. And you have to do that probably about 800 miles from the nearest doctor or dentist. In the Northwest Passage, to do it in three years, we wanted to cut down the time we took doing the 3,000 miles above North America and the Arctic Ocean crossing. The planner was my late wife, Ginny, and the only way she reckoned it could be done was by doing it in a very small open boat so you could sneak between big ice floes. But you’ve got huge waves, you’ve got fog and smog. And you’re right next door to the North Magnetic Pole. So, you can’t see the sun, and can’t get direction that way. Being north of the North Magnetic Pole makes it utterly impossible to get a magnetic the other way. So it’s incredibly difficult to do that whole journey with very, very few bearing points en route, and very big waves. But we made the first ever completely open-boat journey, with some waves three times the size of this little boat, very often in virtual darkness. And that was the worst bit of the entire expedition. There were two of us – Charlie Burton and myself – on the land group and my wife was base commander in contact with us. Her Morse code work was amazing – even Farnborough acknowledged as much – and she became the first woman to ever get the Polar Medal, and the first woman to join the all-male Arctic Club. About four months ago, the Foreign Office named a huge new mountain in Antarctica after her, which was a very nice thing.
Amazingly, when we reached the North Pole and became the first humans to reach both poles the hard way, we still had 1,800 miles to go to reach where our icebreaker crew would be waiting for us – if they didn’t sink. After 400 miles we were so frightened of the movement and the crashing of the ice, with million ton floes, and having to move our tent ahead of cracks, that we really panicked. The people in London decided to call it a day and arrange the plane to fly out to pick us up. We were out of helicopter range, so it had to be a ski plane, which would have to land on an ice floe in the middle of nowhere, on ice that was breaking up. But they sent a Morse code message to the place on Spitsbergen where the aircraft was, to go and rescue us from the ice floe we’d been floating on for three months. The Morse code message had to come through Ginny, who at that time was with the Danish army in North Greenland, because that’s where the signal was still working. But for some amazing reason she didn’t receive it – the first time in four years that she’d had difficulty. So, we then used what Ginny had designed in Scotland six years earlier: very light canoes with skis on them. And that’s how we managed to get to the ship. So, we weren’t airlifted, and through luck we didn’t die.
ALISON WEIR – 2016
I’ve done the Katherine of Aragon commemoration a few years ago, when I spoke in front of the high altar about Katherine’s life, and it was such an experience standing within feet of where she’s buried. It is overwhelming, speaking in there. Then, when I did another event last year, the Dean and the event organisers said: ‘Would you come back and launch your book on Katherine at the Cathedral?’ Well, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate place, and the publishers thought it was a great idea. I really just wanted to raise funds for the Cathedral and have a great event where everyone could come along, have a drink and hopefully enjoy hearing about Katherine. And they are fantastic at the Cathedral – so welcoming to me.
DAVID BADDIEL – 2020
I was sitting there thinking: ‘So you think I’m responsible for perpetrating a series of lies that have fooled the world, and for killing Christian babies, and I’m controlling the BBC, and I’m just sitting here, listening to you tell me I’m doing this…’ You don’t often see that level of offence on TV! This bloke was basically saying that I am the Devil, over and over again, but in kind of a reasonable tone. And when I asked him whether he thought Jews were still ritually sacrificing Christian babies he said: ‘Well, you would know more about that than I do…’ Obviously this is why I fall back on comedy, because either I do get really angry and punch him in the face – which even though I said in the documentary I might do, is not really part of my nature – or I stick to what is in my nature, and make fun of it. That’s eventually what happened. But he was very keen to meet me, as were quite a lot of other Holocaust deniers, because at the end of the day a lot of them are desperate people who want their opinions to be heard. It’s them desperately wanting attention for their extreme views.
But the standup show very much rejects, for me as a comedian, the idea of ‘don’t feed the trolls’. It says, ‘Look, I deal with them in this way, I treat them as hecklers and I make comedy out of it’ – and in a larger sense there’s possibly a way forward with this very dark, even very unpleasant thing that we’ve created which is to try and disarm it with comedy. I think the documentary had elements of that too. Obviously there are people who would say ‘Don’t deal with Holocaust deniers; ignore them’ – but my position in the documentary was that I’m not sure that’s right any more, because it is proliferating online. It’s getting bigger, and to some extent you have to find a way of exploring it and dissecting it and confronting it, and part of that was when I eventually met that Holocaust denier to sort of make fun of him – to try and understand him, but also to make it clear how ludicrous his position is. In that sense there’s quite a strong connection; the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ mantra is like ‘don’t feed the Holocaust deniers’ but it’s not something I necessarily believe any more, even though I can see the validity of it.
FRANCES PRYOR – 2020
Well, because of the work we’d done at Fengate, we knew that the higher land around Flag Fen was completely divided up by Bronze Age fields, farms and villages. And it struck me as completely crazy to have settled all the way around the edge and have nothing in the middle. And then one day, I was driving back to the base where we were working and I noticed the jib of a dragline – you know, those crane-like excavators that they had in the 80s. It was being used by Anglian Water to drain and clean out the sides of the big dyke that ran right across Flag Fen, known as the Must Dyke. And I thought ‘Hello!’ – so I parked the Land Rover and walked along the Must Dyke and got chatting to the digger driver asking if there was anything here, and it became obvious that there was.
I then got permission to do a proper survey of the dyke, which I did a few days later. The dyke actually cut a Roman road – that’s why it was interesting – and walking back from having just been drawing and photographing it I caught my foot on a log lying on the top of the dyke. It was a substantial stake, which had a long pencil-like tip. Oak – I recognised that – and sharpened with the narrow-bladed axe which I recognised as being a late Bronze Age socketed axe. So I slid down the side of the dyke and found more timbers sticking up just above the water level. And I thought ‘Right, this will be Bronze Age. It has to be…’ because it was a metre below the Roman road. And that was it. That was Flag Fen.
OMID DJALILLI – 2014
There are many types of very funny comedians, but for me… I’m always trying to find meaning in what I do, and I think the older I get the more I realise that laughter is not an end in itself: you can use comedy to make a point. When I’m writing a new show, I’ll decide on what points I want to make, and how I can make them as funny as possible – you clothe what you want to say in humour so people can digest it. The problem with politicians is that they don’t have enough of a sense of humour, they don’t connect with people because they’re all about policy and not about the way you say it. I did Question Time recently and I couldn’t follow half of what they were saying – they were all sticking to a party line, regurgitating it like they were some kind of remote-controlled mannequin – you could see they had been told to regurgitate and they were not connecting with the audience. I know people don’t like the term ‘light entertainment’ but I think a problem is that people aren’t light enough! Once you liven things up, people can hear you. I know that my wife can never understand me if I get upset and start shouting, she actually can’t compute what I’m saying – and I think I’m being passionate and expressive… If people lighten up, then communication becomes easier and messages can be received. So it’s something that I’ve learned, that you can use humour to make your point; people not only get it, but they appreciate it more.
KATHARINE OF ARAGON – 2020
(AKA historian and re-enactor Lesley Smith)
The costume is costing thousands. I have a really excellent group of costumiers who have worked with me over the years, and I do spend a lot of time getting the costumes right. There’s a specialist in silk work, a specialist beader, a wigmaker, a shoemaker. There’s even a bloke who does welding! I work on the basis that if the costume is sensational, it will carry people. Also, I don’t want people to go ‘Oh! That sleeve’s wrong for the period!’ Everything is right, right down to the underwear. The shoes are hand-made. Even the pieces of jewellery that I’ll be wearing are replicas from paintings. For the headdress I have commissioned probably the top headdress maker in Europe. She goes to graves and does rubbings, looks through official documents and paintings, and she’s made this gable hood for me – and if you want to know what that looks like, picture the Queen of Hearts! The main costume is taken from a painting which only shows the waist up, so we’re mixing that with the lower part of another painting, and it is an extraordinary colour – a deep mauve-pink. Every detail is authentic, even down to my nails.
I think it will probably take about 35 minutes to actually get into it. But when you’re in it, you’ve had it! You can’t have a drink, can’t go to the loo… They had arrangements in those days, but I’ve no intention of having a pot held for me! I’ve also got to learn to walk in it, because it will be slightly different from all my other costumes. I’m not quite sure yet what the weight is going to be; my Elizabeth I costume is 4 stone 3 pounds (26.7 kg) and I’m expecting this one to be way over 2 stone (12.7 kg).
MILES JUPP – 2016
My dad used to be minister in Peterborough, at Westgate Church – the one you can see from the bus station, between the Mega Bites and the old JobCentre. We lived not far away, so Peterborough was where we used to go and do our Christmas shopping and so on. I must have spent days as a teenager wandering around Queensgate shopping centre. That was what you did if you had some spare cash or birthday money – you’d be dropped off in the Edith Cavell car park and then wander around Queensgate pretty much all day. I think I could walk around it blindfolded even now…
JOHN CLEESE – 2019
I remember when we did the first episode of Fawlty Towers, the director said to me: ‘You’ll have to get them out of the hotel more…’ Completely wrong! It’s exactly that pressure cooker atmosphere that allowed things to build up. I had ways of building those up – one of which is to cut to an absolute minimum the number of time lapses, because every time there’s a time lapse it means the pressure comes off a bit, and you have to build it up again. There are things I do like that to keep pressure up, because the greater the pressure the more stressed people become, and the more stressed they become the worse their decision-making becomes – so they’re always making things worse instead of better!
I think when I was doing Fawlty Towers I was learning, but I was learning all the practical things. I had to learn a whole episode in six days. But I think I instinctively knew how to do farce acting, and from the time I first saw the Marx Brothers I just learned it very easily. You know how you find some things easy and others very difficult – this was just something that came to me, like first nature.
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