Paul O’Grady tells TV Times what Christmas means to him and why a role in Downton Abbey isn’t out of the question!

Did you enjoy filming your Christmas special?
“Very much so. And the set was beautiful, they did a fantastic job on it. Even our guest Bette Midler came out and said ‘God, I’ve never seen a set like this for television before.’ They went to town on it.”

What’s Bette like to work with?
“She was absolutely lovely. Really down-to-earth, so uncomplicated, so easy to get on with. I sat with her in her dressing room talking with her for ages. I felt like I’d known her for years, and she said that to me as well.”

We’ve seen the pictures of you and Cilla Black dressed up in Salvation Army uniforms for the show – whose idea was that?
“Mine. Poor Cilla! But she’s absolutely smashing. I love working with Cilla. You don’t even have to talk her into doing anything like that. But I’m also really fond of the Salvation Army. I really admire them, and they do brilliant work. And once I’d got the uniform on, I said to Cilla, ‘I’m going to join up! I was born to do this’. There’s something very joyous about it.”

And you have Emmerdale’s Danny Miller on there, too?
“Danny was pretty nervous, but that’s because he hadn’t done anything like that before. Of course, he’s plonked next to Bette Midler and he’s only 19. And I think, what would I be like at 19 on a prime-time television show sat next to Bette Midler? I’d be frozen rigid! But he’s just so mature for his years, and a really smashing actor. And I’m a massive Emmerdale fan. I love it. And I think what he’s been doing in the show is exceptional. Hats off to him!”

And what about Christmas itself? What’s your favourite thing about it?
“I like the actual day itself. I really enjoy Christmas Day when you’re all together and you have the big meal. But I hate the build-up to it. I hate running round like a lunatic trying to buy presents. And writing out Christmas cards drives me up the wall.”

Is that what you like the least, then?
“Yeah, it’s so time-consuming! Especially when you’re sending a card to somebody you spoke to that morning. ‘Why am I sending you a Christmas card? You only live round the corner!’ It’s daft. And I don’t hang mine on bits of string, so they all end up on a pile in the end of the room, because otherwise they’re always getting knocked over. You open a door and they all blow everywhere, or the dogs knock them over…”

So what does Christmas mean to you?
“For me, it’s about people getting together. That’s what Christmas is. And although I’m not really a Church-goer, I tend to go at Christmas. Any denomination – not bothered as long as it’s a Church, in I go. Also you get a chance to sit for an hour, it’s a bit of peace.”

Do you know what presents you’ll be buying your grandchildren (Abel, three, and Sharyn, one)?
“I haven’t got a clue yet because I’m a real last-minute panic shopper. The annoying thing is I ring up my daughter and say ‘What do you think the kids would like for Christmas?’, and she says, ‘Don’t know’. So I ask her what she wants… ‘Don’t know’. That’s not very helpful is it? Just give me a clue!”

And do you do the big dinner on Christmas Day?
“I always do the cooking, yeah. Always have done. I go mad if people come in and start stirring things. If you get in my way, that’s it. I can just see myself in one of these programmes like Downton Abbey, in a stately home down in the bowels of the kitchen roaring at the kitchen maid: ‘Are those sprouts ready yet, Ruby?!’ I can just see it.”

Are you enjoying rehearsing for panto?
“I haven’t done panto for years so it was a shock to the system. But it’s enjoyable. It’s anarchy, and it always tickles me. I’ll catch myself sometimes talking to a full-grown man dressed as a cat and I think this is just insanity, and that’s what I like about it. It’s great, and I’d forgotten how much I missed it.”

Was it strange putting Lily’s gear on again?
“It was odd getting the fitting. For a start all the old stuff doesn’t fit me. But I practiced with the make-up because I hadn’t done it for seven years, so I thought I’d better put this Lily slap on and see what it looks like, and it was back on again in half an hour like I was doing it yesterday.”

You’re enjoying it though?
“Very much. I’m having a good time at the moment and it’s a change from telly. In panto, you’ve got that lovely big stage to go completely rampant on. It’s a hoot!”

Paul O’Grady’s Christmas can be seen on Christmas Eve at 9pm on ITV1.