Madcap comedian Freddie Starr is back on tour, bringing his outrageous brand of humour to the Beck Theatre next week. In a candid interview, he told SIBA MATTI about his troubled childhood, his dislike of politicians and the truth behind that hamster story...
FREDDIE Starr's sense of humour is often described as an acquired taste, so when I spoke to him last week, I was prepared for the conversation to sail into uncharted waters.
But I wasn't expecting the comedy stalwart – probably best remembered for allegedly eating a hamster (more about that later) – to be willing to bare his soul in such a frank manner.
After he invites me to 'interrogate him', we begin with his childhood: "I always wanted to be a jockey," Freddie remembers, "but when I was about nine, my mother pushed me into a young performing club called The Hilda Fallon Roadshow (fellow members included Ken Dodd), in which we would travel around the country in a big bus."
But Freddie almost missed the chance of fame and fortune after a psychosomatic illness robbed him of the power of speech, aged just six.
"I was mistreated – it is still clear in my mind now, and has left a permanent scar," he tells me.
"I couldn't speak any more and my parents put me in a home. I was there for two years.
"I have always been a strong character, someone who bounces back, and I didn't hate my father for it, I just felt sorry for him, he was an alcoholic.
"But it was very hard to deal with. You never knew what mood he was going to be in or if he was going to hit you.
"He broke my legs and I was badly abused by him."
Despite his tough upbringing in Liverpool, Freddie proved he had the strength to succeed.
He admits that he was prone to mischief – "our school was full of clowns, I wasn't the only one" – but while he demonstrated an early ability to make people laugh, Freddie first took to the stage as a singer, rubbing shoulders with John Lennon and Paul McCartney while performing at Liverpool's world-famous Cavern Club.
Shortly afterwards, he began doing impressions, leading to an illustrious career in stand-up.
"I was a great friend of Tommy Cooper and Norman Wisdom," the 68-year-old tells me when I ask who his comedy heroes are.
"Today's 'alternative' comedians aren't in the same league. I went to see Frankie Boyle and I didn't think he was funny, I thought he was filthy, absolutely disgusting. I can't repeat what I was actually saying when I saw the show.
"Frankie Boyle was nothing like Bernard Manning – he is much bluer than Bernard ever was. Bernard was a nice fellow.
"These people start from university trying this out and they call it alternative comedy, but there is no such thing.
"You either make people laugh or you don't, you either have funny bones or you don't."
But despite attacking Boyle's controversial humour, Freddie insists that political correctness has gone too far.
"It really has gone over the top, especially health and safety," he rants. "It's just gone stupid. This country is finished, it has been knackered by politicians and it's the people of Great Britain who are suffering.
"Whoever in power is our manager, just like I have a manager – if he is not doing what I want him to do, he gets the sack. Politicians are scum bags."
So what can people expect to see when Freddie visits the Beck Theatre next week?
"The show is completely different to what I used to do, although I will put some old favourites in, such as my Hitler routine, plus I will be singing, telling jokes and doing sketches," he reveals.
"I must admit I am a bit nervous, but I just can't wait to come back to the Beck, it was the first theatre in which I made a DVD. It's a fantastic place with a great atmosphere."
But while Freddie's star shines on stage, he prefers a quiet life away from the limelight.
The comic, who has been married three times, explains: "I'm a recluse, I just prefer my own company," he says. "I'm a very private person.
"I have hardly been out of the house since I had a heart attack last year.
"My surgeon said the chances of it happening again were a million to one, but people seem worried I'm going to drop dead on stage, like Tommy Cooper."
Although Freddie has enjoyed an impressive 50-year showbiz career, he admits he is probably best known for the notorious (and completely untrue) story in The Sun newspaper in 1986, entitled 'Freddie Starr ate my hamster'.
"People still shout out 'hamster' in the street, even though it happened 25 years ago, but you get used to it," he tells me, clearly exasperated.
"Sometimes I do find it annoying and wish people would shut up.
"If I had a pound for every time it happened, I'd be a multi-millionaire by now, they will probably put it on my grave stone.
"Although it was all rubbish, the story was the making of my career – after it came out, I was filling theatres twice a night and doing about 150 shows a year."
And despite battling ill health, Freddie says he won't rest until he is once again playing to packed theatres across the country.
"I'm like a fine wine that matures," he says. "Charlie Chaplin was still having babies in his 80s and if you are a funny guy, people can never take that away from you."
Freddie Starr visits the Beck Theatre on Saturday, March 12 at 7.30pm and tickets cost £21. To book, call 020 8561 8371 or visit www.becktheatre.org.uk