When Matthew Kelly was six he was taken by his dad to see his first panto. It proved to be a defining moment in his life because it so captivated him that it inspired him to become an actor.
And after his training at Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre that is exactly what he has done, forging a successful and almost 50-year long career on both stage and screen.
And although he is perhaps best known for being the host of hit game shows such as Game For A Laugh and Stars In Their Eyes in the 1980s and 90s becoming one of the biggest names in TV in the process, it is the theatre that is his first love.
So it is also perhaps appropriate that he should now be about to step out onto the stage once more, this time as the Dame, Sarah The Cook, in a production of Dick Whittington at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
In fact it is, he tells me, the 37th time he’s put on the make up, the outrageous wigs and costumes to perform in panto and he readily admits he can’t wait to get out there again and strut his stuff.
“I love it,” he says cheerfully. “There is really nothing better. It’s such a joy and one of the things I look forward to every year.
“To see all those people out there having a great time, laughing, cheering and booing - it’s the best feeling.
“I can’t wait!”
I chat to Matthew at an event at the Shard where he and fellow cast members Arlene Phillips and Tim Vine are there to mark the launch of the show.
“It is fantastic,” he enthuses. “I’m just finishing touring in a stage production of Pride and Prejudice, playing Mr Bennett, and the panto team said they would make it easier for everyone and just put us up here in the hotel overnight.
“It meant I could just get up nice and relaxed this morning and didn’t have to rush through the traffic to get here.
“And let me tell you, the hotel is amazing, it’s pure luxury! I’m 66 now and yet I was playing with the blinds in my room like a kid, making them go up and down - it was brilliant!”
But back to the matter in hand and this year’s panto at Wimbledon. It’s clear Matthew is looking forward to working with Tim and Arlene, speaking of them and the rest of the team with genuine affection. However, he admits he is missing his partner in crime and fellow Dame, his son Matthew Rixon.
“I’ve been in the business a long time and have done 37 pantos which is incredible really,” he says warmly.
“I love being the Dame and it’s my favourite part in panto. You have to be a bit older to do it as she’s a bit of a motherly type.
“My son Matthew and I did three years together as a sort of double act which was great fun. I will really miss him this season as he’s doing Dame just down the road in Richmond so not far and I’m sure we will be comparing notes.
“However, I hate it when he’s not there - we make a great team and I just love being with people - actors are generally kind and generous people, a bit bonkers of course, but I like the camaraderie so being on my own is a bit sad.
“But this year’s cast is amazing. Tim Vine is of course a very funny man but not only that he’s very clever, quick and kind, a good hearted man. He’s very generous and he will give us something funny to see.
“Audiences warm to him and you know if you are in a show with him you are on to a winner. He’s just a delight to be with and I know we are going to have a fabulous time.
“And then of course there is the lovely Arlene Phillips. She’s very sweet and a lovely lady. She understands panto as well so it’s all going to be terrific fun.”
The story of Dick Whittington will be familiar to most and Matthew promises all the usual panto fare with glittery sets, outrageous costumes and plenty of music, magic and mayhem.
“I’ve just been given the script and I can tell you this show is going to be fab,” he chuckles. “Wimbledon is considered to be the jewel in the panto crown because there aren’t really any in central London. It’s the biggest and best and you can always rely on the crew there to do a spectacular and gorgeous show - which this will certainly be.
“We have two weeks to rehearse so it’s a bit intense but the gang I’m with are amazing so it will be fine.
“All the costumes are brand new and are amazing,” he adds. “I’ve been for all the fittings now and I’ve got seven different outfits this year. One of the frocks is a light house with a flock of seagulls and a revolving light - I’m a classy lady!”
Despite having done this for so many years Matthew does admit to a few nerves alongside the excitement.
“I really do get terribly nervous,” he says. “Sometimes the nerves are shocking but the good thing is I’m part of a really great team and I don’t want to let them down.
“Besides as a performer you have to remember that for many kids it’s their first experience of live theatre so you want them not only to enjoy it, shout, clap, cheer and so on but also inspire and excite them enough to come back again and see something else.
“I remember very clearly seeing my first panto when I was six. It was at my dad’s works do at The Ardwick Empire, Manchester and it was the most magical thing ever. I just loved it.
“I’ve never forgotten it and actually that was it for me really, I just wanted to be on stage from then on and so to be able to do this for a living is just amazing. I’m very lucky.
“After my training, I started off doing theatre before working in stage management for a while and doing all kinds of jobs. Then I went into TV and now I’m back on stage and I’m having the best time.
“In panto I began by playing roles like Dandini but then I graduated to the Dame which is just one of the best roles ever. It looks like organised chaos but it’s so disciplined and for the gags to work you have to know what you are doing.
“But it’s such good fun and the best job in the world so I can’t wait to get the glad rags on again!”
Dick Whittington is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Broadway, Wimbledon between Friday, December 9th and Sunday, January 15th, 2017. Visit www.atgtickets.com/newwimbledontheatre or call the box office on 0844 871 7646 for full listings.