Actor Ben Richards on surviving bowel cancer, his 'miracle' daughter, starring in panto with May McFettridge and why he'd love a turn on the Strictly dancefloor
The Bill and Hollyoaks star, currently wowing NI audiences on the Grand Opera House stage, tells Claire O'Boyle about fatherhood, his plans for spending Christmas in Belfast and why years ago he turned down an invitation to the I'm A Celebrity... jungle
He's one of the most familiar faces on TV, with starring roles in telly favourites from The Bill and Holby City to Hollyoaks and Footballers Wives. And now Ben Richards is right here in Belfast, bracing himself for a long stint front and centre of this year's iconic Grand Opera House panto, Beauty and the Beast, which runs until January 12.
"I'm having a ball," says Ben (47). "We're a few shows in now and, so far, we haven't messed up. The kids love it and the Beast is a brilliant panto role to play. I've played him twice before, albeit with different scripts, but it's a great production to be involved in."
With two shows a day and only Mondays off for the foreseeable, Ben is going to be busy.
But there's a major upside to that too, says the actor.
"It means I don't have time to sit and think about the people I'm missing," says Ben.
Originally from just outside Bognor Regis in West Sussex, Ben is based now in Bedfordshire with his partner, the TV presenter Kirsty Duffy, and their daughter Freja (4).
"I'm missing them big time," says Ben. "It's horrible being away, but it is what it is and you deal with it because it's part of the job.
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"The schedule's so busy for the panto it just wouldn't make sense to fly back and forth, so I'm staying in Belfast the whole time really. It's not easy, but my two girls are coming here for Christmas, which is amazing. I can't wait."
Missing his daughter is a big deal for Ben, who describes the youngster as his "little miracle" and admits he'd almost given up hope of becoming a dad at all before Freja arrived when he was 43.
So becoming a father four years ago was a dream come true.
"Freja's our little miracle," says Ben. "She's the light of my life really. Fatherhood is amazing and Freja is honestly the best gift I've ever been given. There's not a day goes by I'm not grateful for it."
More than four years on, Ben still remembers vividly the moment Kirsty broke the news.
"Yes," he laughs. "I remember it very well. I was actually in the toilet at a theatre in Stoke. I was about to do a show - Rock of Ages - when I went for a pee and she rang me.
"It was so amazing but I had to say 'I've got to go, I've got to go on stage' and I had to put the phone down.
"At many points over the years I'd thought I wouldn't be a dad. At different stages I'd kind of written it off so it was just the best thing."
And now he and Kirsty are seasoned parents, what does Ben think about having any more?
"I don't know," he says. "Good question. We're not sure of the odds on that one, I honestly couldn't tell you. I feel like there are miracles, but will it happen? I don't know.
"Freja was one amazing miracle so we're happy with that, but who knows. We might be having this conversation a year down the line and you'll be saying 'Oh, congratulations'. You never know."
As well as his familiar roles on TV, much of Ben's work has been on the stage, from pantos like Beauty and the Beast to major musical theatre productions on London's West End, with starring parts in everything from Grease and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to The Bodyguard alongside singer Beverley Knight.
In fact, his route into showbiz started at just seven years old when he took up dancing.
Supporting roles in the West End led to leading parts and eventually to major roles on TV.
But is a life in the limelight and the glitzy world of showbiz world something he'd want for his little girl?
"I don't know if it's something I'd want her to do," says Ben. "There's a lot of sacrifice involved in this work.
"If it's in your DNA then that's one thing, but it's not for everyone and at the minute she's into her horses. Okay, it's not the cheapest thing in the world but it's a good, healthy hobby.
"I would be happy for her to do that, to be in the equestrian world, or any number of other things.
"The travel and being away from the people you love for work isn't easy, but I'm not complaining because there are lots of positives too, of course.
"If you can try to do it so you're away for as small an amount of time as you can then it's great. Or work it out so that you can go home, or get the people you love to come with you, or at least come for a while, then it works.
"It just depends though and it works differently for different jobs. You've got to juggle the artistic side, the career side, the money side, being away, being near, being home. You manage though and you make it work."
But like many people in his line of work, Ben is showbiz through and through.
"If you're in this industry then it's the whole thing for a lot of people," he says. "I don't have another option really. I don't really have a back-up.
"If it's in your DNA, then it's there. There's no side hustle. There's no extra thing that I could do, but that's okay because I love it."
And like many a jobbing actor before him, Ben - who starred in The Bill from 2007 until 2010 and Hollyoaks from 2015-2016 - says a role on a soap is a great number in his line of work.
"Yeah absolutely," he says. "That'd be lovely, life as a regular on a big soap. Sure. When I was on The Bill and you're looking at booking a holiday, you'd go in and say, 'Can I have a holiday that week' and they'd say, 'Yeah sure we'll write you out until you're back'.
"All pre-planned, organised. It's pretty much unheard of in acting for most people. Most of the time it's more like, 'Right amazing, I've done an advert, let's go on holiday'.
"It's always changing. If you can manage to keep control of it all and keep your finances really steady then that's great, that's the key, but the nature of the work means it's not always the easiest thing to do.
"It's a juggle between a telly gig or theatre, or panto of course, which is always an enjoyable option to sort out the tax bill."
With that in mind - and with at least one of the stars of this year's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! joking about doing the show to get the tax man off his back - would Ben think about heading Down Under to have a turn on the often stomach-churning reality show?
"Absolutely," he laughs. "God yeah, that'd be loads of fun. It really looks like a laugh. I was asked years ago, way, way back, but I'm so afraid of spiders I bottled it and said no. They haven't asked me since.
"But I've watched it on and off over the years and I would definitely go for it now."
Reality shows in general - which he hasn't done much of so far - are something Ben says he'd definitely think about.
"I've not really done any at all so far," he says. "But never say never. I'd want something that would challenge me or make me grow as a person. Then I'd be interested. But for me to do something just for the sake of it, well there would have to be a lot of money involved - although we all have our price!"
And with a background in dance, surely BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing is an obvious option?
"Well yeah I'd love to do it," says Ben. "I was a judge on the show Strictly Dance Fever years ago, mainly because of my background in musical theatre.
"But Strictly haven't really knocked on my door. I used to dance a long time ago and I can still move a bit I reckon."
As he heads towards the new year, Ben is aware it's coming up on eight years since he was diagnosed with bowel cancer back in January 2012 after doctors discovered a 6cm tumour.
After intense treatment that included surgery as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the actor went into remission in January 2013.
"I almost can't believe it's been eight years since I was diagnosed," says Ben. "It's gone so quick. You take it for granted a little bit, but I try to live as healthily as I can, as well as having a life.
"I can't eat red meat and I can't drink beer, but it's not crazy. I can have a glass of wine now and again and I'm just happy to be alive and healthy.
"Being eight years on is great, so I'm okay with it. To be honest when the five-year mark goes, that's the big milestone," reveals the actor.
"As far as the medics I dealt with were concerned, they seemed happy at that point, that I'd passed the big turning point.
"They still keep an eye on me with check-ups and things, but it really felt a lot better after five years and it was very much keep doing what you're doing."
But testament to Ben's strong work ethic, he was back up on stage just weeks after surgery for a national tour of the musical 9 to 5.
"Yeah, that was pretty tough," he laughs. "But it kept me focused and my eye on the ball with what I needed to do."
Settling in to life in Belfast for the next few weeks, the actor is hoping to make his apartment homely before partner Kirsty and little Freja make it over for the holidays.
"I'm getting Mondays off so the plan is to do a bit of shopping round the city and get the apartment looking nice and festive, a bit more Christmassy really, for when the girls come over," he says.
"I've got the tree but I just need a few bits and pieces to make it homely for them because they're staying for two weeks and I want them to be happy.
"It will be brilliant to have them over and I'll be Googling lots of things for them to do here in Belfast and Northern Ireland to keep them busy. We have some friends coming back to see their families too, so they'll come by to say hi which will be lovely.
"When I was in Hollyoaks, we moved up to Liverpool, all three of us, which I loved. Freja had just been born and we relocated for eight months, the whole lot of us, and it was amazing.
"It's trickier now with Freja at school and I can't just have them with me when I'm working away. But Kirsty has been so patient and two weeks together at Christmas will be fantastic."
So how has Ben found his time in Northern Ireland so far? "It's been lovely," he says. "The people are great and Belfast has changed in such a positive way. Everyone's so friendly and I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more of the city."
As well as the average Belfast citizen he's had the pleasure of meeting, Ben is getting to hang out at work every day with the one and only May McFettridge, who celebrates her 30th season as the Queen of Belfast Panto this year.
"Yes, the legend that is May," laughs Ben. "I'd heard May was a big star, of course, but I didn't realise the extent of it until the press day when we were dragged into every single shop for photographs. It was crazy!
"If the show was a ship, then May is the captain steering us to our destination, and we're having such good fun together, on stage and off. It's an absolutely joy.
"I love working in panto, and I very much respect the institution and the work we do. It's such a great feeling when you step out on stage and see that many people, all enjoying themselves and loving life. They really enjoy what we do - it makes Christmas Christmas."
Beauty and the Beast, starring Ben Richards and May McFettridge, is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until January 12. For details, visit www.goh.co.uk