First there was Mr Derek, now its Christopher Pizzey. Steve Pratt meets the latest in a long line of sidekicks to the most famous fox on television, and finds an actor who is no stranger to working with furry friends.

RATHER than obeying the old showbiz warning to actors never to appear with animals, Christopher Pizzey seems to do nothing but get close to furry creatures. By day, he can be seen as BBC TV star Basil Brush's right hand man. By night this Christmas, he'll be dressing up as a mole in a stage version of the children's story The Wind In The Willows. The London born and bred actor has no problems appearing alongside a foxy co-star. Why should he? His illustrious predecessors as Basil's sidekick have included Heartbeat star Derek Fowlds, Roy North and magician David Nixon. "I'd done a lot of comedy theatre and heard about this audition looking for young comedy men to come in and be silly," he says of his first acquaintance with Basil Brush. "I'm not snobby about it. I've loved every minute of the series and have learnt so much. I've done 26 episodes, which is a lot of time in front of the camera." He arrived in Leeds for rehearsals for The Wind In The Willows - in which he plays Mole - fresh from touring the country with Basil, promoting the fox's Christmas single. Pizzey isn't on the record. "I love doing the show, it's fantastic, but that's where my involvement ends," he says firmly. Basil Brush was so successful the first time around because his humour worked on two levels, so that children and adults alike had something to find funny. "Looking at the original puppet, it's very simple but the character of this fox came through, so you really believed in him," he says. "They've slightly updated the puppet but not allowed any animation to move the face. It's strange when you're talking to it, you believe it's real. "They've changed the format from the old series so it's almost a sit-com. I'm looking after my nephew and niece. Basil is my best friend and lodger, but obviously gets involved in many silly situations." Pizzey gets recognised by young fans of the series, but was still pleasantly surprised by the reaction on the recent tour. "It was nice going out on the roadshow but I did wonder what kind of reception I'd get. But I was signing autographs and everything," he says. He's a great believer, when he's in work, in writing to casting directors and inviting them to watch him on stage. West Yorkshire Playhouse casting director Kay Magson did just that when he was appearing in rep elsewhere. "Luckily, I was good in both, I think," he says. "And West Yorkshire Playhouse is a place I've always wanted to play. I've seen some fantastic productions here. I love TV but there's nothing better that getting in front of a live audience." He didn't see this version of the Kenneth Grahame classic by Yorkshire writer Alan Ayckbourn when it was staged at the National Theatre in London. But he's aware of the responsibility of taking on a role like Mole that's been done many times before. "You want to make it your own and not copy other people," he says. The exact make-up and costume - how much of the real Pizzey will be seen - is still being finalised, but he reckons the size of his hands will help him be mole-like. "I have quite big hands. I was nearly a boxer. I was the youngest in my family and was used to sparring with someone older than me, so it was a shock getting into the ring with someone my own size," recalls Pizzey, who comes from a family of boxers. "I know there's a lot of lobbying against boxing but I think it's better to keep it legal so there are these strong checks. If it was forced underground it would be very bad. "I'm glad I got out when I did. I fancied a girl at school who went to the local amateur dramatic society, and I went there for her but fell in love with acting instead." After three years at drama school, he admits he was very lucky to go straight into work - in the musical Into The Woods at London's Donmar Warehouse and even luckier to have composter Stephen Sondheim work with the performers for two weeks. Once he's finished his run as Mole, he'll be staying with animals to record a third series with Basil Brush. A Christmas special will be shown while he's on stage in Leeds.

The Basil Brush Show returns to BBC1 tomorrow at 4.20pm. The Wind In The Willows is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from December 8 to February 14. Tickets 0113 213 7700.

Published: 20/11/2003