THE leather flying cap was firmly in place and a trademark white scarf was jauntily draped around his neck.
In fact, the only thing missing when Chris Barrie climbed into the cockpit of the vintage biplane was a smoked kipper – in case he made it back for breakfast.
The actor is best known for his role as Red Dwarf’s ultimate loser Arnold Rimmer and his alternate universe alter ego Ace Rimmer, a death-defying pilot and space hero. “What a guy!” But this time he wasn’t acting in front of some dodgy special effects.
He was taking to the skies for real – and loving every windswept minute of it.
Barrie, 49, swapped science fiction for science fact to host Britain’s Greatest Machines, a documentary series tracing the history of the nation’s coolest inventions and engineering feats over the last 100 years.
And he admitted that he felt as giddy as a schoolboy as he climbed into the cockpit of the 1920s De Havilland Gypsy Moth, just one of dozens of fun devices he got his hands on while making the new National Geographic Channel series.
The lifelong classic car enthusiast found himself in Boy’s Own heaven every day of filming.
Since the original run of Red Dwarf ended in 1999, the comic actor – who also found fame doing voices for Spitting Image and as star of The Brittas Empire – has created a successful side-line in documentaries that mean he gets paid to talk about the classic cars, vehicles and engineering achievements he has been obsessed with for the past 40 years.
His latest series starts on Monday and Chris said that whether he was behind the wheel of a 100-year-old charabanc, getting to grips with a Vickers machine gun or trying out the Brough Superior motorcycle, making the show was just about the most fun he has ever had on camera.
And he can’t wait to unleash his adventures on the viewing public.
Chris said: “This programme was heaven to make – it’s living the dream.
“I’ve always been a classic car enthusiast and love these old machines and engines. It goes back to my childhood when I grew up around an Army background, surrounded by Land Rovers, Bedford RL Trucks, 432 Armoured Personnel Carriers and Chieftain tanks.
“That sparked an enthusiasm for these kind of machines and that spread into cars, so that when I first got any kind of pay cheque, instead of buying a kitchen, I bought a Jaguar E-type – and I have been that way ever since.
“I didn’t know when I first got in touch with the Discovery Channel years ago and told them that if they ever needed celebrity anoraks, I was their man, that it would open the door to do all these kinds of shows and be so satisfying and give me all these great opportunities to play with such fantastic kit.
“But I love it. And filming the new series has been wonderful fun because I’ve not just got to see and touch so many great machines but I have had my eyes opened beyond my usual field of enthusiasm.
“We go right back to the 1910s, which is outside my interests. I was mostly a postwar man, then got interested in bikes and cars from the 20s and 30s.
“But before 1920 was out of my comfort zone, so it was a real journey of discovery as well.
Chris, from Berkshire, started his classic car collection after he shot to fame in the 80s as an impressionist and voice-over artist.
He was one of the main vocal talents behind iconic satirical puppet show Spitting Image but became a household name when he moved out from behind the latex to star in the BBC’s cult classic sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf.
He played the anally retentive, petty and annoying spaceship officer Arnold Judas Rimmer, as well as his more heroic alter ego, fighter pilot Ace Rimmer.
Created by Doug Naylor and Rob Grant and set millions of years in the future, Red Dwarf also starred Craig Charles as Dave Lister, the last surviving human, Danny John Jules as a creature who evolved from a cat and Robert Llewellyn as a robot.
Chris played Lister’s long-dead bunkmate aboard the massive mining ship Red Dwarf, who is brought back to life in the form of a hologram.
The show ran for eight series between 1988 and 1999. It made a comeback last year for a mini series called Back To Earth, and could be set for a full-scale revival later this year as the dedicated fanbase has stayed strong and loyal over the years.
Chris, now aged 49, said that he, and his co-stars, would all jump at the chance to get back on board Red Dwarf.
He added: “We have stayed in touch over the years. It’s not like we haven’t seen each other since 1999 – we have got together for DVD commentaries and conventions, things like that.
“We worked together for so long, so I don’t think we’ll ever lose that chemistry – and once we get in the outfits and the dialogue pumping, we’re there with it.
“There is talk of more Red Dwarf this year and while Back To Earth was a good one-off, from the rumours I hear, we may be doing a more standard sort of series.
“But any new Red Dwarf is fine by me. I was surprised at just how quickly I slipped back into it. It took a couple of scenes to loosen up a bit but once you get the outfit on, you’re there.
“My make up (the big ‘H’ for Hologram on his forehead) is still as easy, just needs one bit of double-sided tape – and the make up girl usually lets me do it. It’s better as a one man job. I don’t know what made the series work so well, I think the answer must be Doug Naylor.
“He’s a genius. He is well-versed in the sci-fi world and he and Rob Grant were great comedy writers, so I think Red Dwarf is the dream marriage of those two things.
“When I went for the audition, it was described to me as Steptoe And Son in space, with the Rimmer and Lister relationship, and it just flowed from there.”
With great sci-fi success there inevitably comes an obsessive following of dedicated fans.
But while some cult shows have scary followers, Chris said he has nothing but respect for the legions of Dwarf fans and none of them are frightening at all.
He explained: “I go to some conventions. Our fans are great. The reason some might find them scary at first is that they are just nervous because they are meeting these guys off the telly, from the show they love.
“I don’t find them intimidating at all. I always think the main reason we’ve been so successful down the years is the hardcore of people who absolutely adore the show.”
While his fondness for Red Dwarf is clear, presenting has been the main recent focus of his career, since fronting Chris Barrie’s Massive Machines, in 2004.
He also appeared on car-themed comedy quiz Petrolheads, and made shows such as Massive Speeds and Kings Of Nitro about four and two-wheeled speed demons.
He has also continued acting since Dwarf ended, most notably co-starring with Angelina Jolie in two Tomb Raider films, but admits he loves the chance to be himself.
He said “Massive Engines was my first full presenting job. At first, I had to try to find the right tone to use as I had to be myself instead of someone else. But it didn’t take too long because I was dealing with something I was very interested in.
“I just had to find my inner 12-year-old – it was real Boy’s Own stuff from day one and it’s very hard to disguise my enthusiasm.
“I do love old machines. I have lots of old cars and I could spend hours in my barn working and tweaking them.
“I could spend all day messing about with the kit and go off on classic car journeys with my mates for the weekend – but you’ve got to get the balance right with the family.”
Which makes his documentary career all the more fun – as he now gets paid to get up to the kind of automotive mischief that lands most married men in the doghouse.
He added: “I really loved making the new series and there were a lot of highlights.
“It’s very hard to pick a favourite. The Brough Superior motorcycle, the Vintage Bentley, the big Scammel Pioneer, the little Daimler Dingo and the Gloster high-speed launch – they’re all just fantastic.
“It opened my eyes. I thought the older stuff wouldn’t really get the pulse beating that quickly but I was very surprised by some of the cars like the old charabanc from the 1910s or the Morgan Wheeler runabout.
“But I loved flying in the Gypsy Moth – I was definitely channelling Ace Rimmer for that flight. It’s very much his kind of plane because he would have been the type of guy pioneering early air routes, so it was a very Ace thing to do – and I loved it.”
Britain’s Greatest Machines, Monday, 9pm, National Geographic Channel.