He's the proud owner of one of the world's biggest collections of ukuleles and even gained his Oxford degree playing the instrument. We took a glimpse into the unusual world of entertainer Andy Eastwood, who plays Wishie Washie in a Blackburn panto this Christmas.

WHEN Blackburn-born entertainer Andy Eastwood takes up the comedy lead of Wishee Washee in Thwaites Empire Theatre's production of Aladdin it'll be the first time he's spent Christmas in his home region for 20 years.

"I'm delighted to be in Blackburn for Christmas," said Andy.

"Although I live near Bournemouth now, my grandma lives in Oswaldtwistle and I still have a lot of family in Accrington. I will feel right at home."

Andy, 26, lived in Darwen until the age of five, when his parents found work in Dorset and moved south.

But by that time his grandfather Bill Stinson, a George Formby impersonator from Oswaldtwistle, had already set him on the road to a stage career by teaching him to play the ukulele and banjo.

"My grandad played the ukulele to me when I was little," he explained.

"He died when I was six and just before his death he bought me my first ukulele.

"I'm from a musical family anyway - my mum is a singer who did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan shows and my dad was a stage manager - so a career in the business was quite natural.

Completing his school education in Dorset, Andy went on to study music at Oxford University, where he became the first student ever to gain his degree by playing the ukulele.

"I was the first, and as far as I know I'm still the only one to ever do it," said Andy with a laugh.

"I like to think I opened up the music department a bit and inspired others to be less traditional - and you can't get more traditional than Oxford. I was known as the guy with the ukulele."

On graduating, Andy entered showbusiness immediately, performing as a multi-instrumental cabaret act in hotels and on cruise ships until comedian Ken Dodd gave him his break into theatre work as a guest artist in his Happiness Show.

"Working with Doddy was like going back to college," said Andy. "He taught me so much about which material to perform and how to deliver it and transformed my act into a slick, polished routine.

"He's very different off-stage. He's a very clever, thoughtful chap - a real thinker. It's not like he goes round tickling people with his tickling stick."

Lancashire audiences have taken Andy to their hearts. His first summer season at the Blackpool Winter Gardens in 2003 earned him the resort's Best New Act award, and the following year he bagged the title Top Solo Artist.

It's fair to say Andy loves his ukulele, admitting to taking it everywhere with him. He is also the proud owner of one of the world's biggest collections of the instrument.

"I've got at least 40 or 50 of them," he said. "And I just inherited a collection from a good friend of mine who died aged 92. He had possibly the biggest collection in the country.

"I don't play them all but the best one I've got is one that used to belong to George Formby. That is a real treasured possession."

So what is it about this unusual instrument that has caused Andy to dedicate his life to it?

"It's just such a nice instrument to play. You can't play anything too serious on it and it's intertwined with comedy and laughter, which is why George Formby used it so much in his act.

"I can't imagine doing anything else. This is what I have always wanted to do and it is really a way of life rather than a job."

At only 26, Andy seems very young to be so entrenched in the variety scene. Does he long for the days when variety ruled and wasn't thought of as somewhat old-fashioned?

"You say it's old-fashioned but variety is still very much in demand," said Andy.

"It's not that it's unpopular, it's just that it's not on the telly. When we do a show in theatres people go nuts for it. Ken Dodd embodies variety and he still sells out huge theatres wherever he goes.

"I think the reason variety isn't on TV is because the people in charge of the programming are too young to know what variety is so they don't really understand it."

Current TV doesn't impress Andy too much.

"If we ever ask the audience what they think of programmes on TV nowadays they shout Rubbish'," he said.

"I agree. It's all reality TV because it's so cheap to make. You don't need scripts, directors, actors. You just point the camera and keep it running."

But Andy has no plans to take a new direction - he's sticking to what he loves best.

"I love variety and I've been very lucky to work with people like Max Bygraves and Danny la Rue. I seem to have got in at the tail-end of all these great variety stars. They say I can carry it on after they've gone."

The show also stars Alex Sheldon from TV's Grange Hill as Aladdin and Pete Lindup, who was a hit last year in Snow White as PC Ping. The Genie and Slave of the Ring will be played by international illusionists Van Buren and Ally from The Netherlands, and Helen Barker will be the Princess, with a chorus of talented local dancers from the Zoe Taylor Dance Academy.

Aladdin opens on Tuesday, December 12 and runs until New Year's Eve. Thwaites Empire Box Office: 01254 680137.