Christopher Biggins cuts into the cake as he prepares to take on his 43rd panto as Widow Twankey, in Aladdin at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre.
Alongside the national treasure is young ventriloquist, Max Fulham (left), comedian, Rikki Jay (right) and panto newbie, Yazdan Qafouri (far right), who won a major role in the ‘Take That’ musical The Band by auditioning on Gary Barlow’s televised Saturday night reality show, Let It Shine.
There will be more from Biggins’ fellow cast members in our next issue.
Photo: Paul Johnson
By Paul Johnson
In our bumper 10-page special, we bring you a plethora of panto stories and advice from some of the biggest stars in the business.
Some are panto veterans (like Biggins here) while others are seasoned professionals still cutting their pantomime teeth (such as soprano, Leslie Garrett).
There’s lots more to come in our next issue, but for now…
Biggins: “We have a dinner Christmas Eve that I always manage to get back for, wherever I’m performing. On Christmas day the usual things; lots of presents, caviar and Champagne, a big Christmas lunch with all the trimmings and then we normally fall asleep either watching a movie or after the Queen. Then of course I go back as the biggest performance is always the Boxing Day show the very next day. There are only two years when I haven’t done a pantomime at Christmas, and it was very odd not having to rush back for Boxing Day.”
Brian Conley: “We enjoy the Hoe and the Barbican in Plymouth, but with two shows a day, I won’t be getting much time off. In fact, one of the reasons I love doing pantomime is because over the Christmas period, I can eat as much as I want and not put on any weight because I’m doing two shows every day. I can eat the biggest Christmas dinner ever and all the desserts. So all in all, I’ll be having a great time and I can’t wait.”
Biggins: “I live a charmed life and I suppose the biggest thing that’s happened to me recently is that last Christmas I turned seventy. I was depressed for an hour before realising that seventy is the new fifty, so I got on with it. And it’s been marvellous.”
Brendan Cole: “This is only my third pantomime. The thing is the Strictly judges only do Saturday nights, while the dancers do every day and every night, you’re working with your partner to get the dances right. During Strictly you cannot book anything up, not one bit of work, unless you get authority first. You just can’t do it.”
Bobby Davro: “I think it’s thirty-eight, but it might even be forty. I do two a year now, and I’ve done that for the last seven years. I started doing pantomime when I was about twenty years old, and I love this theatre in Woking; I can’t wait to get going. It’s funny, certain theatres are very good for comedy and this is one of them. Maybe it’s the design, the acoustics. This is my third panto here.”
Leslie Garrett: “Next year I celebrate forty years as a professional soprano, never out of work, so at this latter end of my career I thought it’s time I shook myself up a bit and tried some things I’ve never done before. My role in the comedy The Messiah a year ago was the start of that. This year I was thinking what could I do to top that, and then this wonderful opportunity to play Fairy Godmother came along. I have been asked to do pantomime before but I just didn’t think the time is quite right. Now, it is. I think I’m probably mature enough to take on the gravitas of the role of Fairy Godmother.
“Some extraordinary artistes have played Fairy Godmother. When I was researching the role I discovered Helena Bonham Carter has played it, and Whitney Houston, for example. And I discovered I have a great respect for pantomime, and it’s having a wonderful resurgence, largely thanks to people like Ian McKellen, Dawn French and all kinds of other wonderful artistes playing great pantomime characters.”
Tim Vine: “This will be my eighth. I only do one every two or three years.” The last one was in Wimbledon three years ago.”
Ore Oduba: “It’s all about preparation really because the panto schedule is incredibly gruelling and if you’re not up to it you’ll fall short quite quickly. Being in Grease was a perfect way for me to begin my theatre career, and to go from that to a bona fide touring musical [Curtains] – and then straight on into panto is incredible. I’ll certainly know whether I’m cut out for all of this when 2020 gets here. But I’ve not stopped loving it since I started.
“I actually did panto when I was growing up. In my early days I played CinderFella! So if it wasn’t in sport I was larking about on the stage, and I really want to bring all those tools to the table.”
Jon Clegg: “It’s hard to believe but this is my nineteenth pantomime this year. It’s five years ago now since I did BGT. So obviously I was doing panto for a long, long time before that, but suddenly it gets added to the poster: ‘Jon Clegg from Britain’s Got Talent!’ And you do get a lot of people who want to know about it as well; the experience of it, what’s Simon Cowell like? But it was great for me and worked out very well… and it’s something to look back on isn’t it.”
Yazdan Qafouri: “Of course I auditioned. Come on, who am I! I did the audition, came in, and about an hour later I got a call offering me the part. I know everyone saw my very public audition on Let It Shine on Saturday-night TV for The Band, but you can never turn down an audition, so here I am. I know Biggins doesn’t audition but he’s been doing it for forty-three years. Maybe if I end up doing it that long I won’t have to either.”
Leslie Garrett: “As far as the children are concerned, at that moment, I am the fairy godmother and I can do magic – that’s certainly what I’m hoping. Fairy Godmother is also such a motherly character; she’s very safe and is very appealing. She’s also kind of what Christmas is all about; she brings gifts and magic, hope and the possibility of positive change. She’s basically, Mrs Fixit! which is how I’m seen in my family, so this character is very familiar to me.”
Bobby Davro: “I think the basics of pantomime will always remain the same; there is a unique set of laws and a basic rhythm of jokes that won’t change. It’s completely different to when I do stand-up for instance. It’s just a different and unique style I think, and you have to learn that to make it work. You have to learn how to pull focus and not distract.
“We used to do the ‘bum bum fly gag’. I say to someone, ‘Excuse me, are those bum bum flies, flying around your face?’ And he’d say, ‘Bum bum flies, bum bum flies, what are bum bum flies?’ Then I’d say, ‘A bum bum fly is a kind of fly that is attracted to a man’s… face.’ ‘Are you saying I’ve got a face like a cow’s bum?’ And I’d go, ‘No, but you’re not fooling them bum bum flies!’ By reinforcing the term ‘bum bum flies’ and saying it a certain amount of times, the gag works, otherwise it wouldn’t. Isn’t it strange. But there are a lot of things like that, little combinations and traditional stuff, in pantomime. I’ve written quite a lot of scenes now myself over the years – like the ‘donkey routine’ which I’m doing here. I’ll come on stage on a donkey but it’s only got three legs, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s a wonky donkey!’ And it’s only got one eye, so it’s a ‘winky, wonky donkey,’ and it smells bad, so it’s a, ‘stinky, winky, wonky donkey,’ but he does dance, so he’s a, ‘funky, stinky, winky, wonky donkey.’ It goes right through for about two minutes… pantomime is full of things like that.
“The other thing about pantomime is that when you write you have to focus the writing on the adults. That’s not to say it’s not for children as well, but you write for the adults. The innuendo content and double entendres completely go over the kids’ heads and, as long as it’s not smutty, it will work.”
Brian Conley: “The thing to remember is that a pantomime is a vehicle to hang as much comedy on as possible, it has to be comedy-driven. You can’t have any long, drawn-out songs – and if there is singing, something funny has got to be happening at the same time. I think we only do one serious song in Cinderella and it’s right up front. The other thing is that a lot of it is visual – both in terms of the comedy and the set. It has to be spectacular, so that people are completely blown away. That’s a common mistake some people make: as soon as you say ‘panto’, they imagine a church hall production that’s been put together for eight quid! But panto is huge.
“So, when people ask ‘what makes a successful panto’, that’s the answer – you’ve got to make them laugh, and lots. And after all my years of doing this, I know what makes a whole family laugh – it’s stupid, visual, dangerous Brian, doing stupid things.”
THE WORLD’S GONE MAD!…
Biggins: “It’s very sad, what’s happening. That will be the day when I retire, when people suddenly make a political movement towards the genre. If they do that then I’m out because that’s not what I want to be fighting. Nowadays you have to be so careful as to what you say; you can’t say this and you can’t say that. You can’t refer to ‘black’ people, ‘yellow’ people, gay or straight; ‘I don’t want to be called him or her, ’ …well what do you want to be called? I find it bizarre, and it’s so alien to me, I really don’t want to know. I’ll just say, ‘That’s it! I’m off!’… to Barbados. Ha ha!”
Bobby Davro: “Society is so PC now and the world of comedy is walking on egg shells all the time. The press is so negative in this country and it’s such a shame because this is such a great place, despite the doom and gloom over the election, Brexit and everything else going on. It’s a shame that a handful of PC people appear to be trying to spoil it for the majority. We are being told what is right by the minority and we are pandering to those people. As long as you’re laughing with people and not at people then everyone should be included, including jokes about sexuality, race etc. If you ignore those people and completely leave them out then you’re making them more of a minority. Being offended on behalf of other people is just wrong. Most of my friends, who may be black or gay, will laugh at everything. As long as you’re not being cruel or ridiculing them, then we should all have a laugh, like we do with football teams. As a Tottenham man I always take the mickey out of Arsenal, and Arsenal do the same to Spurs fans – and that’s the way it should be. As a comedian it’s about a joke.”
RESPECT, NOT SNOBBERY…
Biggins: “It used to be very uncool to do pantomime, but now people like Ian McKellen have done it, and Robert Lindsay last year, it’s all changed. And of course pantomime is producing the audience of the future, because what happens is: if they have enjoyed the pantomime this year, they’ll book for next year’s show. But not only that, they’ll get hooked on theatre and may very well go and see Shakespeare or Chekhov, so we are the breeding ground for theatre – which I think is very important.”
Jonathan Kiley: “The stamina required in pantomime is extraordinary. A lot of actors are very grand about pantomime, but it’s a genre that is very specific and a uniquely British art form; and it’s not as easy as everyone thinks. Twice daily for six days a week really is hard work, and the energy of pantomime is like a tornado once the overture begins. You’re whisked away for two hours to a magical land with fantasy, magic, fun, music and dancing – and it is the best feeling. I’ve always loved it; it’s got everything and is probably the last Bastian of variety today.
“There is nothing like live theatre. And in pantomime the audience change the performance, so it’s true that no performance is the same. No matter how many times you see a movie it will always be the same, but in the theatre, in pantomime, every single performance is unique. The audience’s reactions to the comic – as well as their reactions to the audience – is what make a performance.”
Leslie Garrett: “The thing about pantomime is that it’s so flexible. Artistes from different backgrounds, different genres – such as opera – can come and bring what they have from their world to the world of pantomime. There really will never be another Cinderella like the one we are going to put on because there won’t be the same collection of extraordinarily talented people taking part. We’ve got a unique line-up, as has every pantomime right across the country.
“It wouldn’t have been till I got to London that I discovered a snobbery. We certainly don’t have it in Yorkshire where I grew up; good music is just good music, and entertainment is entertainment… as long as it’s entertaining! When I got to London I discovered that some artistes look down on other artistes, or genres. And it wasn’t just opera that can be like that. I have spent my life trying to break down that stereotype.”
Tim Vine: “Cinderella is actually a very engaging story, and Buttons has really now being replicated in all of those other stories, with varying degrees of success.”
Brian Conley: “Cinderella completely epitomises pantomime, doesn’t it? I genuinely am excited, more than I’ve been for a few years, because I have been doing 9 to 5 for so long – since last Christmas – so it will be just a breath of fresh air for me to step away from it and have some fun.
“Last year, there was a dad in the audience with his two little kids, and he was crying because he just thought ‘what a wonderful moment that the kids will never forget.’ That’s what it’s all about – when you’ve got to put your phone down and you can’t take a photo, you can live in the moment and experience what is happening here and now. That’s what we can bring, and that’s what has kept pantomime so really there, because it’s something that the whole family can sit and enjoy and have a good laugh.”
DEALING WITH THE PRESSURE…
Tim Vine: “I think as long as you remember that these shows are supposed to be a lot of fun, then you’ll be okay. It’s okay for me because I think it’s harder if you’re not allowed to look at the audience – which is what I do in stand-up all of the time. Once you begin and you’re looking out at them and they’re looking back at you and you quickly realise that you’re all friends in this together. Plus if something does go wrong, it inevitably tends to improve the situation anyway. It’s not like doing King Lear; Forgetting a line in panto is probably a lot easier than forgetting a line while sitting on that throne with the rain pouring down.”
Jon Clegg: “From experience, you already know that the stuff you’re going to do is going to appeal to the audience, the kids especially. So you can afford to have a quiet confidence…”
BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL…
Bobby Davro: “I’m getting old now. When I do my stand-up shows, my opening line is, ‘My name is Bobby Davro; I’m the only entertainer from an age who hasn’t been arrested!’ It always gets a laugh, and there’s normally someone who shouts back, ‘Yet!’ I also do a routine about getting older and stuff. Anyway, when I did Cinderella a few years back, I was playing buttons – I’m sixty-one now and Cinderella was about twenty-two – I had the line, ‘Cinderella, I wish I could kiss you!’ and a kid shouted out from the back, ‘Operation Yew tree!’ … rightly so, it got a big laugh but, at the same time, managed to throw me a bit. In a way it’s getting more and more difficult to play Buttons, which is a shame because Buttons is the best character in pantomime.”
THE REHEARSAL ROOM…
Leslie Garrett: “There are actually two things I requested with this production; the first …was that I really wanted to fly as I’ve never done that before. The second was that I really wanted a belter of a number which will require all of my operatic training, and I’ve got one. I just sing as I sing, rather than differentiating between, ‘this is a classical gig’ and ‘this is a non-classical gig.’ I just sing with the voice I always sing with, which can be adapted to suit certain composers. I don’t sing Bach like I would Puccini, so why would I sing Andrew Lloyd Webber or Sting like I’d sing Verdi? I’ll find exactly the right quality of sound for this character. I’ve also been allowed lots of input during rehearsals to achieve this which is much appreciated.”
Brendan Cole: “They’ll have a vision of what they want and they already have a director and a choreographer, so I wouldn’t dream of coming in saying I want this, this and this – you’re either a diva or a dick! So, I’ll sit back and wait, and if I’m asked to do some stuff then I’ll be happy to do it. Until then I’m more than happy to respect their situation.”
Tim Vine: “What tends to happen is that I can probably have a slightly better time in the evening compared to the matinee purely because wordplay requires a little bit of brain power and knowledge to have a basic understanding of what I’m talking about. If you’re five you may not have heard of Marmite… not that I’ve particularly got a lot of Marmite material. Having said that, I once entered a competition and won a year’s supply of Marmite – one jar! So a five year old might not necessarily laugh at that but, what does go brilliantly with the younger ones is if I’m in a scene with the wicked Queen or Stepmother, and she’s getting more and more angry with me, while I’m getting more and more silly. They love that, plus any shouting out; anything that cocks a snoot to authority really. If in doubt, shout something out!
“I’m bound to mention Strictly when talking to Ore for instance. When I did Cinderella with Linda Gray from Dallas, I said that I’d hit my thumb and it was ‘Sue-Elling!’”
Jon Clegg: “I don’t like to add too much as I think you tend to start losing the story a little bit. I’ve seen some pantos when a comic will do twenty minutes of material… and believe me you really don’t want to do that. It’s like with the impressions; I like to incorporate them into the story wherever possible. Sometimes the script will say: ‘do an impressions spot,’ so I’ll do one but it’s just for a few minutes, and usually at the start just to get the kids warmed up a bit.”
Ore Oduba: “Well, we have a very short rehearsal of about two weeks. Thanks to Grease and Curtains I haven’t really been offstage since June so that sense of routine really gets into the muscle memory. With Curtains, after a couple of weeks of rehearsals we were more or less there.”
DRIVING THE STORY…
Yazdan Qafouri: “Ha! It’s absolutely fine. Those guys have been hired to do what they do and I’ve been hired to do what I do. I’m not a comedian or a stand-up comic but I’m going to learn what I can, and I can’t wait. Instead of throwing a pie in someone’s face, I’ll be the one getting a pie in the face!”
Ore Oduba: “I really hope I’m going to be very involved. Dandini is obviously an integral part of the actual story when it comes to getting Prince Charming and Cinderella together, but I think – and this is reading between the lines a bit – there’s quite a lot of fun to be had. I’ve been told I’ll be dancing – I know, surprise surprise – which I am actually overjoyed about because I’ve not had a chance to get a big number under my belt since Strictly and I’ve not stopped loving dancing.”
Yazdan Qafouri: “I’ve always wanted to be an actor, from a very young age. While I was doing the auditions for Let It Shine I was auditioning for drama school. I was rejected from my first round at RADA but had recalls from Guildhall and Oxford School of Drama. I would never demerit drama school, but that’s just not the path I’ve taken so far; I’ve probably done things quite a similar fashion to the old Rep Theatre process by learning on the job. In the book True and False by David Mamet, he says that ‘the only way you can learn is by doing.’ And he talks about the ‘fires’ of an audience, and it’s only in front of an audience that you know you’re doing the right job. You can do a million exercises at drama school but it’s only when you get in front of an audience that you’re really tested.
“Something else you don’t get at drama school is working full time with such experienced actors, and it doesn’t matter which genre you’re performing in, the experience that Christopher Biggins has got is priceless. Even at the launch today, in the twenty minutes I’ve been around him the first thing you realise is that he’s not afraid to take risks.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO IT?
Brian Conley: “The biggest thing for me is that it’s a family event – those four little kids at the end that come up – that’s one of the loveliest moments. I really do enjoy that.”
Jon Clegg: “I spend the rest of the year alone onstage, so for me, I love getting together and spending time with a cast of people. But I think the biggest pleasure for me is seeing the joy on the kids’ faces in the audience and how much in awe they are of all the characters up there on the stage.”
Leslie Garrett: “It would be impossible to achieve the level I’ve reached today without professional training. But equally, it would have been impossible for me to get where I am today without the amateur training I had before that. It’s that important. All my family were musical. My grandfathers were both fantastic musicians; grandad Garrett was a dance band leader and had a band called Arthur Garrett and the Blackout Boys, and grandad Wall was a proper pucker pianist – and that takes a bit of saying. He was born into a mining family but because he had a weak chest he couldn’t go down the pit. As a result he was ‘put to the piano’ as we say in the North.
“In those days, over a hundred years ago, there was so much music in the community that the next best way of earning money, after mining, was through music – either playing it or singing. My parents were also very musical and could play any number of instruments, and we all just sang around the piano. My school was also fantastically musical and we’d do opera one term and Benjamin Britten the next, then G&S, Rogers & Hammerstein. So I grew up with music being my whole life; I sang every day and couldn’t imagine a world without singing. To me it was just like eating or drinking.
“It was everywhere. There were brass bands, choirs… my mum was in two choirs; Scunthorpe Choral and Doncaster Choral. My dad formed his own operatic society and was in a barbershop quartet… and honestly, my whole family were like that. Our house was the place you came to for a sing song and a drink. It was fantastic, and I certainly wouldn’t be here today without all of that. The amateur movement is probably more important than anything, it really is; it gives us all the start we need.”