Jack and the Beanstalk | Peter Duncan as Dame Trott | Photo: Gordon Render
Peter Duncan, now in his mid-60s, will probably be forever known, by those of a certain age, as one of the 1980s Blue Peter presenters – in particular the John Noakes-style daredevil who cleaned the face of Big Ben without a safety harness (try doing that today!). Anybody who can’t remember the iconic show of the 80s might be scratching their heads trying to place the actor and presenter – that is unless you’re a big panto fan.
And I do mean ‘big’. In fact a cast of forty, plus a twelve-foot giant, plus an eco-friendly story, plus original songs and a real garden setting… all written by a clock cleaner (careful how you say that!).
Duncan has appeared in and written many pantomimes over the last thirty years. It’s a genre he’s very familiar with. “I grew up with panto,” he tells me over the phone (as is the way these days). “My father was a pantomime and summer season producer called Alan Gale and so I was steeped in the history of it from day one.” Not only that; he’s in no doubt as to the importance of pantomime across the country: “Especially after the year we’ve just had I realise how integral pantomime is to our culture and how people of all ages miss it when they can’t go.”
Can’t go is right. In fact the entire panto season for 2020, professional and amateur, has been completely wiped out thanks to a certain worldwide pandemic. That’s a lot of audiences, a lot of reality/ soap stars, a lot of fresh graduates in their first professional roles and a lot of money that hasn’t been spent this year. When Cameron Mackintosh closed the doors of his big four West End musicals (Phantom, Les Mis, Hamilton and Mary Poppins) back in 2020 until at least Easter 2021 people thought he was being a little overdramatic. Not so Mr Duncan; he also saw the writing on the wall very early.
“I didn’t share the opinion that it was a big surprise when it happened. Having studied what was going on around us, I had the opinion that it probably would be like this, and continue to be like this for some time. When it first kicked in this time last year straightaway I thought it would be good to do something else. I’m astounded by just how many theatre producers and owners said, ‘It’ll all be back to normal and it’ll all be over in three months.’ That never seemed to me to be the case which is why I did what I did.”
“And there is a kind of a strange status going on now where theatre producers are scared to produce anything because they’re worried that we might end up going into a deeper lockdown; or start rehearsing or employing people and then theatres won’t open,” discloses Peter. “Incidentally, it’s those theatres that have furloughed staff and are receiving some Arts Council money that can tick over while not producing anything. So it’s a very difficult place. What would be the point of opening up the West End anyway? There are no tourists or anybody to go to the shows. But I do think a hard rain is going to fall when the money stops. That recalibration may result in the industry bouncing back in a more healthy way. That’s what I think anyway. I’ve always had more actors than administrators; I’ve always very much taken more of an actor-manager role. You’re just not going to get much public confidence going on, even with the vaccine being rolled out as we speak. There’s a certain amount of doubt over its efficacy. Every day of every week there’s a different question being raised. That bounding confidence or returning to our previous lives isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”
The insightful actor, producer, writer, director, presenter, designer… (It’s a long list) told me of Jack and the Beanstalk’s early plans, way back in 2020: “I’ve had an idea for a ‘planet-saving’ panto in the locker-room for a while now. So I wrote a version which I knew I was going to film and, in the summer months we were very lucky to be in between [infection] waves. I had lots of ideas that came one after the other and I knew I wanted to work with a lot of people. I couldn’t go on a big audition spree which gave me the chance to work with many of the people I love be with… crew, technicals and actors. So surrounding myself with positive people was easy. I’d already had the idea to film in both mine and my neighbour’s gardens, which gives us huge scope, like a filming block really.”
“I was always doing this to go online only,” continues Peter not resisting the chance to take a swipe at the competition, “…which is what everybody is doing now after playing catch up for a while. Mind you most of them are streamed from theatres whereas we had always planned for this to go online and reach people through different mediums: Schools, Scouts… etc. What I hadn’t envisaged is for it to have a major film release.”
The ‘major film release’ Duncan is referring to is when Everyman Cinemas arrived on the scene and loved what they saw: “I have produced for the big screen before in the form of a bit of drama and travelogues,” recalls Duncan. “But it still meant I had to make some decisions for something that was always planned to be seen as a kind of live performance – there are live vocals only on the film for instance. I then needed something spectacular and I remembered that my neighbour has a kind of castle or folly in his garden.”
Pantomime on the big screen… what about the all-important atmosphere… the shouts, the boos, the cheers? “Everyman Cinemas subsequently became our co-producers. Then it was released all around the country – in those that were still allowed to open anyway. We did also have to upgrade some levels of what you do for a film release such as DCPs [Digital Cinema Packages]. It’s not a Hollywood blockbuster by any means but it was shot well and it works – especially the interactive parts. Everybody said that we couldn’t do a panto on film but for me that myth was busted when I sat at the back of a cinema and saw all the same things going on as with a live theatre show… shouting out, screaming at the action the lot.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” beams a triumphant Peter Duncan. “We took a chance to have a character look into the camera and expect a retort… and not fill the gap with lots of sound effects and noises. You have to participate when you watch it, even on your own. I think the experience of doing that came from performing panto and knowing the timings etc. and that goes for the good, bad and funny characters.”
“By the way, aspects from the production are all available for hire for anybody who wants to borrow them,” Dame Trott tells me, carving a beautiful link to amateur theatre. “Although you’ll have to pay.” Well we would expect nothing for free. Peter tells me about his mother’s days in am-dram: “My mother was a professional singer, and when she retired and came to live with us she joined the London Transport Players which, at that time, was one of the most established amateur companies. She did many shows with them and really enjoyed that. I remember when they did a big musical they would always have a full orchestra, which no commercial shows or pantomimes could ever afford. A lot of pros used to go and see the shows just to hear the music played as the composers had originally intended. She had a great second career with those amateurs and, generally, was complimentary about it; it was very slightly worse than the back-stabbing of the professional world, ha ha! She put up with it though and eventually made it on to the committee.”
“It’s absolutely correct that many of today’s professionals catch the performing bug with an amateur company,” Peter continues to enthuse. “Sometimes the pros tend to look down on it all without realising that this ‘hobby’ is actually a vocation. There aren’t that many hobbies left that people really enjoy. People are volunteering because they enjoy that association with young people and they’ll do it for nothing because it gives them enormous pleasure – it’s definitely that way with amateur theatre.”
It was hardly surprising that Peter ended up in the entertainment industry, but who would have thought he’d become a presenter on one of the most iconic and successful children’s television programmes of all time? “The Blue Peter thing was in front of a different audience to what I’d been used to at that time, much younger and with an iconic programme,” he says, casting his mind back some forty years. “The Blue Peter stint was a different shift and I didn’t really do panto until after those days really… even though it was always part of my make up.” I can tell that Peter would rather talk about the panto, although his heart does go out to the swathes of industry people who haven’t been as lucky: “It’s terrible for the freelancers in particular,” he ponders. “And I almost can’t imagine how difficult it is right now for younger people; it’s only the tenacious who will come through it. In the end the practicality of having to find something to do to earn money and put food on the table as well as paying for somewhere to live is going to become a priority… when the handouts stop.”
The word ‘tenacious’ reminds me of something Derek Jacobi once told me: “If you want to act, don’t bother, but if you have to act, do it!” Of course Peter has worked with Sir Derek. “Ha ha! Absolutely! One of my first jobs for Olivier’s company at The Old Vic was The White Devil,” says the name-dropping ex-Blue Peter presenter. “There was Derek Jacobi, Geraldine McEwan and loads of classic actors of the day. I’d come on as Prince Giovanni towards the end and condemn them all to death… so I’d quite enjoy that.”
Getting back to panto… and due to the current lockdown the cinema journey has ground to a halt. Not that it seems to be knocking our eternal optimist. “With the current lockdown it’s been stopped in its tracks a little, and we’re now purely online going into people’s homes. Hopefully things will calm down a little bit and cinemas might start to reopen, perhaps towards the end of March. It’ll be nice to have a second run but we just don’t know. The panto season is an odd thing now. The season is over and I can’t see any live productions going up now; the uncertainty is too great. That multi- generational audience include the most vulnerable in society. Are you going to come with your grandchildren? It’s a very difficult world to be in right now, particularly for pantomime.”
Well I’m not going to argue with the man who sees all, am I. “So I think we may be stuck with this online world for some time, but at least it does allow something to happen, and it’s been very well-received,” says Mr Duncan looking around for his soapbox. “We’ve had great reviews and lots of individual personal responses. There may come a point where it’s ok all of a sudden and then it’s how quickly people can respond and react. But again whether the audience will rush back into buildings is another thing. Every country is certainly different and we have no idea of the efficacy of the vaccine and we have no idea how things will develop. It’s such an unknown. And business people cannot bear indecision. How you can control something like this to fit your scenario – and you can’t. People say that they’re doing their best, but they’re often doing their best for what suits them.”
As well as his political views, Peter can’t resist one last swipe at some of the other so-called festive productions that have tried to compete within the pandemic. “There have been some terrible mistakes gone on; people recording overlong live Christmas shows, maybe at large institutions that shouldn’t be giving it away for free – I won’t mention any names but suffice to say there have been some spectacular mistakes. People who are not really panto practitioners, thinking they can knock it off… you might even know who I’m talking about.”
And we’re back to politics, not that Peter doesn’t make a valid point: “It’s extraordinary that the government hasn’t looked at it a bit better, let alone giving all the money to the big institutions. It’s the buildings again. They’ve forgotten that the lifeblood is the people, the creatives who make it all; that’s where it comes from. The Arts Council giving money to buildings and people who run buildings, for me, is not what it’s about.”
“If you want to be proactive and do something you have to make a choice, and one could make a good choice or a bad choice. But you have to be nimble, and I do feel sorry for theatre owners and councils because they are, like a lot of things in our society, moribund, stuck and over trafficked. Systems which don’t really work when you get into a situation like this. Generally, both in all forms of government and the way we behave as a society, there has to be a recalibration really and theatre’s just one of those things that will need to follow suit.”
Suddenly I wish I had a beanstalk in my back garden with bags of gold coins at the top.
To see Peter Duncan’s full-length pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk, visit: pantooline.co.uk