For theatre... online, non-professional, amateur
The Big Producers (Panto Special)

The Big Producers (Panto Special)

Paul Johnson speaks with Mark Jones, Marketing Manager of Qdos Pantomimes

While we were in Woking prior to this year’s big pantomime extravaganza, Aladdin, we were fortunate to sit down with Mark Jones. Qdos’ Marketing Manager gave us an insight into what makes the world’s biggest pantomime producer tick.

How difficult is it to keep pantomime writing one step ahead of today’s hyper-sensitive and politically-correct society? Is panto possibly one of the only surviving genres that still has a free pass?
“It does and it doesn’t. We are very careful. We want to honour the tradition of panto – and do it justice, but we need to keep in mind different issues that exist today. For example, we went to a school in Milton Keynes earlier this year to talk to the head teacher about panto in general and she made the point that even little things like splitting up the boys and girls for the songsheet is a tricky thing to do. In her school she has three or four kids who identify as trans, and to me, I hadn’t thought about that at all. We constantly have the audience in mind so we’re treading that line but not crossing it because we don’t ever want to cause harm and offence to anyone. So even down to that level you have to be careful that you’re not pushing the boundaries too far.
“The Dame is so iconic in the world of panto that it would be a shame to lose that character entirely. It’s funny because they’re never ladylike and often what makes them funny is the grotesque look rather than glamorous.”

Has the rise of social media helped or hindered your job?
“Generally, I think it’s helped. It’s always interesting to see instant reactions to casting announcements, for example, and we monitor it very carefully so we are keeping up to date with who’s popular etc. You have to don’t you, and it’s a really good temperature gauge in terms of ‘what are people really responding to well?’ Obviously people do have their opinions and we welcome that. Sometimes we get negative social media attention and that’s fine too. My current favourite is – because we are in the middle of launching [our pantomimes], I’ll send tweets out saying, ‘Here are some of the cast of this year’s show…’ and instantly, somebody would tweet back telling us that’s not the full cast, even though that’s exactly what we’ve just said. It’s quite frustrating at times but that’s part of the social media world.”

What is the magic formula that has made Qdos the world’s biggest pantomime producer?
“I don’t think there’s a magic formula. At its heart are people who have loved panto for such a long time; we are all panto enthusiasts. I’ve been doing it for twelve years and we are probably a mad bunch of people, but we are doing it because we love it. We’re also very small team really, the hub of the office. The core team is probably only made up of about twelve people and I think it’s that commitment and working with the people who we work with; we endeavour to get the best writers, the best artistes, the best stage management, special effects and so on… We work all year round and probably about eighteen months in advance, so we’re already planning for next year and the year beyond – so it’s quite crazy when the schedules come in for 2021 and 2022!”

Is paying the big cheques to the most popular stars just a case of balancing the books?
“It all depends. In terms of who’s going to be in the show, the production budget, the run length, size of house… It is very difficult balancing act in terms of what you can book and who do you put in where? We throw a lot of money at these productions, so they are all a huge endeavour, and let’s not forget we are a commercial theatre so we do need to make some money at the end of the day. But we really don’t do it for profit, we do it because we love it so much and we want the right people in the right roles in the right places.
“We do panto in Edinburgh at the King’s Theatre where, this year, we usually have three – but this year four – amazing Scottish actors. But if you put those same actors on here in Woking then I don’t think it would work; they’re are very well loved in their hometown where they’ve done it for like thirty or forty years and have massive appeal. Their show does bonkers figures at the box office, and they don’t even do anything massively different year on year, but people absolutely adore them.”

How excited were you to bring pantomime back to the London Palladium four years ago?
“Well, for us it was huge. It was a bit of a gamble, and we originally had the opportunity from Andrew Lloyd Webber to do it. That was the year we also took over ATG’s shows [from First Family] so, overnight, we went from doing twenty-four pantos to thirty-five. The whole thing was a leap and a challenge, but it paid off. The first one, I thought, was a brilliant production and we learnt a lot from it. We’ve now built on that year-on-year.”

Did you ever envisage Nigel Havers and other ‘regulars’ becoming such a favourite part of the Palladium’s new panto era?
“I don’t think we did. That is all the result of a natural bit of chemistry, and that core team – who we’re reuniting this year for Goldilocks and the Three Bears as well – just works; it’s the greatest formula.”

Professional pantomime productions tend to stick to the big – arguably predictable – half a dozen titles. So what is behind the thinking in bringing a different panto, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, to The Palladium this year?
“Yes, that title is a bit of a departure. We put it in Newcastle last year, where our managing director, Michael Harrison, directs and exec produces every single year. Again, Newcastle features a cast that wouldn’t necessarily work as well anywhere else; they always appear there and their local appeal is massive. So with a core cast like that you can gamble things a little bit do a bit of a departure from the usual Cinderellas or Aladdins. Goldilocks itself is a brilliant panto because it brings in a lot of ‘circus’ as well as panto and Vaudeville. The Palladium is the home of ‘Variety’, so we now have that core cast of Julian Clary, Paul O’Grady, Matt Baker from the one show, Nigel Havers, Paul Zerdin and Gary Wilmot all doing their usual panto stuff. But in addition we’ve also got these amazing illusionists and other acts I can’t really go into at the moment.
“Weirdly, you’d think there were some big egos in panto but, the truth is, there very rarely is. They usually do it because they love it, and they like to work for us so we tend to have quite a happy family everywhere.”

How much pressure is on you to find something new each year?
“There are certain routines that work really well and we move around a bit, but they’ve all been written and created by us anyway. So, because we have so many pantos it is possible to pick things up and move them into other venues. Since we acquired the ATG venues we can also now afford to be more innovative and bring new things to brand-new audiences. For instance, a couple of years ago, here in Woking for Robin Hood [one such ATG venue], we had a huge T-Rex that came stomping down the middle of the stage; that was something that has never been seen here before. This year in Aladdin the magic carpet does something very, very special – which I’m afraid I can’t go into either – but, with things like the big red London bus at the Palladium, I really don’t know how the Twins FX do it. They are phenomenal and I really don’t know where they get their ideas from.”

Who, in your mind, has been the biggest pantomime-casting revelation over the last ten years or so?
“I think last year, for us, Robert Lindsay was a huge coup. We obviously knew he was already a fantastic award-winning actor, but he was phenomenal. And he really got involved in developing a far from obvious interpretation of Captain Hook. He was also very happy to play up to his actor persona, but also to include some songs from Oliver! for instance and also mock himself a little bit. He carried the whole role off with real swagger and, I for one, was completely blown away by him.
“Also, at the Palladium last year, we knew Dawn French would be amazing but to have a comedy actress of her calibre do our pantomime was incredible.”