Above: Stephen Mulhern as Buttons in Cinderella at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon. Photo: Frazer Ashford
Whether it be high drama, comedy or a musical, the skill sets an actor needs to turn in a successful and memorable performance onstage in front of a paying audience are vast.
One step removed, and only a fool (or Silly Billy) would presume a top-notch panto performer requires any less talent than his or her classical counterparts when delivering the goods.
The simple fact is that the thought of tearing down the fourth wall terrifies the living daylights out of your average board-treading thespian.
As one of the country’s top TV presenters, ITV’s golden boy, Stephen Mulhern has mastered the art of live TV broadcasting and working with the public. With the constant threat of the unexpected rearing its head at any moment coupled with the continuing requirement to live off one’s wits, Mulhern is also a pantomime regular attracting the highest bounty afforded to only a handful of top A-listers.
Paul Johnson was lucky to grab half an hour with Stephen in one of those rare moments when he wasn’t being whisked off to one TV studio or another…
Making his third panto appearance to date at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre, Stephen has once again delivered a master-class in the art of holding an audience in the palm of his hand. From his dressing room deep in the bowels of the Fairfield Halls, Stephen tells me how he loves to swap the studio cameras for the stage every Christmas. For Stephen, you can’t beat the atmosphere of pantomime: “I prefer a panto audience to a TV audience. I think a studio crowd has to have a lot more discipline; there are right places and wrong places to applaud, and the audience virtually gets told what to do because they’re pretty much managed. A panto audience can do what they like. That’s why it’s a joy as you never know what’s going to happen. Like today for instance, we had the sad scene between Cinderella and Buttons and all the kids started booing Cinderella. One shouted out ‘You picked the wrong one!’ Of course he was right, which is beside the point, but you could never predict that.”
Stephen’s ability to think on his feet has made him a household name on shows such as Britain’s Got More Talent where he exploits the opportunity to improvise segments not only with the judges but also the auditioning public. It’s surely these skills and his likability factor that make him such a popular pantomime star. He did of course start out as a magician, and it’s here that Stephen acquired his confidence and rapport with people: “You know, for two years I used to be the resident magician at Hamley’s toy store,” he recalls. “I was working with members of the public all day long and I remember thinking that I really enjoyed this.” When you’ve only got a few seconds to grab the attention of a passer-by, Stephen quickly honed his act to be as effective as possible, “You’re obviously performing to thousands of tourists each day many of whom don’t speak any English, but the bonus with magic is that it doesn’t have to be vocal. So if someone is from Dubai for example, you can still perform to them because it’s all visual and that’s what I loved developing.”
From the bright lights of Regent Street it would be Stephen’s regular childhood holiday destination that would further prepare him for the glittering career that lay ahead. “I’ve still got some very good friends at Butlin’s. Your roots are really important; I worked at Minehead. It gives you that initial confidence because being a Redcoat you’re out there and you have to do it. I was terrified but over the years you build your act and, with that, comes confidence. My family went to Butlin’s for years and years, and I remember back then that I used to love seeing the Redcoats perform as well as some really good entertainers. I recall seeing Noel Edmonds there and Michael Barrymore and again, I remember thinking ‘this is what I want to do.’ There were audiences of two or three thousand people and they were making them all belly-laugh. Butlin’s was really important.”
We can all see how well Mr Mulhern’s life apprenticeship at Hamley’s and Butlin’s has paid off as he’s hardly off our TV screens. Apart from his success on the popular Britain’s Got More Talent, he also presents many of ITV’s other primetime shows such as Catchphrase, Big Star’s Little Star, Pick Me as well as his appearances on This Morning Hub. It’s working live which he adores the most. “I love the unpredictability of it,” he reveals. “I’ll tell you a secret, whenever I do a live TV show I’ll always carry a pack of cards in my breast pocket just in case something goes wrong, or in case I need to fill some time. Because I know I’ll always be able to just do a trick and it gives me that bit of security.”
At Sardines we’ve quickly realised that the more successful the interviewee, the easier they seem to make everything look, whereas the real truth is success rarely comes without a great deal of hard graft. I ask Stephen if he ever considers himself lucky: “It’s interesting, I remember seeing an interview with David Jason where Michael Parkinson said to him ‘You’ve been very lucky with the roles you’ve got haven’t you? Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours?’ To which David Jason replied ‘It’s really funny, Michael, but you know the harder I work the luckier I get.’ I think there will always be what appears to be luck, or good fortune. If I hadn’t been at Butlin’s or Hamley’s then would I have met the same people? The answer is obviously no, but you have to believe you make your own luck happen, and that takes hard work.”
Stephen has a close relationship with Paul Hendy and Emily Wood who jointly run Evolution Pantomimes (Emily’s father being Kevin Wood who himself runs First Family Entertainment – ATG’s pantomime production company) and have, once more, broken all box office records this year in Croydon. Stephen enjoys the freedom afforded to him at Evolution: “I’m quite fortunate really because all of the big panto companies make offers and, I don’t know, but there’s something about Evolution’s pantos. All the other companies obviously care, but I have a very personal relationship with Evolution. I can put my own tricks into the show as well as various routines which are done in my own shows, so we work together on the script rather than just being given one and told, ‘Okay so that’s what you’ve got to say.’ We meet up a couple of months beforehand before the rest of the cast have seen the script …and I’ll sit down with Paul – you just don’t get that with other companies.”
The role of Buttons is also a prerequisite for our favourite magician. “Cinderella is my favourite pantomime. I think it’s one of those pantos that ticks every box, especially playing Buttons. You get to do the comedy side of things, the pathos side of things and you get to keep story moving.” The lynchpin for any Cinderella production, the role of Buttons also provides the gateway through the fourth wall. Stephen talks about what he initially looks to achieve after walking onto the stage for the first time – and how he sets about doing it: “The first thing is to get the audience onside, and the way I do it is by being honest really. It’s important to make sure they’re with you from the start; if they are then they’ll be with you throughout. So you always want to come on and introduce yourself properly with something like, ‘Hiya, gang! My name’s Buttons and every time I come on and shout Hiya, gang! I want you all to shout back Hiya, buttons!’ … it’s sounds so simple but it works, and gets them all involved straightaway.”
With the crowd on your side there’s no end to the potential mischief. “You’ve also got to make sure they absolutely hate the Ugly Sisters!” he gleefully tells me. “I did a thing the other day where virtually the whole theatre was made up of school parties and I said: ‘When the Ugly Sisters come out give them a boo, but keep booing, don’t even let them talk,’ and I didn’t think it would work… they didn’t stop. When the Uglies came backstage after they said to me ‘why would you do that?’ It was every single time they went on. In the end there was no point in them even trying to speak. It did get embarrassing for me to the point where they admitted ‘there’s no point in us even going out there!’ I felt terrible afterwards but it just shows the power of getting the audience on your side.”
I attempt to get Stephen to forget that he’s a nationwide TV celebrity for a moment and put himself in village halls up and down the country where hundreds of fellow Buttons will also be getting audiences to boo the Ugly Sisters. What would he do in their place to win over the audience? “I think the secret is to talk to them and not at them,” is his initial reply. “Also you’ve got to gauge it. Timing is so important; if you get the timing wrong then lines and routines just won’t hit. But the trouble is you can only learn that by doing it, I don’t think you can teach it. You can have two Buttons performing the exact same script and exactly the same jokes and one will get a big cheer and the other won’t, so there must be a reason for it, and the reason is usually experience.”
Despite the fact that he’s almost certainly right, we’ve all got to start somewhere. So what tips has he picked up along Experience Avenue? “The last time I was here in Croydon, Danny La Rue was in the show and he taught me two amazing things. The first was during a cod laughter routine that we did together, when he said to me ‘you’re getting a good laugh on that routine but I’ll show you how to get a round of applause too.’ He told me when you’re about to laugh just give a single clap to the audience and put your hands on your knees just as you start laughing… and the audience will clap too. Unbelievably it worked! The second thing he said was when you do the walk down at the end of the show you’re bound to get a big cheer from the audience but keep looking down at the stairs until you get to the front of the stage and then look up and raise your arms… and the cheer will go up. You’d never work that out by yourself would you? You need someone experienced, who you also respect, to tell you. Honestly he was like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid. That was my second panto here, with Danny La Rue – my first was with Mr Blobby!”
Whether it’s panto or TV, it’s obvious from speaking with Stephen that he genuinely loves what he does. With Croydon’s box office record smashed once more, one also begins to understand just why these celebrities are paid such vast amounts of money each year. “I just really love it. I genuinely love it,” Stephen confesses. “And I think if you didn’t, it would be very obvious, especially on a show like Catchphrase when you’re working with members of the public. If you don’t like working with the public people will tell. I’ve seen TV presenters and thought to myself ‘you don’t enjoy it.’ I can tell, and the public aren’t stupid. Take panto; if you don’t enjoy it then don’t do it. But people say, ‘Oh, but it pays so much money,’ but you know what, it’s really not that important, it really isn’t. I’ve obviously been very lucky and when you don’t need to do it for the money any more then it’s really important because it’s too hard – don’t get me wrong, it’s not like working down the mines, but if you’re going to do it then you’ve got to do it properly.”
So, with the experience of live TV, performing to the public and the security blanket diguised as of a deck of cards in your top pocket, I wonder if it’s still possible to render our man speechless. “I don’t know about on TV but, funnily enough, we had a moment onstage the other day where I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m not going there.’ We had the kids up at the end to do the Old MacDonald Had a Farm sing-a-long and I asked this boy what his name was and he said, ‘Ben.’ Then I said ‘and who have you come to the panto with today?’ and he said ‘My mummy… and Mummy’s special friend.’ And I heard the whole audience go ‘oooooh!’ And I thought ‘I can’t say anything else to this, because I don’t know where it’s going.’”
It’s also a little reassuring to know that even the most confident of us still get nervous before walking out under the spotlights: “Yes, I get nervous. Especially during the live shows of Britain’s Got Talent. Those doors at the back of the stage are enormous, and you’re just back there completely on your own. Peter Dickson will start announcing ‘Please welcome live on stage…’ and you think, ‘Oh, my god!’ and then the doors open, and of course the first person you see is Simon! So, yes I do get nervous. I heard a great story about Frank Sinatra the other day, that before every show he would be physically sick through nerves; now who would have believed that? It’s always before you go on, once you get out there it’s fine, as all your readers will know. At the start of this panto when I’m waiting in the illusion, in my head I’m thinking ‘just make sure the trapdoor doesn’t open,’ because it could, it’s only held shut by magnets.”
With so many shows in production, Stephen’s diary is completely booked up for 2016 and, even on his days off during December’s panto he was more often than not being whisked away to a TV studio. “This year, I’ve been busier than ever. I’ve been working every day off. Yesterday we did Text Santa and tomorrow, after the second show, I’ll get picked up on a motorbike and taken to the studio live… it’s pretty mad!” He goes on to talk about some future plans, “There’s a big surprise that we’re doing with Ant and Dec which starts in February. That’s very, very exciting, and it’s live! In 2017 I want to do my own stage show which I’m writing at the moment. In fact when I’m not onstage in the panto I’m here writing stuff down. Once I’ve done my first appearance I’ve got about three minutes until my next one and then seven minutes until the one after that.” Well I guess every second counts!
The earlier mention of Ant and Dec prompts memories of last year’s undercover panto prank that Stephen fell for hook, line and sinker. Even Evolution’s Paul Hendy was in on the joke as anything that could go wrong did, and all in front of a packed auditorium. Stephen is biding his time: “Well, they’re going to get it, one day, I don’t know when, but I’m going to get them back – without question! They are at the top of the list, both of them!” Now there’s a dream panto cast… “And and Dec would make amazing Ugly Sisters but they have only ever done one panto. You could have Holly Willoughby as Cinderella and David Walliams as the Baron – he would be brilliant because he’s so unpredictable. It would never happen; there’s not a budget big enough! …But you have just given me an idea!”
So how much has our magician changed since those early days in Hamley’s and Butlin’s? Is magic gently making way for the diary-filling world of TV presenting? I ask Stephen what he would consider the worst nightmare: screwing up a live broadcast or a big magic trick going wrong. “It’s interesting that you say a ‘big’ magic trick, because if it’s close-up I can always get out of it, whereas if it’s a big trick then you’re stuffed. There’s nowhere to go,” he says, amusingly dodging the question slightly. “There was a guy called Doug Hemming who did a live TV magic show in America. He showed this big empty box, he walked inside, and said ‘what you’re about to see you’re not going to believe. I’m going to make something very special appear.’ And as he said that you heard this big elephant give the loudest trumpet from behind the box, and he totally blew it.”
I try again: ‘What’s your first love these days?’ “It used to be magic, but now I think it’s presenting, and I think the magic now has become a bonus,” is Stephen’s honest answer. “I love presenting, I absolutely love it. But the magic is always great to have because it’s something that not everybody can do.” And I guess at the end of the day, Stephen, you’ll always have that deck in your top pocket to call upon.