How does the panto take shape?
The process begins on the last night of the previous pantomime when, traditionally, I announce the title for next year, and tickets go on sale on March 1st. We are probably the longest-running panto in the country and there’re lots of tickets to sell over the eight weeks. This’ll be my fortieth panto and, apart from a couple of years in the West End, my career in pantomime has been at one theatre and in one place. I’m classed as the oldest surviving dame in the business. You do all this acting, Shakespeare and whatever, and what are you remembered for? Wearing a frock!
How many people are involved?
I always compare it with putting on a premiere of a musical, except we have fifteen different sets, which is probably more than in a musical. We make our own, brand new sets and costumes every year. I’m very proud of that. We have a reputation for being one of the best pantos in the country. We’re only a couple of pounds more than other theatres, and you can still see our show for £10. The value’s all on stage, not on stars’ salaries, which I’m very proud of. We’re a repertory theatre that puts on a little, local pantomime as if we were the Palladium!
Does the panto evolve much?
Gracious, yes! It constantly evolves. It’s a very innocent form of entertainment, so you’ve got to keep the actors from getting bored and stale. I keep them on their toes with lots of ad-libbing. We have phenomenal fans. When the tickets go on sale, they queue from midnight outside the theatre, and by morning the queue stretches all the way to York Minster. We sell thousands of tickets on that first day. I write, front and co-direct the pantomime. Sounds like a lot of work, but I often think the audience write it! We want our panto to be accessible to all. We’re a family pantomime but we do not play safe, and we’re very unpredictable and unusual. I hate talking about it because I don’t actually know what we’ve got. I believe that pantomime is the last bastion of local community. 75-80% of our audience are adults, but that’s not because it’s smutty. Most of these people have grown up with me. They were bairns when they came to see it, and now they’re bringing their bairns. For the last few years, the Sunday Times has put York Theatre Royal pantomime as one of the top ten things to see at Christmas. It’s phenomenal. We’re two hundred miles from London!
Have audiences changed over the forty years?
Yes. What we were laughing at 34 years ago, when I first arrived in York, we’re not laughing at now. Ten-year-olds know things that I didn’t know till I was twenty! The good thing about our pantomime is that we never lose the children. We don’t lose teenagers. They’re not embarrassed to come and laugh themselves silly at a load of good rubbish. I can’t praise our audience highly enough. They’re wonderful. The main thing is the humour. I don’t want anyone ever to feel uncomfortable by something that someone’s said ad-libbed. We don’t do any jokes at anybody’s expense except our own. People feel safe when they walk through the door. They feel, ‘This is family’.
Have things ever gone drastically wrong?
Things constantly go wrong but we cope and the audience loves it. Once, after the interval, the safety curtain got stuck three feet off the ground. We battled on, and I did the show through the three-foot gap but going underneath the safety curtain is dangerous cos it could kill you, so we had to cancel. We said, ‘Well, you’ve seen half the show. You can see the second half if you can come along on Saturday at 10am’. And they all came back! We never exclude the audience. If anything goes wrong, I’ll let them know. Pantomime is 50% audience. The rest is what you give them.
Why don’t you wear any makeup as the dame?
My face doesn’t need it and it looks rather hideous, I think, on all the dames I’ve seen. I don’t like it. Having played the villain in a big commercial pantomime for a few years before coming to York, I knew that not everyone can be a dame so, before I said yes, I went and bought an Old Mother Riley wig, ginger with a bun at the back for nine and six (45 pence), and put it on, with an old frock from the pantomime, and everyone around started laughing instantly. The wig was all I needed. If you look at some of the good dames, very few wore makeup. In Old Mother Riley films, he doesn’t look as if he’s got any makeup on. His face is everything. His eyes say it all.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about being the dame?
The audience. I’ve done loads of telly and films but the people of York weren’t interested in that. I was just the funny man who came to entertain them at Christmas. I’m not a comedian. I can’t dance, I can’t sing and I’m not a very good actor but this lot just accepted me. We share the same sense of humour. It just works. I’m a jobbing actor but I can go to my grave thinking, ‘I know what it’s like to be a star’. I walk on that stage, and 850 people applaud me, before I’ve spoken a word. That’s pretty good for a jobbing actor. I don’t need to be a star. I know what it’s like, and that’ll do for me.
Robin Hood and his Merry Mam runs at York Theatre Royal 13 December 2012 – 2 February 2013. For more information visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk