“I last played Abanazar in 1973 at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. I wore a black bathing cap to create a dome-like effect and every time I walked on stage the Dame would say ‘Blimey, it's Mark Spitz’!"

That’s Simon Callow telling me about his first plunge into the topsy-turvy world of pantomime, where every Christmas the fourth wall comes crashing down in theatres across the UK and the audience becomes part of the show. Despite moving on from his days at Lincoln rep to become one of our most acclaimed actors, this Christmas Callow will be selling new lamps for old as evil Abanazar once again, in Aladdin at Richmond Theatre.

“It’s good for me to have another crack at Abanazar. You should come back to all of the great classical roles,” laughs the actor, adding that cross-dressing as Dame wasn’t an option. “I haven’t got much gift for drag, although I was Princess Anne in a David Edgar play and once dressed up as Margaret Thatcher.”

This year, Callow isn’t the only top-notch artist applying for a passport to the low vulgarity of pantoland. He’s following hard on the high heels of Sir Ian McKellen, who last Christmas at the Old Vic seemed to be perfectly at home playing the fruitiest northern Widow Twankey since Les Dawson. In one flash of McKellen’s bloomers, pantomime became the coolest thing to be in and the hottest ticket in town. This year, McKellen’s back at the Old Vic with his Aladdin, but elsewhere ‘legit’ actors like Callow, Richard Wilson, Susan Hampshire, Patsy Kensit, Richard O'Brien and John Barrowman have also signed up for a festive season of cross-dressing, rhyming couplets, transformation scenes and good-versus-evil plots – all of which make pantomime’s quirky fusion of commedia d’ell arte, music-hall gags and happy-ever-after romance so unique.

Rescue efforts

First-time pantomime producer Richard Cadell welcomes the new “cool” tag attached to pantomime and agrees when I suggest that for too long commercial producers took audiences for granted, depending on puny scripts, overt sponsorship and money-spinning reality TV celebs. “There was definitely a period of naffness when panto became a victim of cheap commercialism,” says Cadell, who was once Sooty’s right-hand man in Sooty & Co on ITV and whose Duo company (with co-producer Barrie C Stead) is presenting five pantos this year, including Cinderella at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon, starring the legendary Danny La Rue as Fairy Godmother.

“Providing we rescue it right now, panto has a very solid future,” he continues, “but you can only do that with strong stories and high production values. The kids deserve it. My own love of theatre was born through seeing panto. I’ll always remember at the age of five wanting to invite Simple Simon home to my birthday party.”

One production company aiming to make Jack and the Beanstalk in Brighton as cool as Guys and Dolls in the West End is First Family Entertainment, a new joint venture set up by Clear Channel Entertainment’s David Ian and Ambassador Theatre Group’s Howard Panter with the aim of serving ATG venues across the UK with high-quality pantomimes.

Quality of experience

Though Kevin Wood, First Family’s chief executive, has spent 21 years producing pantomimes elsewhere, he also believes that its incongruities became undervalued. “For us now, it’s no longer about bums on seats; it’s about the quality of the experience. So if anything can be changed for the better we are doing it – from budgets, rehearsal times and the number of pit musicians, to the sets and costumes. We’ve also resisted the temptation to homogenise the product, so we won’t be rotating shows between venues.”

Apart from attracting top-flight actors to eight shows this year, what’s also different with First Family, Wood explains, is that it’s bringing on board scriptwriters new to the genre. For instance, Jonathan Harvey (whose plays include Beautiful Thing and Out in the Open) is writing the New Victoria Theatre, Woking pantomime, Aladdin, while Tim Fountain (Resident Alien, Julie Burchill Is Away, Sex Addict) has scripted Cinderella for the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. “It’s the same approach with the directors. Lee Lodge, who produced Robbie Williams concerts and Top of the Pops, is directing Mother Goose at Stoke on Trent. He’s new to theatre but didn’t have to be asked twice.”

So does this signal the demise of boo-able baddies, panto cows and ear-splitting ‘behind you’ routines? “Not at all. We will reinstate all of this. But our shows will no longer be a framework for hanging obvious panto routines on certain types of performer. We’re going back to the core of the story and telling it with all the theatrical skills we can muster. It’ll blow your mind away!”

Cockney coolness

Meanwhile, with pantomime’s first black Dame (the effervescent Clive Rowe) long to its credit, Hackney Empire can probably lay claim to creating cool pantos well before the Old Vic got the bug. For this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk, writer-director Susie McKenna’s cast includes Rowe as Dame Trot alongside one-woman comedy typhoon Tameka Empson.

But McKenna says any cockney coolness came from necessity, when in-house productions were first staged here five years ago. “Our audience is so culturally diverse that we had to make shows accessible to street-cred kids who might have English as a second language, while keeping the traditional panto values that I learned when I played the thigh-slapping Principal Boy myself at Nottingham Playhouse. You start with the story and the fun comes out of how you tell it. Then you add lots of heart. But it’s really got to matter if Jack climbs the beanstalk or if Cinderella goes to the ball.”

Finally, after starring in umpteen pantomimes during more than 50 years in show biz, Danny La Rue agrees that panto is cool – but only when there’s a moral in the tale. “When I’m on stage at the Ashcroft in high heels and a big wig I’ll be the tallest fairy in town, so I’m delighted that Sir Ian has made panto dames respectable. But it’s not about fellers in frocks. Like Shakespeare, pantos are about good triumphing over bad. If you wave your magic wand over the morality, pantomime will always be cool.”

A longer version of this article appears in the November 2005 issue of Theatregoer Magazine, available in participating venues while supplies last. To ensure you get every issue first, click here to subscribe.

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