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Meera Syal's first panto: 'Pantomime made me want to become a performer'

As she prepares to star in her first pantomime, writer, comedian and actress Meera Syal explains why she's so pleased to be in Birmingham over the Christmas period

Meera Syal
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

As an actor there's not many jobs where your main focus is to give people joy, but with pantomime, it's what you are there for. It's the audience's Christmas treat and for a lot of kids it might be the first time they have ever seen live theatre.

Our panto is very much in the mold of what the Birmingham Hippodrome is famous for, it's spectacular, has great songs, lots of topical references. It's very much tailored to Birmingham and its very loyal and noisy and warm audience. Obviously there are also two veterans who I hope are going to be holding my hand all the way through, because I'm a panto virgin. Matt Slack is a local hero when it comes to panto and of course, the lovely Jimmy Osmond who is doing is Captain Hook. I was a huge Jimmy Osmond fan when I was a kid, had all the pictures on my wall. When you're that age you don't think: 'I'm actually going to be working with an Osmond', but there you go. They've got loads more experience than me, so I'm going to jump in with my fishy tail and enjoy the ride.

Meera Syal
© Birmingham Hippodrome

I am playing Magical Mermaid who is essentially the good fairy but with a tail, because it's Peter Pan. I have always wanted to be a mermaid, I used to have a thing about them when I was little. I am going to have to find a way of walking like I'm swimming while also making sure I can dance. I'm not sure how I'm going to work that out, but that's what rehearsals are for. As long as I can get out and do a wee occasionally.

The fact that my first pantomime is in Birmingham couldn't have been better, especially as I'm from the West Midlands. It's my home town. It makes a whole heap of difference because the panto is so tailored to the area its in, so you know the references and your mates can come and see it.

Pantomime is a uniquely British tradition that is full of madness and anarchy

Panto was the first experience of live theatre I ever had, it made me want to be an actor. I remember it clearly. I was four, it was a Sunday school trip to see Dick Whittington at Stoke. They asked for a volunteer from the audience and I put my hand up not thinking I would get chosen. I saw the costumes up close and the make-up running on the actors' faces and felt that thrill of being under the lights. I remember thinking I don't know what this place is but it feels a bit like home.

You forget what an experience it must be for a little kid, their first time going into a theatre and seeing all this incredible magic going on in front of them, that's what we're there for, that's what panto does. I genuinely love panto, it's a uniquely British tradition that is full of madness and anarchy and no fourth wall. It's all about the connection with the audience and I think it's something we should be really proud of.

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