My husband and I (nothing like starting with the opening line of the Queen's Christmas speech!) run Evolution Productions, which produces around seven newly created bespoke pantomimes each year across the UK. We have done so since 2004, during which time panto has gone through a "rags to riches" transformation.
The good old traditional Christmas show has hoiked itself up by its bootlaces and made something of itself. The 80s and 90s had seen a gradual decline in quality. Pantomime was regarded as a cheap option and was produced with a pile 'em high, throw some glitter to cover the cracks, and dare I say fairly naff sentiment. In a land ruled by confectionary brands, the show was beginning to look a bit tatty.
Then something happened. The townsfolk wanted better and demanded better. There were of course those who had never let the light fade who had produced some great shows even in the dark times. Some of the regional reps and smaller companies were bravely keeping the magic alive and then in the early years of the 21st century along came the likes of Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry at the Old Vic, Jonathan Harvey and Mark Ravenhill at the Barbican and a whole host of other who took the genre by the scruff of the neck, gave it a kick in its panto pants and reinvigorated it.
Evolution is a family business. We are steeped marinated and seasoned in panto. I began working in the genre at a very young age for my parents' company, Kevin Wood Productions. Paul has written, directed, produced or appeared in pantomime for the last 28 years.
We met each other during a pantomime run – Beauty and the Beast at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury in 1997 – and our children Freddie, Poppy and Jago are our advisors and comedy consultants. Each panto is created with love and care and each is made using our own personal recipe with something added to make them particular to each audience in each town they play.
Deep in January when the ice winds blow, a fleet of articulated lorries arrive at our vast warehouses in Kent at dawn and the unloading starts. Sets, costumes, props are neatly stored away and will not see the light of day again, save for a brief airing for a photo shoot in May, until late November when lights are lit again for a new season. And so begins the work.
'A real cow just wouldn't do'
The first ingredient for the perfect pantomime is the principal cast member, the name at the top of the poster and the person who will attract the attention of the panto going public. Whether it be a soap star, a Hollywood veteran, a pop personality or a presenter with presence, our star must bring with them that little bit extra that ensures that they can create the kind of magic that jumps over the proscenium and connects with adults and children alike. It is important to find the lead early as those who can deliver are few and far between and consequently in demand.
We then move on to gathering the other ingredients. We of course have a number of stories to choose from and scripts are written around them. There is no recycling here. It is vital to keep them fresh and writing takes place throughout the year. Photo shoots, set building, music composition follow and then we come to full casting.
A key member is of course the dame. No drag queens for us. An unshaven, belching, legs akimbo hobnail boot-wearing bloke in a dress is what we’re looking for. The joke is in the pretence without pretence. Everyone is in on it and no one gives it away. It's the same with the cow. A real cow just wouldn't do. We need two people of unspecified gender on all fours in an unconvincing cow suit. The principle boy works on similar terms and the villain must revel in their evil to such an absurd degree that they lose any real threat to the three year old in the audience and become a figure of fun. Panto is all about illusion with no illusion. It works on two levels. Yes, there is magic but the magic must be transparently human.
All our shows are different. Each audience is a little club. A group of people who collude together with those on stage to make it happen. At that moment what is happening in that theatre on that afternoon or evening in that town is for them and them alone. The more personal the connection the better. Jokes and references are included that only they and a select group of others would understand. Locality is everything. So during the autumn months, theatre staff are consulted, local papers read, place names and reputations researched and all are used in the mix when the final stages of the script are put together.
So with all the ingredients gathered and the mix prepared the cooking begins. Rehearsals, set building, sequin sowing, orchestra calls, choreography sessions, marketing and publicity, front of house dressing until… the performers in the wings, dame in dress, the audience primed and seated, the house falls silent… and the show begins.
Emily Wood runs Evolution Productions with her partner and husband Paul Hendy. Check out their productions:
Dick Whittington – Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
Aladdin – The Marlowe, Canterbury
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – The Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon
Jack and The Beanstalk – The Arena in St Albans
Sleeping Beauty – The Hawth Theatre Crawley
Jack and The Beanstalk – The Octagon Yeovil
Peter Pan – The Theatre Severn Shrewsbury
Check out our complete guide to panto 2014-15!