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Pantomime as an art form is just like Marmite, you either love it or hate it, I really don't think there is any in between. For me pantomime brings back warming memories of an annual trip to the local theatre each December as a child. Aunties, Uncles, cousins galore, all a treat from Nan and Grandad of course, on mass anything up to 20 of us would be sat as a family to enjoy the performance. This is a tradition I have continued into adulthood, I've not missed a year at my local theatre yet and have no intention of ever doing so. What a great introduction to theatre panto is for kids, get em' whilst they are young and they will keep coming back for more.
My very first memory of panto is from the 1982/83 season, I was 4 years old and the show was Dick Whittington at the Oxford Apollo (now known as the New Theatre). Keith Harris, Orville and Cuddles (With whom I was obsessed by as a child) graced the stage alongside 'Carry On' legend Barbara Windsor as Dick and the renowned panto dame Jack Tripp as Widow Twankey. This was back in the days where you could throw sweeties out into the audience without having to risk assess the dangers of someone being knocked unconscious by a low flying Quality Street. Towards the end of the performance it came to that part where a couple of kids were picked out of the audience to go up on the stage, as we all know this is really to fill time for the crew to reset for the finale and for the cast to don their sparkly finale outfits. Back then just a shy and nervous little boy but there I was on stage talking to Barbara Windsor (clearly having no idea who she was at this stage but later to become a huge fan) and I was bemused when the audience starting laughing at a comment I made, when asked what I wanted for Christmas I answered with gusto...a bike, with 2 wheels! Now I meant without stabilizers but maybe the audience thought I was worried my parents could only afford the one wheel! My love of theatre started there and then in that very moment. So behind the tabs the scene was set for the finale and myself and the other few children received our goody bags and were sent down the treads and back to our seats but the auditorium was dark and the usherette couldn't have been particularly on the ball, she sent me back down the wrong aisle, the one in front of where my family were actually sat, in the confusion of the darkness I just plonked myself on the lap of who I thought was my Nan but when the house lights came up I turned around to find I had spent the rest of the show sat on the lap of a total stranger, some random old lady! She didn't seem to mind. I recall Keith Harris & Orville performed their hit song 'I Wish I Could Fly' as part of the show and my parents made the mistake of buying me this (on 7" vinyl - younger readers may need to google this) and spent the next few years having to listen to it over and over again....it still features on my playlist to this very day, I make no apologies! See what memories panto can evoke!
The most glitzy, glamorous and memorable pantomime I have seen to date again included Barbara Windsor in what would be her final ever pantomime performance, this time in the guise as the most perfectly cast Fairy Bowbells in Dick Whittington (Which has always been my favourite panto story) at the Bristol Hippodrome for the 2010/11 season. This lavish production had all the traditional trademarks of a successful panto and it was clear no expense had been spared, new sets that sparkled, new costumes and a wickedly funny script written by Eric Potts and it starred one of my favourite funny men, Andy Ford, as the hilarious Idle Jack, I could happily watch this performance over and over again. There was something special about this performance, maybe it was because Barbara Windsor was making a triumphant return to panto after a 15 year absence (during which time she was calling the shots in Eastenders as the landlady of the Queen Vic). For me Babs was the ultimate Fairy Bowbells.
If I have one regret it's that I never got to see the great John Inman perform in pantomime. I've heard great things of this legendary performer and loved his TV work (Grace and Favour being a particular favourite).
Peter Pan is the only current popular pantomime that I struggle with, it has a very different format to any other panto and very often lacks the presence of the dame character, although in recent years some productions have introduced this role as Mrs Smee. Peter Pan can make a very good play or a musical but should it be the subject for panto? for me it's a no. That's just my opinion and I am well aware it is not one shared with a lot of people who really enjoy this panto. Personally i'd like to see more Mother Goose and less Peter Pan.
If I could put any cast (living or dead) together for a dream panto cast my choice would be...
Dick Whittington starring Barbara Windsor as Fairy Bowbells, John Inman as Sarah the Cook, Hugo Myatt (of Knightmare fame) as King Rat, John Barrowman as Dick and Andy Ford as Idle Jack, what a show that would be! For a different cast and something a bit more alternative I would love to see Daisy Cooper (This Country) cast as Fairy Bowbells. I think pantomime producers missed a huge trick in years gone by by never enticing Australian actress Maggie Kirkpatrick into making a panto appearance, she made a fantastic TV baddie in Prisoner Cell Block H and would have made the most ideal Queen Rat or Wicked Queen.
I enjoyed a glorious 25 years working in theatres in the South West of England in various positions including Marketing, Ticket Office, Front of House, Theatre Manager (the list goes on!) and the panto season was always my favourite time of year, the theatre really came to life at this time creating an atmosphere like no other. I hope that this wonderful pantomime tradition is with us forever, never let panto fade away.
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