Pantomime is for many families one of the most enjoyable parts of Christmas, but the frivolity and fantasy of a successful production don’t happen by magic. Putting on a show takes talent and hard work – and as fans and actors explain, panto is a great British tradition that deserves more respect.
When Robbie Williams recently told Sky News he was “proud to have an entertainment career this long” without “having to do panto“, actor and producer Alan Mehdizadeh was moved to tweet in defence of pantomime, urging the pop star to “shut up and respect our industry”.
“Whilst [Robbie’s] was a comment made in jest, it just made me think of the wider opinion sometimes of looking down on panto,” says Mehdizadeh.
His tweet was liked by 15,000 people, retweeted nearly 2,000 times and attracted hundreds of comments.
Renowned musical lyricist Sir Tim Rice joined the chorus, declaring Dick Whittington starring Julian Clary and Elaine Paige as one of the best West End shows in the past five years.
The 2017 Qdos production at the London Palladium won a coveted Olivier Award for the best entertainment and family category.
Pantomime is often considered the “dirty word” of theatre, according to Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos Entertainment.
But winning the Olivier Award signalled recognition from the West End theatre industry that pantomime could be “something quite special,” he told The Stage.
John Challis, who is playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, says he has seen a shift in attitudes during his more than 25 years of starring in pantomimes.
“There’s not as much snobbery as there used to be,” he says. “People’s view of entertainment has changed.
“We are living in such uncertain times that people just want to sit and have a laugh and let it all wash over them.
“They leave wreathed in smiles. Pantomime is the last surviving variety show. You’ve got acting, comedy, singing, dancing, special effects.
“It takes an incredibly talented bunch of people to put on.”
Mehdizadeh says much of the snobbery he has experienced is from other actors.
“[I’ve heard] things like ‘I can’t think of anything worse than 1,000 screaming kids at 10.30am’,” says the 36-year-old from London.
“The theatre is a place of magic, of learning, of imagination and of escape.
“Pantomime makes all of those things possible, and it’s such a treat for many children.”
Another criticism Mehdizadeh rejects is the view that “it’s not proper theatre, it’s over the top”.
“We have to respect the privilege of performing, no matter what the story, and that sometimes, the bigger the fairytale and the more unrealistic the surroundings, the more realistic it can be, and the more immersive the experience can be made,” he says.
For opera singer Ellie Sanderson-Nash, pantomime was not a natural calling.
But the 26-year-old took a chance on Charles Court Opera’s production of Buttons: A Cinderella Story at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, London.
“I’ve got to admit I was a little bit hesitant when I first went to audition for the part of Cinderella, just because I wasn’t sure [panto] was well respected and would be good for my voice,” she says.
“But it’s definitely changed my view, I’ve loved every minute of it. Everyone works so hard. The run of shows is seven a week, whereas in opera you might do two or three shows with a rest in between.”
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The workload is something Challis agrees is underappreciated.
“People are always surprised when I say it take 10 days to put together,” he says.
“It’s not just the actors learning their lines, it’s the set, the dances, the songs – it all has to be done with military precision. It’s a huge team effort.”
And unlike television or film acting, it has to be all right on the night, he says. But mistakes are of course part of pantomime’s charm.
With so many stars like Dawn French and Julian Clary picking panto, Challis insists it is not a comedown – but more a comeback – to the stage, where many first fell in love with acting.
“Acting is a hard enough industry and it’s a lot of people’s first job to get in the chorus or a small part,” he says. “Pantomime gives great opportunity to new talent.”
Panto also makes a “vital contribution to a theatre’s revenue”, according to UK Theatre.
London’s West End aside, an average of 15% of all UK theatre tickets sold between 2013 and 2016 were for pantomimes.
And for the 600-seater auditorium at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury, that figure is closer to 30%.
According to marketing manager Craig Reeves, a successful pantomime season “makes a huge contribution to our overall sustainability, and affords us some greater freedom in programming live events through the rest of the year”.
Kevin Langford, from Shrewsbury, travels the country to see up to 20 pantomimes between November and January. He fondly remembers his first Snow White in Rhyl when he was seven or eight years old.
“I’m a 51-year-old bloke but panto has this a magic formula and I’m a child again. It’s escapism from all the news and trauma. You come out on such a high.
“If there’s any snobbery then it must come from people who haven’t been to a panto,” he says.
Every pantomime needs a happy ending, and our opera singer-turned-Cinderella certainly got hers.
Ellie Sanderson-Nash’s partner Harry Thatcher made a surprise marriage proposal on the stage of the King’s Head Theatre as her family and friends looked on from the audience.
“I never ever would have predicted something like that,” she says.
“I was trembling. I almost forgot to say yes.”
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