Why panto will always have a special place in my heart

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

By the time this year’s panto finishes, I will have performed in front of more than 25,000 people.

That figure includes family, friends and colleagues who all came to see me dressed up as an old duffer – wearing make-up, singing, dancing (after a fashion) and making a fool of myself.

I have suffered for my art. No, honestly I have. I mean, you wouldn’t grow a beard like this under normal circumstances. Would you?

Having lived in this strange panto cocoon for seven weeks now and with 22 shows under my belt, I finally feel able to comment properly on the alien world that this cynical old hack has been inhabiting.

I’ve always been the outsider here. That’s no-one’s fault – it’s simply a fact that when the curtain comes down for the final time on Sunday night yours truly will return to The Sentinel HQ all suited and booted, while the rest of the cast will move on to their next show.

I know I’ll be sad to leave, The Regent’s become like a second home to me.

I’ll miss Caroline’s voice over the Tannoy summoning us to vocal warm-up, or announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen of the company – this is your Act One beginners’ call, your Act One beginners’ call, please.”

I’ll miss the adrenalin rush that hits you the moment you walk out on stage for the first time and the sense of relief when your first gag gets a laugh.

I’ll miss the camaraderie of people like Jonny Wilkes, our ever-popular dame Christian Patterson, Steve Serlin and director Matt Salisbury who have taken me under their wings and shown me genuine kindness and boundless patience.

I’ll miss the wonderful staff at The Regent who have always made me feel so welcome, despite the fact they have proper stars to look after.

But, most of all, I will miss the incredible warmth of Potteries audiences, who make The Regent pantomime the runaway success it is.

I don’t mind telling you it’s bloody hard work.

There were times when I doubted I could do it as I tried to juggle the panto role, my day job and family commitments.

I remember, on the morning of my second show, literally clinging on to the set for grim death before my entrance – much like a drowning man might cling to a barrel thrown overboard as his ship capsized.

I can look back and laugh, because walking on stage is like falling off a log to me now.

The hard part is making each show feel as fresh and vibrant as the first, even though you may have used the same lines, gestures and facial expressions two dozen times.

I guess that’s what makes people like Wilkesy and our dame so good and why they put bums on seats in the Cultural Quarter.

You see, this isn’t Milton Keynes or Wimbledon.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a very strong sense of place and identity.

That being the case, you can keep your foreign celebrities and soap stars for the lead roles. What we have here in North Staffordshire every Christmas is a dynamic that so obviously works.

So why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?

Why would you want to lose the strong local flavour running through a show like The Regent panto, or swap your main men for outsiders who will take the money and go through the motions?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always plain sailing back stage.

I remember one night approaching Christian’s dressing room and hearing him and Jonny going at it hammer and tongues.

It transpired they were actually arguing about lines in the show and it was a row that was over as quickly as it had begun.

The fact is they care passionately about delivering the very best shows they can and that filters down to the rest of us.

Make no bones about it, being away from your family is the hardest part of being involved in a show like this.

Christmas was a blur.

I feel like it passed me by. I mean, I haven’t even seen the face of the new Doctor Who yet.

But, even if I never tread the boards again, I can always say I’ve been there and done it.

I have some wonderful memories and I hope I held my own up there.

One thing’s for sure, one look at the audiences who forgot their troubles with us for just a few hours knocks on the head any notion that theatres are elitist.

Young or old, rich or poor, pantomime has the ability to connect with everyone on so many levels and it will always have a special place in my heart.

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Our performers could teach Simon Cowell a thing or two

The queue for Stoke's Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

The queue for Stoke’s Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

Sunday was a long day. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Even as we neared the finish and the clock struck eight o’clock, I didn’t want the auditions to end.

At that point, the frantic early morning registration for this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition was a distant memory.

Yet people were still huddled in groups around the auditorium, cheering and clapping enthusiastically: paying punters who had sat there for the best part of 10 hours and wanted to see it through to the bitter end.

I didn’t need to be there. I don’t start judging until the week of the heats when 50 finalists will battle it out in Hanley for the ultimate prize.

I was on a reconnaissance mission. I know that, come the week of September 7, this competition will be on everyone’s lips, and I want to be ready.

Sixteen months ago, the idea of having a variety contest here in the Potteries was just that… an idea. But anyone who witnessed last year’s dramatic climax at The Regent theatre will tell you that this concept, this show, is here to stay.

Even our Editor was left genuinely speechless by the standard that night (and that’s saying something).

Yes, the world and his dog might have gone potty recently over a certain Susan Boyle who came a close second in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Not me. I’ll let you into a secret. Whisper it quietly, but Stoke’s Top Talent is better.

OK, we may not have the pyrotechnics of ITV’s ratings winner and the trousers of our resident ‘Mr Nasty’ – Kevin Wood – may not be quite as tight as Simon Cowell’s.

But, by the same token, audiences who pay good money to watch our final 50 acts later this year will certainly get their money’s worth.

There will be no deluded, talentless individuals selected for the judges to belittle; no blokes who think that chucking wheelbarrows around qualifies as entertainment; no random picks to be humiliated in front of a live theatre audience.

Every single one of the finalists will be there on merit.

Of course, for many entrants, the auditions themselves represent their moment in the sun.

For countless youngsters, their minute-and-a-half in front of Jonny Wilkes and the other judges is just the spur they need to carry on singing or dancing – and to maybe try to improve for next year.

No-one leaves in tears. Everyone exits the stage with endorsements, advice and applause ringing in their ears. Which is just as it should be.

Take it from me, it takes some bottle to stand on that stage at the Victoria Hall and belt out 90 seconds of vocals or throw yourself into a street dance routine in front of hundreds of people you don’t know and judges who do this kind of thing for a living.

I saw every act and all the emotions etched on the faces of young and old alike.

I sat on the side of the stage and yet I confess I still have absolutely no idea how Birches Head magician Ben Cardall could predict which playing cards the three judges would choose out of his pack of 52.

I’m also not too proud to say I shed a tear when six-year-old Magenta Lee, of Madeley, sang Where Is Love? from Oliver!

You could have heard a pin drop.

Apparently, they’re doing a similar competition in Milton Keynes this year where the local theatre is owned by the same group.

I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

I dare say the spies from down south who were watching our auditions on Sunday would have hit the M6 with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Why? Because nowhere else in the country can do what Stoke-on-Trent does with a competition like this.

We may be an introspective little city comprised of six disparate towns, but by God we know how to come together to champion the underdog.

When the final 50 are announced in next Monday’s Sentinel, I suggest you book your tickets for The Regent pretty sharpish.

Even if you never normally visit the theatre, it’s time to shop local and support the acts from your communities.

It’s Sneyd Green versus Kidsgrove, Longton versus Alsager, Tunstall versus Biddulph – and it’s bloody marvellous.

In fact, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to a certain Potteries pop superstar who just happens to have moved back to the UK.

Come on, Rob. Get yourself up Hanley with Jonny and your dad for the finals night on September 12.

You’d be really proud and we’d all love to see you.

Just for once, let us entertain you, Mr Williams.