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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Will yours truly be any good in panto? Judge for yourself…

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Potteries stage star Jonathan Wilkes at the press launch for the Dick Whittington pantomime.

Once the word got out, amid the hysterics from my colleagues, the first question I was asked was: “Do you have to share a sweaty costume with Robbie’s dad?”

The second question was: “Do you have to sing?”

Mercifully, the answer to both appears to be no – but yes I will be appearing in this year’s Christmas pantomime at Hanley’s Regent Theatre.

When I broke the news to The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief, he said it was a marvellous idea. He has, rather predictably, referred to me as ‘Buttons’, ever since.

The gaffer’s personal assistant laughed so hard at the thought of it I feared she had done herself an injury.

But that’s kind of the reaction you’re hoping for, I guess, if you are prepared to dress up in medieval garb and tights for a bit of slapstick festive comedy.

Working in a newsroom for 20 years makes you fairly thick-skinned anyway.

There’s what you might term a ‘robust’ atmosphere – i.e. everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else – and there’s very little room for shrinking violets.

The panto role came about when Jonny Wilkes rang me to ask how I felt about taking over from Pete Conway and playing his character in the second half of the run.

To be honest, it was a no-brainer – once I’d got the necessary permissions from my family and employer and convinced myself I wasn’t going to let anyone down.

After all, if it’s good enough for The Fonz (AKA American actor Henry Winkler who is appearing in panto in Liverpool), then it’s good enough for me.

Let’s face it, it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience what’s it’s like to be on stage in front of thousands of people for a couple of weeks with the likes of Wilkesy and the legendary Sheila Ferguson.

I’ll also get to see what really goes on behind the scenes (before, of course, dutifully reporting any gossip back to Sentinel readers).

In addition, this unexpected opportunity gives me the chance to work with Su-Annagib – winner of Stoke’s Top Talent 2009.

I was a judge again this year and, while the other Top Talent judges all bring theatrical expertise to the panel, I’m there very much as a representative of the audience.

Next year, however, I’ll be able to draw upon my own memories of Su’s panto journey – which will hopefully be her first step on the road to a career in musical theatre.

And it is not as though I am without some pedigree in the performing arts…

In 1981 I was the court chamberlain in a play at Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green. I was nine.

Wearing a large cloak and strange hat, I carried a metal-tipped staff and banged it down hard on the stage three times.

What’s more, I can even remember my lines. I bellowed: “His majesty, the King!” Followed by: “Her majesty, the Queen!”

That was it.

I suspect I’ll have a few more words to say as Alderman FitzSentinel in The Regent’s production of Dick Whittington.

The draft script was 85 pages long and my character appears on at least half of them, so this is no walk in the park.

In fact, I’ve already had the ‘forgetting my lines on stage’ dream.

“Oh no you haven’t.” Oh yes, I honestly have.

Will I be any good? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.

However, I’m acutely aware that a lot of people pay good money to enjoy this Christmas tradition that I am privileged to be a part of and so I will give it my all.

There is, of course, a precedent for an amateur in this type of role at The Regent. Signal Radio’s Andy Goulding had this gig for a few years and I reckon anything a DJ can do a local newspaper hack can do just as well… if not better.

My daughters (aged three and five) weren’t too sure about it all when I told them dad would be on stage.

(They want to sit with me, you see, and share my pic ‘n’ mix).

But they soon warmed to the idea of me wearing a funny costume and making everyone laugh. At least, that’s the plan.

Recently, I spoke to my colleague John Abberley before he wrote very eloquently and powerfully about his battle with cancer. It was something I could identify with.

John reminded me that life is short – and so I’m seizing the moment.

Roll on December 23…