Arts: They can't do that. Oh yes they can!

Welcome to a gripping tale about three wise men who've got Britain's panto industry all sewn up.

You may not know the names, but Jon Conway, Paul Elliott and Nick Thomas are the kings of panto. Oh yes they are! This triumvirate wields the power to send Sonia to Aberdeen and the Grumbleweeds to Wolverhampton. They can make a Gladiator's Christmas. They sustain many a flagging TV career. And with a wave of their wand they produce around 30 of the country's 100 top pantomimes each year.

They joined forces to launch E&B/AMG Pantomimes 10 years ago, having spent the previous decade competing for the best venues and talent. Since then, they have doubled their share of the panto business and secured many of the "top" names for their shows. This year's line up includes Lesley Joseph's Fairy Bowbells at Nottingham; Melinda Messenger's Cinderella at Swansea; Lionel Blair, David Essex, and Postman Pat (appearing simultaneously in Belfast and Lewisham).

It's a curious business with the traditions of men dressed as dames, leggy actresses playing principal boys, and "he's behind you" versus the sports personalities, soap stars and Top 40 songs. But with millions of potential ticket sales and box office already up seven per cent this year, pantomime is big business, and managing it is a year-round affair.

Work begins each December, a year ahead, Elliott explains. At this point the horse-trading begins as theatre managers haggle over which production goes where with what star, while stars attempt to bag their favourite venue. Inevitably, lots of celebrities want to stay near London, so venues within the M25 are easiest to cast. Where they actually end up comes down to where they were last year, who their co-stars will be and who has the greatest clout.

"It's like a huge jigsaw," he says. "We start out each year with plan A; by the time we reach plan P we've usually cracked it." Local tastes must be catered for. "Roy Hudd is wonderful in Plymouth but I don't think he'd work so well in Birmingham where people want something more in your face, like Brian Conley." Cannon and Ball go down well up North, apparently. And the chances of seeing Lionel Blair in Belfast are slim.

Talent is selected to fulfil key audience expectations. "The enduring popularity of panto comes down to parents' confidence there's something in it for everyone," Thomas says. "Like all good Christmas puddings there's a set recipe: something fluffy for the kids, a comedian for the adults, 'legs' for the dads and old soap stars for the oldies." In other words: someone to laugh at, someone to fancy and someone you'd forgotten - hence the presence of Robin Askwith in Darlington, Brian Cant in Basingstoke and a Nolan in Torquay.

"It's about reassuring audiences," he adds. And, of course, raising a show's profile. Male soap stars are amongst the biggest draws this Christmas. Tickets are selling fast for Des Barnes from Coronation Street. And although Tiffany's accident is keeping last year's panto success story - Grant from EastEnders - in Albert Square this Christmas, Nick Cotton and Dirty Den are doing great business.

Audience tastes, however, are volatile. While surviving members of TV's Crossroads cast and weatherman Ian McCaskill still command rapturous applause, interest in Gladiators, weather girls and Neighbours is on the wane. Second- guessing who the punters will like takes more than picking off current TV favourites, Thomas insists: "There's a big difference between what the public wants and what TV executives think they want. Bobby Davro, for example, is extremely popular with live audiences throughout the UK."

E&B/AMG owns 30 different sets of equipment and more than 20,000 costumes, and part of the trick is sorting out which goes where. This year they're producing seven Cinderellas, five Peter Pans, three Aladdins, three Jack & the Beanstalks, two Snow Whites, two Robin Hoods, two Dick Whittingtons and one each of Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks, Robinson Crusoe and The Wizard of Oz. Only two productions are brand new - costing pounds 250,000 each - all the rest have been "refurbished".

"Peter Pan, Snow White and The Wizard of Oz are the core 'book' shows - we rarely change them whoever is in them," says Conway. But all are re-written each year to add topical twists. And with other shows, like Cinderella and Snow White, scripts are tailored to cater specifically for the personalities involved: "You might have Nora Batty as the fairy godmother - very different to Barbara Windsor."

They stick with these stories because audiences love them, Thomas insists, pointing to his attempt at Robinson Crusoe in Outer Space which came unstuck when it coincided with the cinema release of ET. "It was a financial flop," he confides. "The experience dissuaded me from trying anything so radical again." A strong central storyline is key, he adds: "Limp stories stringing together a few turns is not what audiences want."

Recruiting and deploying the 1,500 or so artistes, performers and backstage people takes a campaign planned with military precision. After the big name acts are secured, comes the search for supporting players. Talent scouts trawl local dance schools for tap-dancing tots. And the race begins to sign up the best professional dwarves who, despite periodic attempts by the politically correct to ban them, remain an enduring part of panto, and command up to pounds 1,000 a week.

Corny, definitely. Passe, perhaps. But panto is thriving, the threesome claim. "It's a truly interactive entertainment in a way TV still struggles to be," says Conway. "And it's the kind of entertainment broadcasters just aren't interested in putting on telly any more. London TV executives believe it's too rarefied. But people love it."

Around five million of us will see a panto this Christmas - that's one in ten of the population. Thomas adds: "For many people it will be their only trip to the theatre this year. For many kids it will be their first.

"This is not art, it's entertainment for the unwashed. It's panto. And it's panto that keeps many local theatres alive."

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