Last night blues

The pantomime is over and Cheggers is all alone in his dressing room.
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The Independent Culture
What's a drawing pin? A Smartie with a willy. What's a snail? A bogey with a crash helmet. And what happens to your brain after you've been telling jokes like these to an audience of children and pensioners for five-and-a-half weeks? If you're Keith Chegwin, it probably just helps you prepare for your next professional engagement. The man who became a household name presenting Swap Shop and Cheggers Plays Pop is contemplating his return to Channel 4's The Big Breakfast: "It's not actually that different," he confesses. "The Big Breakfast is panto really."

It is 7.50pm on Sunday 28 January, five minutes after the final curtain of the final performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal, in Bath. Keith Chegwin stands smoking a cigarette in a denuded dressing-room number 3. He's been playing Muddles, this panto's answer to Cinderella's befuddled clown, Buttons. His make-up has been cleared away. His personal belongings are stacked in the boot of his car. He's about to brave a frenzy of pre- pubescent autograph hunters at the stage-door.

Pantomime is a peculiar business. For a little over a month each year, the good characters are triumphant. The evil are either vanquished or led into the ways of righteousness. Along with the musical, panto is the last repository of theatrical sentimentality. But among the actors doing two performances a day there is little evident end-of-run sentiment. Life is too frantic. One boy-dancer begins work on Hot Shoe Shuffle the next morning. The drag artists Hinge and Bracket - playing fairies Toadflax and Meadowsweet - have been spotted rehearsing their touring comedy act in the precious moments between shows. It is not yet 8pm and they've decamped (so to speak), eager to make the most of the two days before hitting the road again. Chegwin speaks for the whole cast when he says: "Where am I going now? I'm going 'ome."

Before he goes, though, he offers a typically idiosyncratic view of what it's all about. "People say panto must be hard work, but it's not. It's the biggest doddle of my life. Come along, tell a few gags, home by 11. You get all these people saying it's a marathon. They have to go jogging or go to the gym to prepare. It's totally the opposite with me: 20 fags and a few coffees and I'm fine." And off he goes, clutching a bag of T- shirts that he has had printed for the cast and technicians. "I worked with Cheggers," is the boast on the front. "Well, somebody had to," the back retorts.

Back on the stage, most of the 13-strong stage crew are proudly sporting the Chegwin T-shirts. From the moment the last straggler left the auditorium, they have been feverishly striking the set. "This is the bit the public don't know about," says the stage manager, Eugene Hibbert. "It's a secret. That's the magic. They're not meant to know how we do it. It's like the Magic Circle." By 8.10pm, the first of two huge articulated lorries has backed into the loading bay behind the stage. Sooty and Sweep - or, at least, their ultraviolet incarnations - have been carefully packed into a crate by their minder. They sit rather forlornly between a two-wheeled chariot and a podium-shaped lump of wood labelled "Sleeping B. Microwave for Toadflax's lair (Act 2 only)", waiting to be shipped aboard.

By 10.30pm, Sleeping Beauty's enchanted kingdom is on the motorway heading towards the panto producers' storehouse in Lincoln, an Aladdin's cave packed with enough spinning-wheels, mechanical beanstalks and pumpkins to stage 31 shows. As the clock reaches midnight, in Bath the stage is already being rebuilt, ready for the set of the Theatre Royal's next production, Hysteria, Terry Johnson's comedy about the life of Sigmund Freud, which will start to arrive at 9am. Sleeping Beauty has been put to bed for another year.