PANTOMIME / Big at Christmas: 'Tis the season to be earning if you're a person of restricted growth. Ellen Cranitch talks to the small stars about not getting overlooked

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The Independent Culture
Perhaps the one group of actors who can be sure of being in work over Christmas are the small people who play the dwarfs in the numerous productions of Snow White - Peter Bonner, who plays Jolly at Richmond this year, estimates that it takes eight at one time, across the country, to provide full employment for small actors.

Most of these actors have the condition known as achondroplasia, which affects one in 10,000 people. The term 'dwarf' is unfashionable - the Arts Council prefers 'small people' - but cleaning up the language hasn't stopped stereotyping. According to John Ghavam, 'We exist playing small animals like rats, devils and aliens.'

The dilemma is that if they accept the staple diet on offer to small actors, they perpetuate typecasting; yet if they hold out for more challenging roles, in the short term they're likely to be out of a job. And it's hard to whistle when you've got no work.

PETER BONNER (JOLLY)

This is my sixth year of panto. I generally get cast as Jolly, perhaps because I corpse rather easily. This production is much easier than the skating Snow White I did for Holidays on Ice. We toured Europe with that for 15 months. It's difficult with props on ice. In 'Whistle While You Work', the brooms used to melt the surface and get stuck.

Work is definitely getting more competitive. Now Holidays on Ice are using small girls to play the dwarfs. Older small fellows I know, in their fifties and sixties, are retiring; they can't get the parts, now they're not so agile.

I'm not too fussy about what parts I do. I think of the money first. I do sometimes want to shout at directors that I'm a human being, not a freak. But I also know that if you get too snotty, they'll simply get a kid in to do it.

EDDY SEAGER (SURLY)

Surly is the equivalent of Grumpy in the film. In the original Grimm fairy-tale, the dwarfs aren't named. It was Disney who named them and Disney's got copyright. So each new production of Snow White has to use slightly different names.

I was worried at first about playing Surly. Pops is the one I feel closest to; I've got his logical kind of mind. But then I watched the video for my research - I always research every role - and now I feel happier with the part.

I always wanted to act, although I didn't start off professionally till quite late. My dad was a dwarf - achondroplasia is an inherited condition - and he hated dwarfs playing clowns. He died when I was three and I grew up with my mum and brother, they're both normal height. Because of my dad's views it took me ages to tell mum I'd decided to become an actor. When I finally did, she wasn't a bit surprised.

JOHN GHAVAM (DOZY)

Most of my life I worked as a clerk in a civil engineering firm. I only started acting eight years ago. A friend with contacts in the film business persuaded me to audition for a part that needed a small fellow. I've done nine or ten films, including The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I prefer films to panto. Panto's so predictable, and it's boring signing autographs for the kids afterwards.

There seems to be a steady demand for small fellows in film, pop videos and commercials. My best part was a pig in a Halifax Building Society advert. I've got no complaints.

ANTHONY GEORGHIOU

(WHEEZY)

I would have liked to play Grumpy, a part with an edge to it. Wheezy's dull - he's mostly preoccupied with his cold. My best parts have been in ballet and film. Ridley Scott took a liking to my face and gave me loads of cameo roles in Legend. And Natalia Makarova cast me as Von Rothbart's assistant in her Swan Lake for English National Ballet.

David Rappaport was a real inspiration to me. It was his skill you saw, not his size. I realised if I could become a good enough actor I wouldn't be exploited for my size. Offstage I still go through periods of demoralisation. Sometimes, like when I'm shopping, I wish I could be invisible. An actor can get out of his costume and return to normal - I never can.

JULIAN SKELTON (BLUSHER)

This is my third Snow White. There's security in panto. That's a relief because in the last two years I've spent more time on the dole than anything else. The part I've most enjoyed doing is Jimmy Osmond in a band I formed myself called 'The Gutter Band'. I did lewd parodies of 'Long-haired Lover from Liverpool' at RAF bases and nightclubs. Bit of a contrast with Blusher] My aim is simply to keep working as an actor.

DAVID HARRINGTON (POPS)

Pops is my favourite part - he makes the decisions. I went to drama school in Oxford. That helped me develop my voice and physical skills and gave me good contacts. I've just played Richard III and I'm going on to play Mephistopheles with Stafford Shakespeare Company. Now I love the way I am. But it was hard during puberty when other kids said 'You'll never get married because you're a dwarf'. As it is, I've had several relationships with women - most were ordinary height.

My ambition is to set up a small person's theatre company and do a version of The Tempest where everyone is small except Prospero. My agent sends me to auditions where they haven't specified a small person. Most times I don't even get looked at. But it does make directors think.

DANNY BLACKNER

(SNOOZY)

I'm playing Snoozy for the 12th Christmas running. I love doing panto. Every time 'Hi ho, Hi ho' starts up I feel a rush of adrenalin.

After the show each night I go back to my van; that's where I live. The pedals are adjusted for my legs but the light switches in the living area aren't; it's easier for me to reach up than for normal-height people to stoop. There's an operation you can get nowadays to lengthen your legs. I wouldn't want that. You can bet your life you'd spend your whole childhood in hospital and still end up an odd shape.

Snow White runs at the Richmond Theatre until January 23 (081-940 0088).

(Photograph omitted)

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