Pantoland's streets are paved with gold

When times are hard, we're more determined than ever to have a laugh. Kate Youde on the (highly profitable) reinvention of panto.
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The Independent Culture

Its biggest stars pocket tens of thousands of pounds a week, ticket touts lurk outside high-profile fixtures and it is set to appear in the country's largest arenas: welcome, not to football, but to pantomime.

Producers are predicting the traditional Christmas entertainment will enjoy its biggest year yet, this season, with stars such as former Baywatch beefcake David Hasselhoff, ex-Dynasty actress Joan Collins and soon-to-be-announced surprise newcomer, talk show host Jerry Springer, treading the boards in theatres across the UK over the coming weeks.

The appetite is such that Qdos, the company behind 22 pantos this year, is in talks to take pantomime into 6,000-seater arenas for the first time in 2011. Producers are currently staging Aladdin, starring John Barrowman, in Glasgow's 3,000-seater Clyde Auditorium. Much will depend on the success of that show.

Nick Thomas, chairman and owner of Qdos, said there had been a "slow, steady improvement of the genre in the past five years", and pantomime in arenas was the "next stage". If comedians such as Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre could play large-scale venues there was no reason why panto could not, he added.

However, he admitted there would be technical challenges in taking into big spaces a theatrical form that plays on its interaction with the audience.

Christopher Biggins, playing Widow Twankey in an eight-week run of Aladdin at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, said pantomime was "big business", but taking it into arenas was a "horrible" idea. "That's when I'll retire, because it's too big and you don't get the intimacy," said the actor, who has almost 40 years of panto under his belt.

Biggins believes the recession has played a part in the form's revival. He said: "I think in times of strife, which we are undoubtedly in, families want to go out and have a really good time – have a laugh, have audience participation and have fun – and panto gives them that for little money. A family of four can go for well under £100." While West End tickets can cost more than £60, Qdos's top panto price is £35.

Qdos expects this season to be the most successful in its 24-year history. Advance cash sales are up 6 per cent on last year, and audience numbers are on a par with 2009.

"It's going to be good, it might be great," said Mr Thomas, adding much would depend on the weather. Glasgow, where the panto is seen as "key" to Qdos's success, has been affected by heavy snowfall.

The company's pantos are expected to take about £22m in total, with 12 productions each taking £1m.

The Birmingham Hippodrome's Dick Whittington, in which Collins stars alongside Nigel Havers, Julian Clary and Keith Harris, with his creations Orville and Cuddles, should gross £3m. The weekly running costs, including wages, of that show are about £140,000. Actors' fees range from £5,000 to £45,000 per week.

First Family Entertainment is staging pantos in 12 regional theatres. Its chief executive, Kevin Wood, said the "real upsurge" was thanks not only to increased audience interest but to "a new breed of super-shows, super-panto". Modern panto has supplemented traditional elements, such as the dame, a live orchestra and dazzling costumes with 3D special effects and pyrotechnics.

And it seems some people will do anything to get their hands on the best seats, with touts spotted outside some of last year's biggest shows, and tickets appearing on websites such as eBay.

Mr Wood claimed New Wimbledon Theatre's Peter Pan, which features The Hoff, hopes to take £1.5m over five weeks, with about a third of that going to the venue. Six years ago, the theatre's panto took £600,000.

Many regional theatres facing an uphill battle with funding rely on a profitable panto run to subsidise less mainstream productions over the rest of the year. The Hackney Empire, which is renowned for high-quality panto, has been dark for much of the year because of financial difficulties, but has reopened to stage Jack and the Beanstalk.

Yet Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, in west London, claims panto – which he reintroduced to the theatre for the first time in 30 years last Christmas – is not simply a commercial enterprise. He said inner-city theatres, such as his, the Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Empire, were getting people excited about the form's potential by reinventing it in a way that engages urban audiences from the neighbouring community. Forty per cent of the audience for the current production of Dick Whittington and his Cat are from the borough, he noted.

There is (still) nothing like a dame

David Hasselhoff

Peter Pan (Captain Hook)

New Wimbledon Theatre, Wimbledon

The Hoff is making his panto debut in Neverland as the Wimbledon Theatre celebrates its centenary.

Pamela Anderson

Aladdin (Genie of the Lamp)

Liverpool Empire, Liverpool

The former Baywatch babe is reprising the role she played last year. One critic called her 2009 effort "a performance crushed by the weight of expectation, limited technique and a truly dazzling lack of effort".

Larry Lamb

Peter Pan (Captain Hook)

The Alban Arena, St Albans

Media reports earlier this year suggested the former EastEnders and Gavin and Stacey actor will pocket £120,000 for his three-week stint.

Christopher Biggins

Aladdin (Widow Twankey)

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

The 2007 king of the jungle has nearly 40 years in panto under his belt. He has 11 costume changes in this show.

Lily Savage

Aladdin (Widow Twankey)

The Mayflower, Southampton

Paul O'Grady is bringing back his alter ego for one final stage appearance. "Warn the shopkeepers, dockers and any solitary sailors," he said. "Tell the mothers to keep their sons and husbands in."

Joan Collins

Dick Whittington (Queen Rat)

Birmingham Hippodrome

Claims to be Britain's biggest panto. Co-stars Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Keith Harris and Orville.

Cilla Black

Cinderella (Fairy Godmother)

Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury

The new venue's £1m panto features real Shetland ponies, former Footballers' Wives heart-throb Gary Lucy and, presumably, a lorra, lorra laughs.

John Barrowman

Aladdin (Aladdin)

Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow

Traditional panto goes hi-tech: The audience, wearing 3D glasses, sees the magic lamp and carpet ride come alive.

Barbara Windsor

Dick Whittington (Fairy Bowbells)

Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol

The show marks the EastEnders stalwart's first panto appearance for 15 years, in her 60th year in showbiz.

Joanna Page

Dick Whittington (Alice Fitzwarren)

Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes

The former Gavin and Stacey star (below right) admitted her panto co-star Dirk Benedict was her first crush.

Ray Quinn

Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack)

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The former X Factor contestant turned West End star is taking a break from Dirty Dancing for panto, but will return to the musical in January.

Joe Pasquale

Sleeping Beauty (Muddles)

Theatre Royal, Plymouth

The squeaky-voiced comedian is training for the London Marathon in between performances.

David Essex

Peter Pan (Captain Hook)

Civic Theatre, Darlington

The Seventies singer is appearing in panto alongside his new wife, Susan Hallam-Wright, who plays Peter.

Clive Rowe

Jack and the Beanstalk (Dame Daisy Trott)

Hackney Empire, London

The former Tracey Beaker actor (pictured) is the only panto dame to receive an Olivier award nomination.

Craig Revel Horwood

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (The Wicked Queen)

Hawth Theatre, Crawley

Strictly Come Dancing's Mr Nasty, a former drag artist, returned to panto for the first time in 15 years, last year.

Melinda Messenger

Aladdin (Genie)

Churchill Theatre, Bromley

This is the eighth panto for the former glamour model (pictured far left).

Jimmy Osmond

Cinderella (Buttons)

White Rock Theatre, Hastings

The former child star is visiting children in hospital in his panto costume.

Britt Ekland

Jack and the Beanstalk (Fairy Peapod)

Kings Theatre, Southsea

The I'm a Celebrity... contestant was too jet-lagged after her jungle appearance to perform on the opening night.

Lesley Joseph

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Wicked Queen)

Grand Opera House, Belfast

The Birds of a Feather actress is making her Belfast panto debut.

Bobby Davro

Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack)

Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Davro has written most of the panto himself and says he pitches his cheeky material at adults.