The Hoff, hooked! Backstage with David Hasselhoff and the panto brigade

 

Booing and hissing ex-soap stars and Eighties musicians has become an integral, if confusing, part of the Christmas tradition in the UK. As a kid, I remember pulling at my mum's ski-pants to ask who Sinitta was and why everyone was so excited to see her perform next to Cannon and Ball (it was always Cannon and Ball).

It may seem – thanks to certain castings – like an anachronism, but pantomime is as popular as ever before, with market leaders Qdos (a pantomime production company hosting 24 shows this year) anticipating 1.5 million people shouting "He's behind you" this season.

So why do we still love panto? Is it to do with pulling up the drawbridge on modernity, throwing away the PC handbook and stripping everything back to bawdy basics? To find out, I went along to the rehearsal of this year's production of Peter Pan at Nottingham's Theatre Royal, starring David Hasselhoff as Hook, Su Pollard as Mimi the Magical Mermaid and CBeebies presenter Barney Harwood as Peter.

As the revenue from panto grows, so the machine around it does, too. Most of Qdos's shows begin life at dance studios in London, before being transferred to theatres across the country. Peter Pan is rehearsing in the Dance Attic Studios in Fulham – a traditional space where tiled corridors are stalked by slim, polo-neck wearing choreographers peering over their rimless glasses. I am eventually led through a succession of mirrored dressing rooms by one such gentleman, to a large studio where the full cast, minus The Hoff, are sat in small groups on the floor. As they prepare, I catch up with the show's director Tudor Davies, whose enthusiasm for his job is palpable.

"This is my 56th panto," he tells me, adjusting his scarf with one hand and wafting the air with a flamenco fan held in the other. "In that way, I'm a bit of a panto pixie." The script was adapted from JM Barrie's original story by Jonathan Kiley, with some help from Tudor to include Ed Miliband Miley Cyrus. "It'd veered from the original text quite a lot," he explains.

Tudor is flanked by two blokes in tracksuit bottoms, fleeces and running shoes: Joseph Morley, the music director and Gerry Zuccarello, the show's choreographer.

"Pantomime is a mongrel, it is a mixture of different styles of theatre: Italian commedia dell'arte, English music hall, middle European operetta, burlesque, vaudeville, variety... It's a wonderful distillation of pure entertainment for the whole family."

I wonder if he will be honest in admitting that today, it is also a safe haven for performers who might otherwise have to retire. "I don't know about that. Theatre up until 250 years ago was full of people drinking and defecating; then a man called John Rich came along and said, 'There's a whole audience out there being ignored, and that's the children'."

Hasselhoff has completed four successive panto seasons at theatres across the UK (Immo Klink) Hasselhoff has completed four successive panto seasons at theatres across the UK (Immo Klink)
A director, producer and founder of the New Theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London during the early Georgian period, John Rich pioneered a more visual approach to theatre, notably employing the use of animals and optical illusions. But it wasn't until over a hundred years later, with the arrival of Augustus Harris to the Drury Lane theatre in London during the mid-19th century, that pantomime began to resemble its present form. Harris understood the pull of established names, and brought to his productions luminaries such as operatic sopranos Nellie Melba and Emma Eames. After that, theatres began to engage in a war of celebrity, aiming to score the bigger name in a bid to pull in a bigger audience.

To this show's credit, David Hasselhoff is one name bigger than most on today's panto circuit. Not only was he the central character in two of the Eighties' and Nineties' most popular TV shows – Knight Rider and Baywatch respectively – but he also performed at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The magnitude of having him on board the production is obvious from the giggles between dancers who approach me to ask if I've met David and who coyly describe him as "lovely". I ask if any of them fancy him, but Tudor declares that rehearsals are underway and I'm ushered to another side of the room before they have time to answer.

I've arrived on "clean-up day". The cast had only started rehearsing four days before and were already at the stage of fine-tuning the transition between sequences. As Su Pollard puts it – shouting across the room – pantomime is "very of the moment", insofar as it is learnt, rehearsed and delivered to audiences all within a matter of weeks. She is wearing socks over tights under shorts embellished with jewels and has several large, clip-on flowers in her hair. She shakes her limbs in preparation for a scene referred to as 'Applause', soundtracked by Lady Gaga's song of the same name.

 

Su channels her Hi-de-Hi! persona while mouthing the words and exchanging glances with Tigerlily and Tinkerbell. Twirling on a pair of sparkly roller-skates, the blonde-haired Tinkerbell later tells me that she has played the role for several seasons. "We both play Tigerlily and Tinkerbell quite a lot," she explains, gesturing to her co-star.

Things slow down with a 'Wave your broomstick' number – the kind of music I'd remembered from panto, as opposed to the Gaga number: more oompah beats and fewer dubstep breakdowns. ("Panto's changed a lot over the years," Su explains. "There's pyrotechnics and mentions of those wonderful console games, PX360s or whatever you call them.") Meanwhile, the girls and boys who make up the rest of the cast put on an impressive show of interpretive acrobatics. Su, true to form, winces and purses her rouged lips in camp horror at the site of all the flailing limbs. The sequence builds to a crescendo of argy-bargy – we may be on-board Captain Hook's ship at this point – as David enters from the other side of the studio.

Peter Pan was David Hasselhoff's first professional performance, as a crew member aboard Hook's ship, aged seven. In recent years he has taken to playing the role of Hook himself, completing four successive panto seasons at theatres across the UK. It's a role he admits to feeling at home in, and it shows. Wearing a green T-shirt and khaki combat trousers, he strolls into the room, towering above Su, and stands next to the first of the female dancers.

"I miss the movies..." he laments, glancing down at the girl's chest, "...and the boobies."

He moves along to the next.

"I miss the TV shows..." he booms, this time louder and glancing down at the second girl's chest, "...and the boobies."
Flying high: Tinkerbell goes through her moves (Immo Klink) Flying high: Tinkerbell goes through her moves (Immo Klink)
By the time he drops the third scripted booby gag, Tudor and his cohorts – the sound tech and choreographer – are bent double. Even David struggles to finish his lines. The scene builds to one of the said Miley Cyrus gags. Which, if this were a real pirate ship, would be enough to make you want to throw yourself overboard. It's these instances which David refers to when he later admits that he does panto "to keep in touch, and current, with the kids".

In fact, when I ask how it feels going from film to performing alongside Su 'Magical Mermaid' Pollard in a production of Peter Pan, he gives an array of answers, but one I suspect is the more honest admission: "My daughters will be coming over and it's good for them to see what I've been doing and to understand how much work goes into it".

After a well-publicised breakdown, David is reticent about speaking to the press. Yet behind all the bravado of Tudor's script, a candid chat with him in a separate rehearsal area soon shifts from spiel to him expressing some insightful thoughts on theatre, and panto in particular.

"When people perform they forget that they are essentially interacting with an audience. In panto you can't ignore that fact. It's nice when you're on a ride. We had maybe four real super-rides last year, when everything was perfect and it was incredible: every timing was right, every joke we did was bang-on and we couldn't wait to get back onstage. That's the challenge: to try and recreate that every night."

Watching him stride into the dance studio café for lunch, chatting to the cast before learning his lines in the corner, he seems to really enjoy being a part of the whole process. He adds, almost as a warm farewell to those heady days of worldwide superstardom: "I look out the window and think, I'm never going to complain about anything. My girlfriend's dad is a plasterer in Wales working outside every day in the cold. It's like we never have to grow up, spending our days inside here, just pretending..."

Hasselhoff says: 'It's like we never have to grow up, spending our days inside here, just pretending...' (Immo Klink) Hasselhoff says: 'It's like we never have to grow up, spending our days inside here, just pretending...' (Immo Klink)
Heading outside of the studio and across the road to the church hall where the costumes are being stored before transfer to Nottingham, I bump into Barney Harwood, who is keen to talk about tackling the role of Peter.

"He loves Wendy, but he doesn't realise, or perhaps he does. It's his choice not to grow up."

I suggest that in that way, Peter Pan is actually quite a sad story; that we all have to grow up eventually and Peter misses out by refusing to follow Wendy.

Arriving in the church entrance, costumes are bundled into boxes not dissimilar to those found in a school props cupboard. Su's leaden, teal-green velvet mermaid costume and David's skull embellished, Earl of Rochester-inspired coat and breeches, are all wrapped up in plastic. The guy in charge of logistics explains that costumes are recycled. That there are teams dedicated to amending them, as well as teams devoted to designing and building sets, who work tirelessly throughout the year awaiting the arrival of David.

A van pulls up outside, ready for the boxes to be loaded and delivered to the theatre, where the cast will expand to include two child actors playing Michael and John. The show has runs from 7 December to 12 January, 2014. By the time of going to print, it will have already been running for several weeks.

In that time I hope the cast have gotten on one of those super-rides and given the audience a show they'll remember for a while. Or at least until next year, when the kids who never had to grow up, swoop in from Neverland to sprinkle their fallen-star dust over our market town theatres once more.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before