You will go to the panto

It's derided as the naffest entertainment on earth, but this year's shows are the hottest tickets in town. Ed Caesar finds out why men in frocks are packing 'em in as never before
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The Independent Culture

Panto is booming. Oh, yes it is. Once perceived as little more than amateur dramatics plagued by has-beens and soap stars, this season's pantos boast an Oscar-nominated actor, a major new West End production (the first there in a decade), more shows in Britain than ever before, and special effects to rival any musical.

Panto is booming. Oh, yes it is. Once perceived as little more than amateur dramatics plagued by has-beens and soap stars, this season's pantos boast an Oscar-nominated actor, a major new West End production (the first there in a decade), more shows in Britain than ever before, and special effects to rival any musical.

Ticket sales suggest that between 15 and 20 per cent of the population, or up to 11 million people, will see a pantomime this year. And why not? It's so fashionable that even the style arbiter Vogue chose panto as the theme for its seasonal cover story. Have you booked your seats yet?

"People go to panto for the same reason they watch UK Gold," says Jon Conway, the producer who dominates the UK panto scene with his business partner, Nick Thomas. "They may not have warmed to Dad's Army when it was first on, but they watch it in their millions on re-run. Panto's a theatrical kind of Saturday-night TV fun that you just don't see on the telly any more."

Conway, 45, a sparky Northerner whose jumpy enthusiasm and youthful appearance belie his many years in show business, is a self-proclaimed panto nut. He produces 30 shows a year, all opening within 10 days of each other in a hectic late November and early December period.

It takes time, though, to build an empire. Conway recalls the unpopularity of the panto brand when he began putting them on in the early 1980s, when washed-up and poorly directed cabaret artists performed without radio mics to half-empty houses. But he was determined to bring back his brand of Christmas fun. "We saw a gap in the market. The shows we performed as youngsters weren't being done any more. We knew that anything with family values at its heart would always be successful."

Qdos Entertainment, Conway and Thomas's production company, is by far the leading purveyor of quality panto in Britain. But organising everything required to stage one production, let alone 30, is a huge task, requiring round-the-clock planning for the whole year, and a props, costume and scenery store unrivalled in British theatre. Conway estimates that he holds equipment worth more than £30m in his warehouse in Scarborough, all of which is shipped out around the country just before panto season.

"It's all there," he says with pride. "Cinderella's carriage, giant slippers, you name it." Yet, when I mention Conway's most famous prop, the world's largest beanstalk, it turns out that this 30ft behemoth of the fantasy plant kingdom is experiencing pneumatic difficulties. It is easy to imagine Conway wandering the aisles of his beloved warehouse, perhaps nipping into the dwarfs' grotto for a miniature cup of tea.

This flight of fancy, it turns out, isn't far from the truth. "It is, if you'll excuse the cliché, something of an Aladdin's cave," says the producer, "and only five of us in the company know where everything is." They can instantly tell you where all 5,000 props and 90,000 costumes are meant to go. Want to know where the costume Peter Pan wore in the Doncaster production five years ago is? Only one man can tell you - Conway.

One pantomime he won't be providing props for, though, is the Old Vic's Aladdin. The season of 1841 was the last time the illustrious theatre staged this show - it was called Aladdin and his Lamp - but the Old Vic's production will boast all the staples: gold lamps, genies, choruses of "he's behind you" and a panto Dame. The fact that the Dame in question will be Sir Ian McKellen, however, will give this particular production a little more cultural gravitas than usual.

While Conway has been at the front line of panto for decades, painting sets and lugging props in unglamorous locations, Aladdin's director Sean Matthias made his name as a classical director and this is his first panto. So why has this doyen of the theatrical world agreed to direct the decidedly lowbrow Aladdin at the Old Vic?

"Ian was desperate to play the Dame," says Matthias. "And he wanted me to direct. I thought it was the most exciting project, and I accepted without even seeing a finished script. I didn't want anyone else directing Ian's Dame."

The pieces of this theatrical puzzle perhaps fit together better when one considers Matthias and McKellen's history as former lovers, but that doesn't explain why the revamped Old Vic would want to stage a panto in the first place. "The impetus came from Ian, but I was definitely interested. There's something about panto; it's a crossover between the child's imagination and the adult's," Matthias explains, with a certain childlike glint in his eye.

The regard he has for the genre is clear. "We're not approaching it with the arrogance of 'We're going to show them how to do it, but rather, we are asking the question, 'What is panto?'" And the Old Vic is treating Aladdin just as seriously as it would any of its shows. They have worked for months on a script, produced an original score, and even persuaded Elton John, a man not unaccustomed to playing the dame, to write a love duet. With £1m in ticket sales already, this investment seems worth it - but what of the artistic enterprise?

"We're doing nothing as lofty as trying to revive the pantomime, or anything like that," Matthias says. "We're producing a traditional pantomime that is relevant for now." Topical elements, including an Aladdin born in Baghdad, mix with more conventional panto staples such as a borderline non-PC sidekick called Dim Sum, played by Maureen Lipman.

The galaxy of stars at Matthias's disposal is a far cry from the C-listers who usually infest panto season. But they had better be ready to put the effort in. Conway insists that performing in panto is "bloody hard work", and that in order to pull it off successfully, the star must be prepared to "get down and dirty".

Jonathan Kiley, a panto veteran of 30 years, who has played everything from the Voice of the Kitchen Radio to Buttons, testifies to the hard yards pantomime performers must put in. "You're doing 12 shows a week - most musical theatre performers do eight. And then you're talking about doing five songs, twice a day - often more than an hour of singing. It's really hard work, and you have to look after yourself."

These privations haven't deterred legions of Big Brother contestants and fading sports stars from signing up with Conway to don tights and entertain the masses. Have any of his former leading men or women let him down? "Well, I can't tell the whole truth here, but there are a few newsreaders who have thought the experience was not for them," Conway says tactfully.

It takes little prompting, though, for the producer to let his guard down. "Let's just say that Vanessa Feltz will happily never do a pantomime again, and we will happily never use her again." It seems the voluble Vanessa failed to grasp that key component of panto: the opportunity to watch famous or nearly-famous people in potentially embarrassing situations. An audience, it seems, is not completely happy until it has seen Rory McGrath or Frank Bruno wearing a dress, and both celebrity and audience recognise this as part of the fun.

More significant than ritual humiliation, though, is the audience involvement of children. As Conway and Matthias point out, pantomime is the only type of mass live entertainment designed specifically for families. The shows must keep evolving in order to keep up with a more demanding 10-and-under age group. Conway recalls turning up three minutes late to one of his own shows, to be greeted by swarms of crying children in the foyer. He realised that the traditional early entrance of the villain, while amusing for adults, was frightening the life out younger members of the audience (anyone who saw Bobby Davro's Captain Hook will know the feeling).

That experience was an eye-opener for the producer, who rejigged the running order of all his pantos from that day on to be more kid-friendly. He also appointed one Master Jordan Conway, aged six, to be his chief theatre critic. The young man has emerged as a serious powerbroker in the Qdos machine: if Jordan doesn't like it, it doesn't go in, simple as that.

At the Old Vic, Matthias might expect rather sterner critics at Aladdin's opening night, but he thinks the pressure on his production is worth it. "This is a place where adults and children come together. The real challenge is what you can do that's going to entertain the whole family."

One wonders, though, what this director, who has grappled with Chekhov and Shakespeare, makes of a family entertainment with such a high-camp aesthetic at its heart. "I suppose the question you are asking is, 'Why would an ostensibly straight, middle-class, family audience want to be entertained by this flamboyant, cross-dressing spectacle?' I suppose it has something to do with our dark repressed Victorian sexuality," he says, with a laugh. Does panto, then, having something sinister lurking at its core? "Oh no. It taps into our sexuality, without dealing with sex - it lets us off the hook in that way."

Panto does, however, have to keep abreast of our changing society, and Conway is emphatic about his desire to bring panto into the 21st century. He cast the first black Cinderella, and recently launched the Asian-only Search for a Sultan in Bradford, a competition he describes as Panto Idol.

But Conway is wary of sacrificing a good story for the sake of a few scruples. He tells me that Snow White was often avoided as a pantomime because it was considered "dwarfist", but it's now in Conway's repertory. Before he introduced Peter Pan in 1991, that story too had never been performed as a panto; it was thought "uncommercial". His show has been so successful that he has renamed it Peter Panto, and its audiences wonder how they lived without it.

Greater cultural diversity, bigger budgets and the interest of actors with some serious wattage seem to be taking panto away from the stereotypes with which it has been associated. Panto has always done well in the regions, but Central London is often a panto-free zone. Now, the Old Vic looks set to sell out a five-week run, which, given their casting, is hardly surprising.

Perhaps more indicative of panto's resurgence in the capital, though, is the presence of Lily Savage's show, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. This marks the Qdos group's return to the West End. Coupled with their stranglehold on the suburbs and elsewhere in the country, it confirms them as serious players.

Efforts to explain the enduring appeal of this strangely carnivalesque Christmas tradition always return to two things: family and fun. Rumours of the death of panto, it seems, are greatly exaggerated. Oh yes they are...