Look behind the clichés: all-star panto is raking in the millions

Pantomime has evolved, with big stars, big budgets and big profits

Only a few years ago, a ticket to a pantomime meant a night watching an amateurish production with nearly forgotten "stars" delivering lines from a sub-Carry On script.

Fast forward to 2010 and the experience is almost unrecognisable – slick, high-budget productions with international stars delivering genuinely funny lines. The Great British Pantomime has become an industry, with spectators numbering in the millions and revenues growing steadily.

In the past couple of years, audiences have been able to see Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhoff and Happy Days star Henry Winkler show their willingness to climb inside the back ends of pantomime horses or get to grips with their Widow Twankeys.

According to Kevin Wood, the man responsible for bringing stars such as Pammie, the Hoff and the Fonz to the stage, a desire to improve the quality of pantomimes was the reason he moved from being an independent producer to running First Family Entertainment six years ago. This year his company is producing 12 shows across the country, at a cost of up to £1m each.

"The objective was to raise the bar and look at how we could do it better," he says. "This meant new levels of casting, production and script-writing, to give the whole genre a makeover."

It has also meant a new level of pay cheques. And while producers won't declare how much the actors are paid, it is thought that the bigger stars can earn £250,000 for a three- to five-week run. A relatively-well known British name can earn £100,000.

The increase in investment is not just going on stars' wages, however. The costumes and scenery can cost up to £400,000 alone, while some productions have even commissioned 3D films for the audience to watch during the show.

"The productions that we put on are more lavish than many West End musicals," Wood says. "The quality of the scenery, the scriptwriting, the dancers, the fact that we have a live band. We look to get the best in modern technology. When an actor is flying, it's all done by computers now, there's no one pulling ropes. Everything is what our biggest stars would be happy to be associated with."

While celebrities such as Christopher Biggins have been perennial pantomime favourites, it has become acceptable for actors such as Roger Allam and Brian Blessed to swap Shakespeare for a night of slapstick and double entendres. Wood believes this is down to the "McKellen effect" that began when Sir Ian McKellen performed as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic in 2004.

However, one London theatre agent, who asked to remain anonymous, said part of the reason we are seeing more household names in pantomime is because of a sea change in the acting industry, brought about by the recession.

"In the acting world everyone has gone down a rung on the ladder lately," he says. "Fewer films are being made in Hollywood and the knock on is felt here. British actors who might normally expect to be working in film are back doing British TV, the TV actors whose places they are taking are going back to the stage, and the stage actors are forced to look around again. Those who have found their regular income disappearing are taking well-paid pantomime gigs at Christmas."

Whatever the case, the money keeps rolling in for the producers of these shows. This year QDOS Entertainment, which is putting on 22 shows around the country with headline stars such as Joan Collins, Julian Clary and John Barrowman, expects takings of £22m.

Nick Thomas, the chairman of QDOS, said: "It's been a steady trajectory over the past few years. Now around 1.7 million people see our shows each year."

The trend is important for British regional theatres, which have come to rely on the annual financial injection that pantomime season brings.

And it's not just about the big stars. "You don't want to just cast the poster," Thomas says. "There's also a lack of good quality light entertainment that the whole family can watch on TV. We already have £300,000 worth of bookings at Newcastle Theatre Royal for the pantomime next year. And as yet no stars have been booked."