The Arts: Small wonders

The politically correct don't like it, but `Snow White' isn't the same without dwarf actors. And this year demand is threatening to outstrip supply

Elves can cope with the seasonal labour, but dwarves are still struggling. With 19 Snow Whites in production, there is - so to speak - a dwarf shortage. "I've heard they're coming over from Belgium and Holland," says Leslie Collins of the Thornton agency, which has 65 dwarves on its books. "Children are the next best thing, but they don't walk the same. And they're no cheaper. Anyway, an audience appreciates the real thing."

The real thing, according to the pressure group The Little People of America, is an adult of 4ft 10in or shorter. The most frequent cause of dwarfism is achondroplasia, a genetic condition that results in disproportionately short arms and legs. It occurs in all races, equally in males and females, and affects about one in 26,000 children. A proportionate dwarf is called a midget but - in the culture of political correctness - the word has fallen into disfavour. Instead, it's "dwarf", "little person", "LP", or "person of short stature".

The race to sign up the country's best dwarves began 12 months ago. They remain an enduring part of the panto season, and can command up to pounds 550 a week, despite periodic attempts by the politically correct to ban them. "I remember five years ago in Hull," says Collins, "there was a Liberal Democrat on the council who said we were exploiting dwarves. They wrote letters to all the papers. But the show went on, and the councillor ended up apologising. There will always be dwarves in pantomime."

Kenny Baker, Birmingham Hippodrome

"I'm not boasting, but I am the only actor to have been in all four Star Wars movies. I've been R2-D2 since 1976. People ask how I got on with C-3PO. And they want to know what it was like inside the robot. I say, `Hot.' They smile, and say, `Cool.' I say, `No - hot.' The job isn't always easy. Little David Rappaport shot himself not long after Time Bandits. He was disillusioned. He was a good little actor, but thought he wasn't getting the parts he should be getting, and got twisted about it. Last year The Stage ran a picture of Snow White. The dwarves were kids from the dancing troupe, and they were bigger than Snow White. Stupid. There are plenty of dwarves around, so why not use the real thing?"

Melanie Dixon, Hawth Theatre, Crawley

"I have fond memories of panto. I met my husband Mark, (who stars in the "Lift Me Up" video with Geri Halliwell) 10 years ago doing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Swansea. I was Dozy and he was Noisy. Now we've got a little boy of five called Blake. He is small like us. We're just a happy little family, basically. The only thing I dislike about my life is when I do the weekly shopping, I can't reach the bottom of the trolley. But Tesco do their best to help me. I would love to do something I could really get my teeth into. Something where my size was of no relevance whatsoever."

Jason Tomphans, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

"I used to dread seeing a programme with a dwarf in. I turned the channel over. I said I would never play a part like that, but it never crossed my mind that I would be given the opportunity. I always wanted to be a fireman. Or a motorcycle cop like in CHIPS. I've actually got a different kind of dwarfism from everyone else. There's 106 different kinds of dwarfism. I have average facial features, which means I get a lot of close-up facial shots, and lead parts. I get a lot of work because they want someone small who - how can I put this - isn't going to scare the children."

Nick Read, Theatre Royal, Nottingham

"Most dwarves got into acting around the same time - Return of the Jedi and Labyrinth. That was when there was a big demand. The demand hasn't changed, even with the advent of political correctness. Everybody who's an actor is weird anyway, so we fit right in. You get used to working with odds and sods. But I still find it strange to compete with children for work. Children are cheaper, but they can't work the hours. We move differently. I can tell if there's a dwarf inside a costume by the way it moves. We tend to waddle, because of our big bums." n

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