Television soap stars make a pantomime of Christmas

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Pantomime, that staple of the British Christmas, is being treated with "disrespect" as directors use soap stars, pop singers and celebrity acts to draw in their audiences.

A leading figure in British theatre has castigated fellow directors for continually turning to "unsuitable" soap stars. Philip Hedley, director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and a former drama adviser to the Arts Council, accused them of undermining the traditional panto in an effort to sell tickets.

He adds that having black and Asian heroes and heroines in panto is "disgracefully rare".

Casting for this season's pantomimes does indeed follow the ritual pattern of recent years, trading in on television shows. A look through the listings shows that Aladdin in Southsea, Hampshire, stars "Hunter" from the television show Gladiators, while Aladdin in Chatham, Kent, stars "Trojan" from Gladiators as well as EastEnders star Paul Nicholls (who plays the troubled teenager Joe Wicks), and Fiona Wade from Grange Hill.

EastEnders is well-represented in pantoland. Among its stars, Patsy Palmer (Bianca) is Cinderella in Bath, and Paul Bradley (Nigel) is Silly Billy in Goldilocks in Hackney, east London. Lesley Joseph from Birds of a Feather is in Dick Whittington at Plymouth, and Matthew Kelly, presenter of Stars in your Eyes, spends Christmas in Mother Goose in Birmingham.

The actors' union Equity will oppose soap stars playing in panto only if they are from abroad and not deemed sufficiently famous to be granted a work permit. The union opposed the casting of Neighbours actress Kimberley Davies as Maid Marion in Robin Hood. But, tellingly, producer Nick Thomas simply replaced her with another Neighbours star, Sarah Vandenbergh.

At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, however, Beauty and the Beast is using relative unknowns and relying on traditional storylines. The Theatre Royal's pantos have in the past discovered stars such as Joanne Whalley and Kate Hardie.

"I do think that the pantomime is an enormously important part of British theatre," Mr Hedley said yesterday, "and I hate it when it is treated with disrespect. There area lot of good soap stars, people like Anita Dobson; but too often they just come on and do their funny voices, or singers sing their current chart hit, or comedy acts like Rod Hull and Emu stop the show to do their act."

Earlier, at a seminar at the Theatre Museum in London, Mr Hedley hit out at fellow directors, saying: "I believe it is important to have a cast that the kids can identify with and not cast `names' that are unsuitable for the roles. Commercial companies think they need them to pull in the crowds.

"I really don't approve of filling the cast with pop stars or soap characters who feel they have to insert their act or sing during the panto regardless of the story. The pantomime is a Christmas tradition that overrides stars. We don't need them to sell our tickets."

He added: "Our borough is the first in the country to have a majority of Afro-Asian people living within it. When it comes to panto we have to make sure we are representative and our hero and heroine are black and Asian, which is disgracefully rare in pantos. In my view, there are enough white role-models on the television, so our casting is colour blind."

Paul Elliott, whose company E and B presents 33 panto-mimes as part of the Cadbury's Pantomime Season, said that in the cases where television stars did do parts of their acts, these performances were integrated with the plot. "We use soap stars because they are the people the public want to see, and a great deal of them are very good performers," he added.

"Philip Hedley is right that you should cast the play and not cast the pantomime poster. But you can't say that Matthew Kelly shouldn't play Mother Goose for example. He is a very fine actor and a wonderful Dame."