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Tough new rules for showbiz high-flyers

THE ACROBATIC spectacular at the heart of the Millennium Dome show is being used to develop tough new regulations governing the theatrical use of wires and harnesses.

Steve Colley, the head of the Dome's "aerial team" confirmed yesterday that his show was being used as "a test bed for new legislation".

While in the next few weeks Peter Pan and Tinkerbell will soar 30 feet above pantomime audiences around the country. Dome performers will reach heights of up to 145 feet.

As theatrical acrobatics becomes more and more adventurous it also becomes increasingly dangerous. The new rules devised by the Association of British Theatre Technicians should ensure no flying thespian suffers serious injury, or is even killed.

Howard Bird, ABTT's executive director, said: "It's actually deadly serious. Safety is the watchword. We're terribly sober as an association."

The risks are obvious. Toyah Willcox, who is currently playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, admits she has garnered her share of bumps and grazes in four seasons of playing JM Barrie's hero.

"Flying's absolutely wonderful. When you're up there and you've got stage nerves, you forget all about the pain of the harness," she said.

"But there is a problem with hitting things. It's very precarious. I've been knocked out - I've still got the scars on the back of my arms. They're like my war wounds."

Yet Kasper Cornish, who plays the Snowman in the musical of the same name at London's Peacock Theatre has been more lucky.

"It's never gone wrong and I've done a couple of hundred shows in the last couple of years," he said, adding: "It's a lot of fun."

The current "Flying Code" was first published in 1993 but now needs revisions to take into account European directives on safety and the increasing risk and complexity of the acts being performed.

Most of the changes involve additional safety checks on equipment, and the rules will in future also apply for the first time to school pantomimes and plays.

But the most significant impact is on Britain's often old and under-funded theatres. Derek Simpson, production manager for Jack and the Beanstalk at the Bristol Old Vic, said the latest regulations could prove costly for those that had failed to keep up-to-date.

"A lot of theatres have been working with equipment that has been there for a long time and doesn't necessarily comply with regulations that have come in recently," he said.

"Now they're enforcing the regulations, some theatres are having to spend a lot of money. If you have to replace all the steel flying lines ... you're talking about tens of thousands of pounds."

The Dome team have had to be particularly careful because of the sheer scale of the exercise, but every move has been plotted in detail, using sandbags in trials.

Sophisticated equipment and harnesses designed specially for the space mean that the aerialists can travel at nearly 30 feet a second compared with perhaps three feet a second by traditional mechanics.

But in five months rehearsing, they have had only a couple of sprains among the 70 aerial performers. "It's all working rather beautifully," Mr Colley said. "We are flying higher and faster than has ever been done before."

Matt Costain, who plays one of the leads, Sky Boy, in the aerial drama, said: "You need the people doing the health and safety work so you feel confident. You're not oblivious to the risk and the danger."

At 145 feet, probably not. But back on the ground, pantomime producer Kevin Wood said the flying was nowhere near as dangerous as the sword fight in his Peter Pan. "It's easier for something to happen that wasn't supposed to happen," he said.