Oz soap stars clean up in pantos: Equity is piqued over a new invasion of actors from Down Under. Mary Braid reports

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THE AUSTRALIAN soap star has become as essential a part of British pantomime this year as the dame, the villain and the rousing chorus of 'Oh no it isn't]' Few self-respecting pantos, it seems, can open without one.

To the casting directors, no role in an Australian TV soap seems too trivial. Such is the demand that a few lines in a single episode of Home And Away or Neighbours may soon be enough to guarantee you six weeks' panto in a provincial theatre.

Australia's pantomime pioneers first popped up a few years ago, but now some 25 actors from the two television soaps are treading the boards in Britain. Equity, the actors' union, regards this as the beginning of an invasion.

The union has protested about the unprecedented number of Australian soap stars appearing in Britain, but the Department of Employment is unmoved by the complaints. Take Australian soapsters out of panto, it says, and you will have to take a similar stand on British sportsmen such as Ian Botham, who is appearing in Jack And The Beanstalk this year.

Some theatrical agents credit Australian actors with reviving British pantomime. Their popularity is undoubtedly high and they are filling theatres throughout the country. The Empire Theatre in Sunderland is offering a double soap bill, with Rebekah Elmaloglou and Alex Papps of Home And Away and Mark Little of Neighbours in Cinderella.

While Equity argues that there are already plenty of actors in Britain who could do pantomime work with equivalent 'star status', it is a matter of dispute. Grundy, the company which produces Neighbours, says a large proportion of its most avid viewers are young children, so it is small surprise that Australian stars attract this audience at Christmas.

Kristian Schmid, alias Todd in Neighbours, is Peter Pan at the de Montfort Hall Theatre in Leicester. It is his second year in pantomime with the company. Paddy Casey, company manager, believes he has a balanced ticket with Mr Schmid and the British actor Brian Blessed topping the bill.

'You employ someone who is going to pull children and families in,' Mr Casey said. 'Brian appeals to the adults and the younger kids know the Australian soaps better than British soaps like Eastenders, which are shown later at night.'

While British soap stars may be hindered by contract from starring in pantomime, actors such as Kristian Schmid negotiate time off from soap to do the British season.

Given the time lapse between the soaps being recorded in Australia and shown on British television, written-out Australian stars can profit from British pantomime long after they have faded from Australian screens.

Dee Smart and Bruce Roberts from Home And Away are currently packing them in at the Cambridge Corn Exchange production of Snow White. They may have little experience of the British pantomime tradition, but are clearly enjoying themselves. Ms Smart describes pantomime as a 'hoot'. Australian soap references are woven into the traditional plot.

Mr Roberts, playing Prince Charming, believes Equity's criticism is 'stupid' and adds: 'We had to put up with second-rate English television programmes and even worse actors touring Australia for work for years. It seems the colonial attitude still exists.'

Pantomime may retain its stock fairy stories, humour and cross-dressing tradition, but it has always drawn on contemporary culture. In the 1970s situation comedy stars such as Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce, of George And Mildred, were in pantomime and an assortment of 'personalities', including newscaster Angela Rippon, have appeared.

Closely associated with music hall, pantomime has been a Christmas and New Year fixture in Britain for more than 150 years. It is one of the few remaining vestiges of the non-literary tradition in British theatre. Some trace its roots to the ancient Greek phlyakes, a farcical mime which combined modern life and mythology.

Until the beginning of the 18th century, the popularity of pantomime rested more on the stories and the variety of entertainments than the performers. Then the clown Joseph Grimaldi became the first pantomime star.

The Players Theatre in London performs soap-free pantomimes true to original 19th-century scripts. In the company's version of Dick Whittington there are no household names. 'The show is the star, not any individual in it,' said Malcolm Williams, box office manager.

Whittington Junior And His Sensational Cat, written around 1860 by H J Byron, who also wrote the first modern Cinderella for production, is intended for adults and older children. To appreciate it, a degree of linguistic sophistication is required, for the humour relies on awful rhyming couplets and dreadful puns.

Attendances at the Players Theatre are down this year, but Mr Williams attributes this to the recession rather than a lack of interest in original pantomime.

He says he understands the resentment among British actors engendered by the Australian stars, but he supports anything which brings children into contact with the theatre. It is pantomime, after all, which provides for most children their first encounter with live acting.

(Photographs omitted)