The asylum-seeker pantomime becomes farce as production is pulled in race row
Saturday 06 December 2003
Early in the first act of Snow White and the Seven Asylum-Seekers, one of the refugees, who all live in squalor and dabble in benefit fraud, tells his fellow characters: "For goodness sake, be quiet. Do you want to get us all arrested?"
In a case of farce imitating life, the writer of the seasonal pantomime whose "light-hearted satire" has put the Devon village of Langtree at the centre of a national row over thespian-based racism, has taken the advice of his own fictional creation, named Chemical Ali.
Bob Harrod, 55, a driving instructor and part-time playwright, confirmed yesterday that he has cancelled his latest production following advice from police that it could pose a "threat to public order" after anti-racist groups and extreme-right activists threatened to mount rival pickets of the performance in the village hall. He said: "It is [not] and never has been a racist play but it has got to a point where the entire project has been hijacked for political purposes.
"The police advice was that there was a possibility of groups demonstrating outside on performance night. If there was going to be any chance of it getting out of hand, I could not take the risk."
The decision to pull the plug ends a saga that has combined the best "oh yes it is, oh no it isn't" slapstick tradition of panto with all the elements of a socio-political thriller, from political extremism and engrained prejudice to allegations of intimidation.
The play, which features the asylum-seekers working illegally in a quarry and living off baked beans, was cancelled once last month after managers of the village hall in Merton, near Bideford, north Devon, demanded that its title be changed after advice from the Commission for Racial Equality and local anti-discrimination groups.
After Mr Harrod refused and transferred his production five miles to Langtree, one actor allegedly received an abusive telephone call after names and phone numbers of the 12-strong cast were reportedly posted on the internet. The row also featured on the local website of the British National Party, and police are investigating claims that activists from another far-right group were planning to stage a counter-demonstration in support of the pantomime.
Mr Harrod said he took the decision to cancel after he was called on Wednesday by a police officer in charge of community diversity. A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall police said: "We did not order or direct that the play be cancelled. But we did say if it went ahead, there were opposing groups of people who could turn up and create a flashpoint that would not, otherwise, have been there. We have been aware of claims that the far right was getting involved. There was no intelligence that demonstrations were actually going to take place but, certainly, we would have put in place the resources to deal with anything that might have occurred."
Critics of Mr Harrod, who strenuously denied claims that his play was racist and based on insulting stereotypes, said only a cursory examination of the pantomime's script showed that they had been right to call for the performance on 23 and 24 January to be picketed.
The plot is based on a wicked queen and her sycophantic butler, Tony, named after Tony Blair, who orders the execution of Snow White before she escapes into the Devon woods, where she is taken in by the asylum-seekers. The refugees, who claim benefits while Snow White cleans their squalid log cabin, are described in the script as "obviously gay and should speak in an appropriate voice". One asylum-seeker is called Back Ali.
An extract from Mr Harrod's script reads: "Comical Ali: We work at the local quarry and the DSS gives us lots of money too because they don't know we work. Actually, we're not really allowed to work because the strange custom in this country is that people get paid for not working. So we all have false names so the DSS don't know we work and the quarry managers don't know we're asylum-seekers, so we get paid twice, once for working and once for not working."
Campaigners for the National Civil Rights Movement (NCRM), who called for activists to write to their local MP and anti-discrimination bodies, confirmed that they would have demonstrated if Snow White et al had taken to the stage. Jon McKenzie, the NCRM's regional co-ordinator, said: "What we called for was lobbying of those people in a position to stop what we see as a play containing objectionable racist stereotyping of disadvantaged people. We don't suggest that there was any extremist intent on the part of the producers. But if others were going to exercise their right to demonstrate in support of the play, then we would have felt obliged to make clear our opposition."
Mr Harrod, who has raised £5,000 for charity through his amateur dramatics, including previous pantomimes on fox hunting and foot-and-mouth disease, remained unbowed. He said: "Probably, I have been a bit naïve but I assumed that what I saw as innocent fun would be seen in the same way by everybody else." Asked about next year's village pantomime, Mr Harrod suggested: "I'm thinking of using Snow White and Seven People Who Are No Different From Anybody Else."
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