There are certain traditions that you may be willing to put 'behind you'... but not this one. Julie Henry takes a look at the booming business of Yorkshire panto. Oh yes she does!
The first pantomime Nick Thomas ever produced, the unlikely named Robinson Crusoe in Outer Space, was a resounding flop. He lost about £25,000 and it was slammed by the critics. Fast forward 36 years and how things have changed. Thomas is now the undisputed king of panto, producing 35 shows at theatres across the country, including record-breaking productions at Bradford Alhambra and Hull New Theatre and the Olivier awardwinning spectacular at the London Palladium.
“I learnt a lot from that early experience in Preston,” laughed Thomas. “It was a complete disaster but got me into the panto business. And it shows how persistence can pay off.”
Scarborough is at the heart of his story. He moved to the town when he was six and has lived there ever since, with wife Sandra and two grownup daughters.
Qdos Entertainment, the company he founded and one of the largest entertainment groups in Europe, is based there, employing more than 50 people. A 25,000 sq ft storage space in Beverley houses a vast array of scenery and costumes, from fairy coaches to man-eating crocodiles.
With apologies to the Qdos creative team based in London’s Drury Lane, the 58-year-old describes the Palladium productions as “essentially made in Yorkshire”. The first show Thomas ever saw was in Scarborough when he was 10 and it captivated him. He can still remember the names of the acts and the heady aroma of Jeyes cleaning fluid, scenic paint and eau de cologne wafting from the 16-stong chorus of Tiller Girls.
This early brush with theatre and a meeting with Ken Dodd, who was to be his inspiration, marked the start of an abiding passion.
At 15 he devised a puppet act and won the hit ITV talent show New Faces, going on to perform in seaside summer shows. Crossing the footlights, he began to produce shows at theatres including the Futurist, the Opera House and the Spa in Scarborough, starring Keith Harris and Orville the Duck and later comic Bobby Davro, among others.
As the era of summer shows waned, pantomime became the main focus. And after three decades in the business, Thomas is now the world’s most prolific producer of the form.
Much of the resurgence of the genre in recent years has been attributed to Qdos; working with Lord Lloyd Webber, Thomas brought the panto back to the Palladium after a 30 year absence. The focus on quality and reinvention means Qdos can attract big names, from Elaine Paige to Dawn French, who starred in the Snow White run at the Palladium.
“Panto is something that will go on way beyond my lifetime but you have to refresh it,” explains Thomas. “If it stays still, it gets stale. You have to do different things. It’s a creative challenge, but it’s vital.”
Celebrity sign ups, whether they be Joan Collins, Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, or Pamela Anderson - can bring in a legion of fans, but Thomas sounds a note of caution.
“The first rule of engagement for a pantomime artist is they have to want to do it. Dawn French or Julian Clary don’t need to do it, they want to do it. If you hire the kid from Big Brother or the American celebrity and they’re rubbish on the night, you’ve wasted your money. “
Yorkshire has a tradition of holding on to its best-loved names, building the production around them year on year. Comic Billy Pearce has headlined at the Bradford Alhambra panto, a Qdos production, for 20 seasons. At York Theatre Royal, Berwick Kaler, has written, co-directed and appeared as the dame for a staggering 40 years.
“The northern audience is warmer than any other audience in the country,” said Thomas. “They get in to it. They want a good night out and a laugh. They love their own. You watch Billy Pearce come on the stage in Bradford and as soon as he appears they cheer. They want to see him – he’s one of them.”
For Pearce, last seen as Wishee Washee in the Alhambra’s Aladdin, building up a rapport with the regular audience is the key to his success. “We’ve developed a really loyal base for which I’m very grateful,” said the comedian.
Born in Leeds and still living there in Tingley, the 67-year-old can sometimes get direct feedback from fans – whether he wants it or not.
“The production has to be good because we’re in Yorkshire and they’ll soon tell you if it’s rubbish,” he joked. “When I go round the shops, they’ll come up to me and say ‘by gum you’re looking old’ or ‘you’ve put some weight on’.”
Despite the Mickey-taking, Pearce knows that panto has a “place in people’s hearts”. He has broken fingers, toes and ribs “from throwing myself about” on stage, but the show must go on. Even an outbreak of norovirus, necessitating sick buckets in the wings one year, could not bring the curtain down.
In York, audiences too are prepared to make a few sacrifices to keep panto alive. When tickets go on sale on March 1st each year, hundreds of people turn out to wait in line, rain or shine.
“The queue goes right round to York Minster - that’s what it means to people,” said Berwick Kaler, who after 40 years of playing the dame, will be bowing out when the curtain comes down on his final performance in The Grand Old Dame of York.
The 72-year-old’s idiosyncratic Dame – make-up free and minus the high pitched voice - was described by one Guardian writer as the butchest dame he’d ever seen, with an “increasing resemblance to Sir Alex Ferguson”.
Kaler, who lives in and “absolutely adores” York, has become an adopted son of the county and was awarded the Freedom of the City in 2003.
“I left Sunderland at 15 and I never felt like ‘this is my home’ until I got to North Yorkshire,” he recalls. “Through the Theatre Royal, I’ve been part of the lives of a few thousand people. You don’t get that from any other medium. For people who come every year, the pantomime is very much part of their Christmas. It belongs to them and it’s written for them.”
And the writing never stops. The first night and the last night are like two different shows, according to Kaler.
“I ad lib, we put in lastminute jokes and it gives every performance an excitement,” he said. “I keep it current. But if you mention Brexit it better be a good joke because some of the audience might well be thinking ‘I thought we were coming to get away from all that’. You’ve got to strike a balance.”
Despite prophecies of doom over the years and competition from myriad alternatives, panto has survived and according to a recent analysis of the business by The Stage magazine, is more popular than ever.
It has endured because of its communal appeal, Thomas believes: “It can take kids from five to 95 and that is why it still works,” he said. “It is a collective experience. You are all in it together and that is very rare these days. One great advance is that audiences in the big cities are increasingly cross-cultural.”
Thomas has been careful to try and retain the innocent, cheeky charm of panto at a time when increased sensitivities combine with commercial pressures. A sponsorship deal from an online bingo company was turned down and council concerns about the obesity problem put paid to a potential oven chip endorsement. Sweets are still flung in to the audience but after the odd complaint, the harder varieties have been replaced with softer ones, such as marshmallows.
Investment in the genre is helping it thrive. The London Palladium production of Dick Whittington, which won the 2018 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment & Family, cost £4 million to stage, had a 55-strong cast and special effects galore, including a red double-decker bus flying out over the heads of the audience. Venue refurbishments, such as the £16 million transformation of Hull New Theatre, are giving modern audiences the stylish surroundings they expect.
And keeping the panto in rude health is not just about the survival of the genre – it is the life blood of live performance full stop. Pantomime is the “get out of jail card” of the theatre, according to Thomas, who also runs 12 theatres, mostly in the south of England.
“A healthy regional theatre has to have a healthy pantomime,” he said. “With a successful panto under their belt, theatres can be more creative with their programming. Every theatre manager is fixated on the panto because their whole year relies on it.”
Testimony to the success of theatre in Yorkshire is the decision to bring a stunning multimillionpound production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Bradford this year. “There are lots of fantastic surprises already planned in what promises to be another unmissable pantomime season at the Alhambra,” said Thomas. “Billy is very excited. He’s getting that ‘Tingley’ feeling.”
This article was taken from This is Y 2019.