Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. Volume 8, 2017
Issue 2: Training the Popular Performer
I didn’t grow up loving pantomime, and it hasn’t been a life-long ambition to appear in it, so how have I ended up playing Panto Dame every Christmas for the past 17 years?
I’ve always loved comedy. I grew up in the days before video and the internet, so my collection was all on records, which I’d listen to obsessively. When friends came round to my house I’d force-feed them selected tracks ‒ early favourites included Songs for Swinging Sellers (one of George Martin’s numerous comedy productions), as well as The Smothers Brothers and Mr Morecambe Meets Mr Wise (on Music for Pleasure record label). I especially enjoyed the routines like Morecambe and Wise’s Boom Oo Yatta-Ta-Ta. Later on, of course, I was able to record radio comedy shows onto cassette, extend my collection and make my own compilations.
I didn’t have any particular aspiration to perform myself; I didn’t go the theatre very often and only saw one pantomime as a child, which was when I went to see my step-sister in a local church Panto. However when I was in the Fifth Form at school, some mates and I auditioned for a school play because we thought it might be a bit of a laugh, and I was hooked.
From school I went on to read Drama and English at Kent University, where I met Jamie Rix (son of the great farceur and actor-manager, Brian Rix), and we ended up writing and performing a revue together. When I graduated my intention was to become a theatre director (specialising in comedy, of course) but for some reason I decided to spend that first summer as a ‘Pontins Bluecoat’ – I think I had some idea about learning my trade from the ‘grass roots’. At the end of the summer I was given the chance to get my Equity card through stage management, where I ended up for the next two years. I probably would have stayed in theatre and tried to work my way to director, but then I fell off the ladder.
I ended up with several cracked vertebrae.
Lying in bed in hospital I decided to change my plans and have a go at acting as a career. I moved in with my old university mate, Jamie and his wife, Helen Murry (also a Kent graduate) in their flat in Clapham and started writing off for auditions. Helen was at the BBC at the time and had just started working as PA on a new comedy series Not The Nine O’Clock News. The three of us thought we’d try and get something on so started writing together – a couple of ‘quickies’ eventually made it on air.
Over the next couple of years we wrote for a lot of TV ‘Sketch’ shows ‒ and there were a lot of them around. Then in 1981, we got together with some other writers and put together a revue from all our rejected TV sketches with some new bits added in. We performed all around London (anywhere that would have us) and ended up taking the show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1982, where we were lucky enough to win the much coveted Perrier Award for New Comedy.
The show was seen by BBC producer Paul Jackson, who then offered me a part in the Live Saturday Night series, Carrott’s Lib (which I did for three years).
I spent the next few years writing and performing in comedy shows on TV and radio and had a great time, but eventually the sketch format fell out of fashion and I started doing more theatre work.
I got my first two pantomimes, playing Captain’s Mate in Dick Whittington and Wishee Washee in Aladdin, when I was doing a kid’s TV show in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that I decided I wanted to play pantomime Dame. I think I must have seen a documentary on TV and realised that it encompassed everything I loved doing – acting, routines (sketches) and stand-up. It took three years to persuade someone to let me have a go and I’m really grateful to Joanna Read (then running Salisbury Playhouse) for taking a chance with me. Then, as now, I was inspired by the wonderful Chris Harris, who I worked with in my first panto in Plymouth in 1987. Chris sadly died in 2014 and I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have stepped into his Dame’s boots at The Theatre Royal Bath in 2015.