Pantos Past

I have a chum who has loathed Christmas pantomimes ever since childhood. Me? I quite enjoy a good one, and as long as all the traditional elements are there: cross-dressing, slapstick, slightly dated pop songs and a generous splash of political incorrectness, I’m prepared to stick it out.

The Bath Theatre Royal pantos of yore under the direction of famous owner manager Frank Maddox were nothing if not traditional, right down to the national anthem at the end. Woe betides anyone in the front row who didn’t immediately stand to attention. Cue withering look from aged principle boy.

In those days the balcony seats were wooden benches, accessed through a side door. Security was somewhat lacking and at most matinees just after curtain up the kids from the Kingsmead flats would sneak in. The girls would stand on the benches mimicking the dance routines that they’d learned by heart and the boys would shout out punchlines seconds before the furious comedian on stage delivered them.

In over forty five years of being a comedy performer I’ve only been in one panto. This took place at the long-gone Metro Theatre which is now Malloy’s Irish bar. I was the dame (naturally), but unusually I was an American tourist dame. Probably the first and last time this character has been portrayed thus!

Appearing in two shows a day for weeks on end would drive me nuts. I’m actually happier working behind the scenes in preparation for the run. I used to design the costumes and sets for the award-winning pantos at London’s Greenwich Theatre and I adored scouring the fabulous fabric shops in Soho. Whereas the designers for the big West End theatres would be buying up huge swathes of glittering sequined silks, I’d be rummaging for off-cuts in the remnant boxes, clasping my dog-eared folder of drawings.

A couple of quid would get you enough crushed velvet for at least one leg of King Cole’s walk down outfit for the finale or a scrap of sparkly black leatherette for the baddy’s cloak. Bought off the roll some of these amazing fabrics could set you back several hundred pounds per metre!

Rehearsals were really crammed in and there never seemed time for proper fittings, and at the dress rehearsals the wardrobe mistress and I would find ourselves frantically dashing around in the dark clutching needle and thread and a large tube of Uhu, accompanied by the sounds of ripping gussets as the dancers performed cartwheels and splits that the choreographer had somehow forgotten to tell us about.

Never has the phrase ‘Behind you!’ taken on such urgency!

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