PART 1. 

If someone had told me twenty years ago that I'd be playing pinto dame- I'd have probably thought they were mad ! But this stems from two reasons ; A. Before I entered the professional-I had never seen a professional pantomime-bigger fool me-as I'd had the chance to go and see some of the greats when I was at school-including Terry Scott, Arthur Askew and Jack Tripp-and stupidly never went.

B. When I made my professional panto debut-I thought my future lay in playing pantomime villain-which I still enjoy doing and have since played demon king,Abanazar ,Wicked Witch and Sheriff of Nottingham.

However-the year after I'd played Villain in "Robin Hood" at Grays I was very mis-cast as comic at Middlesbrough-followed by Cannock the following year-for which I received a very scathing review from the stage saying-"it was all too clear that David Rumelle was "acting" the role of Simple Simon." In a way -I agreed with them. On order to play comic-you need to have that street credibility that appeals to the kids-and communicate on their level. The comic is there for the kids-whereas the dame is there to bridge the gap between the kids and the adults.

During the two years I played comic I worked with a wonderful Northern comedian-Ian Moore-with whom I worked very well-as we were never vying for laughs-in fact I was happy to learn from him. He said during our second year that he wouldn't be at all surprised if I didn't play dame in later years.

I missed a year in the panto cycle-when I did a Children's show at the Midland Arts centre-"Arabian Nights"-which was a collection of ethnic folk tales-not so much pantomime as parable !

Then-local entertainer and drag performer-David Raven aka Maisie Trolette mentioned that the previous year he had worked as dame  at the Elgiva theatre, Chesham for John Nathan Turner-the last producer of the old style Dr Who ,as we knew it. He advised dropping my CV up to him. But-it was a tenuous enquiry-as I'd never played Dame before and didn't have any of my own costumes-which was really a pre-requisite. Still-it was worth a try.

Then-as luck would have it -I mentioned all this to my two friends-the "Johns" from Worthing-who were instrumental in my meeting my partner, Michael-and thus moving to Brighton. Apparently-John(Griffiths) had trained and worked with John Nathan Turner at the BBC and he said he would phone John and make a personal recommendation. I subsequently received a phone call from JNT asking me to  go to his house for an audition.

The audition itself came just after I'd got back from a disastrous cabaret night in Swansea and after receiving some bad news at home-so it wasn't the ideal time-but in a way-that probably went in my favour . Because I was so stressed/angry/whatever I walked into JNT'S living room with not exactly a blasé attitude-but pretty much.

John lived with his partner-ex dancer Gary Downie-just outside Brighton and my partner. Michael dropped me at there house that fateful Monday in late June.

I am one of those people that always needs a character to hang a performance on-I suppose that shouldn't sound strange-as surely all acting is a "character" of some description-whatever it is.(Unless one is in a hit soap of course!!)

So-when John gave me the script to read I read it "northern". John was very patient-and calmly explained that "dame" is like an alter ego-and that I should be play it as if I'd gone to a party as myself-and got" slightly merry"! That was the best note or piece of direction I have ever received-it made me instantly realised what the job entailed-and even though I don't think I delivered it that night-John had the faith in me to know that with my training and experience that I would rise to the challenge-and a challenge it certainly was going to be.

The panto I was auditioning for was  "Mother Goose"-and I couldn't have had a better role or start to my career. It is the only panto that is written around the dame-and was a great favourite of the late great John Inman.

The story is about a loveable but "facially challenged" old woman who is poor-but loved by everyone. She then is sent a magical goose who lays Golden Eggs and she become fabulously rich-and then she wants to be beautiful-so she parts with the goose to the demon vanity, bathes in the" magic pool" and becomes beautiful. But-then realises the error of her ways and puts her case to the queen of goose land that Priscilla the Goose will be best looked after by her. So-within that scenario-you have pathos,drama,slapstick,farce-everything  you could wish for-as long as you have a good script-and being a much respected TV producer-John Nathan Turner gave me the best start and the best panto script I could ever have wished for.

(I didn't realise what a lucky break I had -until just two years later I came to play the role again at Wakefield-in an appalling production-bad script, bad direction and a bad re-concoction of the story-but that's in a later chapter of this blog )

John and Gary then talked about the show and asked if I could supply the costumes. I said I had a few(not strictly true at the time) I could borrow a few from David Raven(who had kindly offered to lend) and I would have some made-and supply what was needed. They told me they had one more person to meet by the end of the week but would let me know asap.

When I left John's house and met Michael- I was tingling with electricity. I just knew something was positive about all of this -even though it would be arrogant to think I'd cracked it (Excuse the pun-being a show about golden eggs !)

I received a call a few days later when I was in the Queens arms in Brighton having an afternoon sherry .JNT (as he shall be called hereafter-and purely out of respect) rang me said they would like me to play he role. When  I think about it now-for what I was being asked to do and  supply-the money wasn't wonderful -BUT -there are chances in life you don't turn down-IF you have any sense!

(I also since learned that a very well respected and excellent drag cabaret performer -Stephen- aka Lola lasagne was my contender for the role-and John had chosen me -purely because the role required an actor who could handle the gear-changes in emotion-which I think is correct in panto- and here I must digress slightly; Panto dame should never be drag-the audience must know it's a fella in a frock playing a kind lady. I agree with the maxim that drag queens don't make good dames-but that is a sweeping statement ! I had dabbled on the drag scene and cut my teeth on the circuit -and without that experience-I couldn't have handled taking over from George Logan the year before at short  notice-or of approaching the role in the way I was now going to have to do. So- maybe I was the exception that proves the rule-even though my dame ,although "high camp"-is certainly not drag!)

So-here I was with a lead panto role on my hands and not much time to prepare costumes and how to play it.

Luckily -JNT got the script to me very quickly. but before that-he gave me a breakdown of the entrances" for the costumes-and I had a couple of meeting with him and Gary at their home.

JNT was always brilliant with his choice of  number-and I remember when I attended his funeral that everyone talked about his "big finishes" for his pantomimes.

I've since acquired a few more of John's panto scripts-and they are beautifully written-all plot and character based-and full o brilliant material that still works today.

(Sadly the majority of his scripts were given away, by Gary to a local taxi driver in Brighton who now mounts the ghastly annual spectacle-known as the Brighton adult panto- -going against everything I have ever learned and respected about the genre-but I'm off at a tangent again  -back to plot ...!)

On one of the first occasions I went round to see JNT and Gary-John played me some numbers that he'd chosen for me -one of which would be my opening number with the "juves"(Juvenile dancers)-and another which would be my duet with the goose, a strip section(ala John Inman)and later- a few bars as a poignant reminder of how Mother Goose loved her friend Priscilla the Goose.

The numbers they'd chosen  came from "Darling Lilli"-a film starring Julie Andrews-and of which I was vaguely aware of from seeing it years ago with my parents. The numbers were perfect-and so infectious to listen to that I wanted to sing them straight away. The only problem with singing numbers by such a diva is that Julie had such a big range(in her time-a little reduced these days !) that to transpose them down ,even by a semi tone -meant pushing the low notes into the basement -the same thing applies with songs by Barbara Streisand-they sound deceptively easy-but you try singing them !) The other number-as a duet for Mother Goose and the Baron and the Act 1 and Act 2 finale was -"When You Smile" from "Annie Warbucks"-a stage sequel to Annie. Again-an infectious tune which got the toes tapping  every time .

I loved the songs instantly-and I think it's pretty much the one and only time I've never had to have a say in my opening number-I didn't need to-it was all done for me !

John had also caught onto the fact that I could do basic roller skating(and I mean basic !) -which I'd learnt to do many years before for an amateur(Sorry-I hate to say that word-but we all have to begin somewhere!) production of "Orpheus in the Underworld"-and was one of the last productions I did before taking the vow of drama school chastity! I'd bought the skates from the production and had used them when I played comic a few years earlier. Again-John was brilliant in finding the title  number from the roller skating musical "The Rink" for me and Peter Quince who was to play the Squire-and who was also adept at roller blading !

We also discussed make up-and John told me about how John Inman always used to emphasise a gap in his front teeth-to play the "older" Mother Goose.

Due to the time constraints of changing from old and ugly to young and beautiful(reasonably!) in a very short time-it meant that I couldn't do much on the make up front to "age up". This was a problem-as ,without being egotistical-with wigs and make-up I can appear "younger".

John suggested I try and arrange a meeting with the late and great Jack Tripp,who also lived in Brighton. But- I was reluctant ! Even though I hadn't seen jack perform I had various videos of him-being most adamant that you are two young to play dame if you are under forty-as you don't look like a "mum". I actually agree with that maxim-but being a character actor-and constantly playing up tot the age of  sixty sometimes-I knew that part wouldn't be a problem for me under normal circumstances-but because we had so little time to do the transformation-we couldn't rely on old age make up.

I practiced various things over the next few weeks- huge eyelashes for the older character, the blacked out tooth and even putting "eyebrows" on a flesh coloured stocking top that could be removed quickly !

 When we came to shoot the photo for the brochure and flyer-I used a red wig ,scraped back-and black make-up on my front tooth. The results were so ghastly that they had to photo shop the image-but even so it looks as though my teeth have gone rotten !


John gave me a breakdown of the entrances -and we worked it out to be about sixteen!

(This was subsequently reduced to fifteen-but it was still a hefty wardrobe to supply)

The only item that John said they would supply was the "strip" costume. As part of the boudoir scene Mother Goose was going to perform what I now know as the John Inman washing line strip-in which various layers come off and then he unwinds a row of washing from around him, hangs  it on the proscenium arch and declares-"hasn't it been a shocking day for drying ".

Having scene the video of John Inman doing it-the secret is wrapping lightweight silk items round the waste on a thin string and covering it up with a velcro skirt.(I've since had this made into a Widow Twankey outfit) but-then I'm afraid it wasn't given much thought-and the result was a rather clumsy affair-which looking back I'm surprised John allowed to happen.

As for the rest of the costumes-my friend Shirley-who'd been instrumental in getting me the job as company manager for Hinge and Bracket the year before-knew a hire company in Sutton that hired at a nominal fee. We went over and selected a few outfits that were of a reasonable quality.

David Raven leant me three or four outfits-including a beautiful pink glittery "Mae West" dress with big hips and a golden crinoline for the walk down. Another friend in Brighton leant me a huge white fur coat with a train-very Liberace-which subsequently was used for the walk down as well.

The remaining four outfits were to be made by a local maker-who-along with his partner ran a hire/drag outfitters-and from the word go-they were an absolute rip-off !

I went round to their flat-and carefully discussed the designs and selected materials.

When we came to pick them up-my heart sank ! Apart from one outfit that I still use-the other three had been made from old curtain fabric-that was so pale-that the lights bleached the colours out onstage. I've only used two of them again-the other two I gave away to a friend in an amateur dramatics company.

But-there was nothing to be done apart from compliment it with the other stuff-and funnily enough the reviews all said how "imaginative " the costumes were.

John got the script to me in good time -and apart from the opening spot-there was very little I added or changed-I didn't need to-it was a good script !

 So-with all prepared-as much as it could be -I learned the script and songs by heart-and planned my delivery-and awaited rehearsals. 





Michael and I took the costumes down to Chesham on the Friday, prior to rehearsals. This also tied in neatly with the switching on of the Chesham town lights(such as they were !) for Christmas-and was a good way of publicising the panto-as the cast walked through the streets to the market place.

Michael and I arrived in god time-and started un -packing.

From the word go-John and Gary made it clear that they weren't paying for a dresser. Now-for every pantomime dame I've played since-all I've ever asked for is someone who is free and around at the time  to help me with the changes. These have ranged from dancers to principals-in fact anyone who happens to be free. I've never demanded a dresser-but organised and politely asked those around me to help out.

But-John and Gary seemed almost fixated with the fact that I wasn't having any assistance ! They also made no effort to arrange a quick change area for   and gave the only dressing room near the stage to Shobu Kapoor(Ex "Eastenders" who was playing Demoness vanity. I've since worked with Shobu-and she is a lovely lady-and in fact couldn't understand   why I wasn't  given the room nearest to the stage.

But-that was that-and I just supposed I was going to have to live with it.

The Elgiva theatre, Chesham is a typical council built theatre-with little thought for the practicalities  faced by the performers. For a start-there are only three dressing rooms-so for a big show with dancers-it creates a problem.(When I was there the child dancers were installed under the stage-nowadays-with licensing laws they have one of the main rooms-which means that both male and female members of the cast have to share one room-totally wrong in my opinion-but again I digress)

Michael and I also met up with the lady I had arranged to stay with. She seemed very nice indeed and stressed that her home wasn't a palace but that I'd be very welcome. Now-normally-theatrical landladies underestimate their homes-and the majority of landladies and digs I've stayed in have been wonderful-so there seemed no reason to vet her house before I was due to stay for the first time the following Sunday night.(I was soon to find the error of my ways!) But first -the other members of the cast began arriving for the light switching on-and they were all a lovely bunch. An ex Brighton lad-Royce Ullah was playing my son Billy, a charming guy-Peter Quince was playing the squire-with whom I had a lot of scenes within the show.

The four girls Jodie(Jill),Natalie(Colin)Lucy (Fairy) and Emma (as the Goose) were all very friendly-as was Shobu Kapoor.In fact-to this day-they were one of the nicest companies I could wish for, being my first dame experience.

The procession through the town was great fun-and the theatre manager David Roden seemed a charming man-along with every other member of the Elgiva staff. So all seemed well.

With nothing else to do but wait for Monday's rehearsal-Michael and I enjoyed our last weekend together before all hell broke loose for the next five weeks and forty four performances.(I even squeezed in a night of hosting Karaoke at a local pub in Brighton on the Saturday)

I had a lift back down to Chesham on the Sunday with Jodie and her mother-as they lived just up the road near Saltdean(and I later discovered JNT was their land-lord !) They dropped me off at the digs I'd booked-and then the horror struck. Fortunately the land-lady had gone to bed-but the house was cluttered to say the least. But when I saw the state of the bedroom-bare floor  boards,panel missing in the door ,broken window and dirty sheets-I knew I couldn't stay. OR rather -I had to -for that first night-there was no other choice at 10PM on a Sunday night!

The next day-I was up and dressed and out as soon as I could to try and contact someone at the theatre-or to try and speak to John and Gary to see what they could suggest.

However-it was dear Peter Quince who came to my rescue. He was living opposite the theatre with a lovely lady called Ruth, who had a spare room A phone call and I was booked in for the run-a very narrow escape-and something that did nothing for my nerves on that first day !