A reflective account of David's preparation for his 22nd and 23rd appearances as panto dame for the 2017-2018 seasons
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 A DAME PREPARES !! 

COMMENCED- 4TH SEPTEMBER 2017 

Rather than give a blow by blow account of each of the last 22 years as Panto Dame -I thought it would be more beneficial to do an account of preparing and performing my next pantomimes (yes 2-as I will be appearing in Weston Super Mare this year and then a short run in Stornoway- playing Widow Twankey in both Aladdin's -different shows under different managements. I will be harking back too different experiences and different shows throughout the course of this diary-and it won't always follow chronologically-but here goes!

So-how does a dame prepare? Well-unlike the majority of the cast of your bog standard panto (I'm not talking about the huge Qdos spectaculars or any production-where the producer,writes,directs and appears in it )- preparations for me start as soon as the contract is verbally agreed -usually round about May time. It has to start early- I've usually got only six months to plan,/design/create a wardrobe of up to 15 outfits(including wigs, shoes and accessories) and ensure they fit seamlessly into the script of the pantomime I will be doing.

So-for me-the priority is to get the script immediately. Generally this is not a problem-as producers generally have a well worked script from the previous year they can email me-and as soon as I get my hands on it-my mind goes into overdrive. First of all-I work our how many entrances it is possible to crowbar into a show...

- On my first "Mother Goose"-the late John Nathan Turner expressed the importance of changing their costume on EVERY entrance-even if it seconds after the last one, (that show had 15 outfits-which I've never outdone to this day!)This is part of the magic of playing pantomime dame - your audience expects it -and it is a tribute to the great dames of pantomime. Most producers realise this-but some don't.... I was working for Mark Andrews in "Sleeping Beauty" at Hunstanton in 2007 and the writer/co-coordinator of the company sent me the previous script and explained I couldn't be in various scenes because of the logistics of costume changes. I readily accepted this until I spoke over the phone to our wonderful director and fellow actor-Michael Garland who wanted me to be in every scene possible and different costumes on every entrance. I admit I was confused whose advice to follow until I realised how much Michael wanted me to drive the show forward, maintain my "track" in the show and encourage me to do quicker and more spectacular entrances.

Once I'd grasped that concept-my mind really did go into overtime -and achieved 10 costumes that year- all within the very limited space of the Princess theatre,Hunstanton

- Then -having grasped the concept of the script and the plot -and the entrances -I look at what I have in stock from previous years. I owe an enormous amount to the likes of John Nathan Turner (David Mansell Nee Roden -at the Elgiva Theatre) and John Newman and Daphne Palmer from Newpalm for allowing me total free reign to design and plan for every show I've done with them and to interpret my ideas for each show. When planning a dame wardrobe-one must start traditionally and then become more outrageous-but always follow the plot. It's no use just coming on in a Christmas pudding frock if it can't be logically fitted in (and by that-I mean logical with a very small "L"!!)-but pretty much anything ca be somehow worked in. I even managed roller skates on my first "Mother Goose"(I'd learnt the basics in an amateur Orpheus in the underworld, prior to drama school-and wisely bought the roller boots back off the producer-I've been using them off and on since 1989!!!)

- The opening costume is always described as your "Worker"-IE a fairly traditional Dame frock-nothing too elaborate-but enough to give a taste of things to come.

 

The finale/walkdown is always colour co-coordinated and you can almost always guarantee-it's a colour scheme you haven't got-so you have to have one made! Favourite colours are blue/silver, blue/gold, purple/silver, red/gold. The monumental cock up for me occurred when working for the late Mr. John Spillers who told me the colours for hiss 2001 "Mother Goose" were Gold and Blue. I duly had the frock made and even took along colour samples to my next meeting with the impresario and his daughter. There was a pause-then a shocked hush from the daughter-who announced it was actually purple and silver! (Oh well-at least I stood out from everyone else!)

 

Then there are specialty entrances for the odd one line scene-or things like the slosh scene-where a vinyl frock enables an easy wipe down from a stray custard pie or coating of flower-or even an egg in the plate routine !

- I've always tried to follow the example of the great dames and make everything plot related-or at least-never playing a pathos scene in a costume that looks comical (the main pantos for pathos dames are Mother Goose and Jack and the Beanstalk (Both parting with Goose and Cow respectively)

- I've always thought it best to go sparingly with novelty entrances-so as not to give too much away too soon. For some reason over the years -I've found the ghost gag tends to lend itself to my Wonder Woman Costume(copied from the late and great Jack Tripp)-simply because it is so comical and gives the ghost cause to scream and run offstage when face to face with the dame at the end of the scene.

 

- But then -having said that --there have been times when a entrance is literally crow barred in for effect-and my ever faithful Christmas Pudding frock (C/O John Nathan Turner) has never let me down!

 

-On the few occasions when I've had to do a song sheet (Newpalm at Chelmsford always insisted on it)- I've always tried to find an outfit that isn't too scary close up and in which I can comfortably kneel down to be at thee same level as the kids.(Danny La Rue said in his book that when I child has plucked up the courage to make their way from the comfort of their seat to the relative uncertainty of the stage- that to have dame character looming over them in full make up can be very scary-so I always try to be at their height.

-Having a superb dress maker/designer is essential. I can generally come up with the ideas based on what I have seen in the past-but then it is up to my trusted maker and designer to make it all happen.

- My first makers in Brighton were an absolute disaster-a couple of old queens who used to run a drag/cross dressing shop-and professed to be makers. Having carefully selected fabrics and designs for my first "Mother Goose"-they proceed to make them out of cheap curtain fabric, which appeared washed out by the lights and were unlined and nothing spectacular (luckily I had others in stock that year for the really spectacular entrances)-I have since given away all but 1 of their ghastly creations -and had the only bright one transformed into a costume with a window box sewn to the bust!

- The following maker was even worse-and I never got the costumes until the night before heading down to Chesham for a production of "Goldilocks"(again-shabbily made-but since re-furbished by my last maker and my amazing new lady)

-I then discovered Julie in Brighton who could pretty much turn her hand to anything- and has created a wedding cake, a Chinese pagoda, a Mae west frock with enormous hips and matching hat and numerous replicas of classic panto dame outfits (including almost a replica of a John Inman "Worker")-Julie worked wonders for me between 2000 and 2011 until arthritis kicked in.


Mercifully I was then working for a management for 2 years who supplied the dame wardrobe (most of it ok- a few inconsistencies!)

-and then I discovered Pat Moss who luckily lives down the road from me in Shoreham. She has worked in the theatre as an actress and wardrobe mistress all her life and has also run a costumiers and made for some of the top dames and actors in the country. She is of the old school and believes in everything I do-that an actor needs to plan for themselves, have a basic knowledge of needlecraft (for emergency repairs on the road and during the run of a show) I find I can take any deign/photo or idea to her and she can create it for me-and/or she will simplify it or enhance it for me. The same applies with outfits I have taken to her which require alteration or re-construction. This year the walk down colours at Weston Super Mare are Blue and Silver, I do have a wedding cake that was originally made by Julie in those colours-and with the option of re-dressing it in different colours.


BUT-having found the blue and gold that was made for Spillers "Mother Goose" -it hasn't taken a lot to remove thee gold panias and replace with Silver and make a new top jacket for the outfit .(So-I now have an outfit that is interchangeable blue/silver/gold for future years .Not only saving time and money-but storage space !

-My agent Barrie Stacey's partner Keith Hopkins was one of the country's top dames and was well respected at Hunstanton(where I spent 3 happy years myself)-and indeed he was much admired by the late Princess Diana and her sons who came to see Keith "happy" Hopkins" at the Princess theatre,down the road from Sandringham!

- Keith decided to sell off his dame frocks-and I was lucky enough to buy half a dozen of them this year. Even though they need a bit of TLC after many years of work and being stored-there is still a lot of life in them-and thanks to Pat-she has restored 3 of them this year to their former glory-including a beautiful cerise and silver sequin walkdown-which I am using for the "posh Twankey" entrance. I'm also having a new wig made in the style of Dame Edna Everage to facilitate a vocal impression of thee great dame - so the whole outfit risks upstaging the final walkdown at this rate. 

Resumed- 4th September 2017:

This year there are 9 outfits to create.

(actually nine and a half if you count an overall that's being made for the 2nd scene in Act 1.Our name in the show this year is John Altman (Nasty Nick in "Eastenders")-and the overall is literally used for a one line gag where he mistakes me for Dot Cotton (rather  a lot of work, one might think to have an outfit made for just one line-but with my maker-Pat-nothing is wasted and this will form the basis of a strip costume in future years)

Ironically I met John Altman at a 25th wedding anniversary party earlier this year and we d both worked for Richard and David at Extravaganza pantomimes but we had no idea at that time we d be working together.

9 outfits is a relatively small number compared to other years which have been up to 13 and 14 changes and I ve never outdone the 15 outfits from my first "Mother Goose" at Chesham.

This seems an opportune moment to talk about changing and logistics.I ve always been meticulous with my planning of changes -and that probably stems from that first "Mother Goose"-for the late John Nathan Turner at Chesham in 1999. "Mother Goose" is the pinnacle of dame roles as the plot revolves around the dame and one goes from old and facially challenged to young and slim within seconds. Believe it or not- there was no proviso made for a dresser in that production-and it took the kindness of a lovely guy called Joe from the crew plus our stage manager -Malcolm McPhee (Of "Please Sir" fame) to organise some help for me. Added to which-all the changes were done in a corridor as John insisted that the nearest dressing room to the stage was given to the name in the show-the lovely Shobu Kapoor. (Who couldn't have cared either way if she had a room to herself),

-Its amazing how many actors don t plan their own changes to the enth degree. Ok-one accepts that one may not have the luxury of a dresser or even a wardrobe assistant .But-then it is up to actors to rally themselves and either help each other or organise help for themselves.The prime example was at Chelmsford rep-where I spent 3 happy seasons. Everyone mucked in and the cast and crew were down to a minimum. So-I enlisted the help of whoever wasn' t onstage to help me. As a result those that helped me-had the changes on their track (IE their onstage and offstage procedure) and had as much fun helping me as they did acting in the show.

-I try to get to know the theatre before I get there and if the dressing room is near a certain side of the stage then I try to suggest to the director-he blocks the show with this in mind. Luckily at Weston-the dressing rooms are along the back of the theatre and pretty much equidistant from either side-but a quick change area for mainly the 2nd half of the show is easier to set up in the scene dock on stage right.

-I always do a complete costume plot down to the last pair of earrings or shoes-so if anyone is helping me -they know EXACTLY what is used and where and when,

 

-I have every faith in the Weston crew-as their technical manager met me at the photo shoot and re assured me that they always check logistics for changes before we move in for the technical and dress rehearsals

-Probably the most challenging theatre and dressing plot to accomplish was at the Princess Theatre in Hunstanton (if only Diana and her boys knew what a nightmare it is backstage)-with the only entrance stage left (unless you could get behind a cloth) and a ladder type stair that you couldn't cross on. (so not only were there the logistics of physically getting downstairs but the dancers had to be trained to wait until the principals had either gone up or down before they did the same. To cap it all-the dressing room was a louvered closet, with the costumes on a revolving coat stand for extra space!)-but we managed and those 2 seasons rank as some of the happiest

 Interior- The Princess Theatre,Hunstanton

 

Tuesday 5th September 2017

Today is press launch day in Weston and in order to get there in time I vet had to leave Brighton at 4.15am-not so much travelling with "the milk" -but the casualties from a night of clubbing -awaiting that first train.

I m always slightly paranoid about time keeping-and would rather be in the theatre 2 hours earlier than risk being late. Particularly in performance-I have to ensure all the costumes remain in pristine condition-and like wise the wigs and accessories. If they need a running repair -no one else is going to do it other than me. So-it's a constant rationing of time to make sure all is up to date. I tend to get myself ready by the half hour call (35 minutes before show time)to give myself 35 minutes "pottering" time for wigs and running repairs.

These days the majority of my wigs are the professional ""baked wigs" made and commissioned by Jerry and Kevin at Wig Art near Seaford. They used to work for Body line -a well respected north London firm who made mannequin wigs for shop dummies. It was only when John Inman enquired if they could create wigs for humans, with the same solid luster that they became the best kept secret in the business. My friends (and fellow dames-Andrew Ryan and Nigel Ellacott advised me to go to them-back in 2007 -and the creations have been the crowning glory of my outfits. They transform a costume and make up, are vibrant in colour and are made to fit each individual. Properly looked after they give many years faithful service and only need a re spray by Jerry and Kevin now and then. As Andrew Ryan quite rightly says-" if you can buy a particular wig in a fancy dress or joke shop-it shouldn't be onstage. (I ve broken that rule with a few of my fabric wigs -but they have either been largely concealed under hats/headdresses or combed and sprayed out of all recognition to create something unrecognizable from its origins !Not that the hard wigs come cheap! My dame Edna one for this year is costing £320!

-Likewise shoes! Andrew put me on to Essex based Bambos who makes panto boots for him-and who mercifully (after a slight gap) has gone back to making them They re tailor made,fit perfectly and are so well balanced-one isn t aware of wearing them. As Jack Tripp said-"you can t totter round on stilettos "! Again-the average pair comes in at around £130.00 (thank heavens for tax deductible expenses!!)

 

Today at the press call and launch we re giving photo opportunities and interviews for local press and giving a 25 minute presentation from the show-songs from our Aladdin and Princess, a monologue from John as Abanazar and Mike Goble (our director and Wishee Washee) are giving a small scene from Act 2. I've endeavored to do it without holding a script as it ll be good for me to see how Mike works and for us to get a good feeling of each others timing and style (even though Mike saw me in "Jack and the Beanstalk" at Chesham in 2003.)

- I 'm always very nervous on days like this as it's the first time the theatre management, staff, and local press and in this case the friends of the theatre get any indication of how you fit into their establishment. And understandably- comparisons are made-from previous years. There's always that worry that the cast will "gel" and get on together. I'm glad to say that over 25 years I've very rarely been in a cast that doesn't t stick together in the face of adversity, tension or pressure. Casts are brought together for a relatively short time -and then split very quickly on the last night. (I often wake up the day after and ask myself - "did that really happen". No surprise-I never like last nights -they always leave me feeling very sad and empty if I 'm honest)

Wednesday 6th September.

- Well-I needn't have worried! Despite almost 20 hours of sleep, deprivation-yesterday was a joy.

-I last played the Playhouse, Weston in a tour of "Bed full of Foreigners" in 2012 for Bruce James -who gave so much work to so many people and with whom I did my first professional job in 1992 when he was working with the late Alexander Bridge. It saddened us all when Bruce had to close his company because of the inevitable money worries-but his shows were undoubtedly the happiest years of my theatrical life-and ironically-how I met my husband Michael-whilst on tour for Bruce in 1995 in Bognor Regis-playing Old Time Music Hall and (wait for it .....)- "ON GOLDEN POND"!!

-So it was ironic that I yesterday went through those doors-my first time working for Parkwood Theatres-feeling very nervous! But-within half an hour of my unpacking-the first of the cast arrived-our Genie-Josh Batchelor-full of energy from the off and to be closely followed by our Aladdin-in the shape of Daniel Slade-and far more full of life than I was after 5 hours on the train. Josh reminded me very much of the first time I played Widow Twankey at Chelmsford in 2002 -where the 3 of us(Twankey, Aladdin and Wishee Washee) developed a "family" feeling very quickly -within seconds the same chemistry seemed to have ocvurred.This was compounded when our director/writer and Wishee Washee -Mike arrived and we quickly rehearsed our scene together from the show Within seconds-I felt the rapport had been established -and we instinctively played off each other's timing .As a result -we only needed to run through the scene a couple of times and it was pretty much there. (It certainly boded well for rehearsals!)

-In the event-the "sneak preview " of the show at the launch went like a dream (and the only hassle I experienced was the radio mic pack falling through my costume onto the follow-which I just ignored and carried on- after all-projection is the key!)

-The question and answer session with the friends of the theatre raised some interesting points -particularly the concern as to the various" levels " the panto would play on-in relation to the kids and the adults.

-I 'm very much inclined to go with Roy Hudd, s theory - of playing it straight down the middle- never being offensive in any shape or form, the merest double entendre used very sparingly and keeping the plot and the characters at the forefront. As Daniel Slade said- there are kids in the audience who want to believe in the characters and that they are watching -Aladdin and his princess.

Lionel Blare said roughly the same thing in an ITV series -Pantoland in the late 90's -that its far better to cast "no names" for romantic leads (particularly "Cinderella ")-so the Kids are believing in the characters and not in awe that they're watching someone from their favorite TV programme. I believe the same is true of Dame! After the question and answer session I was asked to do an interview with a local publication and explain my approach to playing Dame. I compounded what I d discussed at the question and answer session- in that I didn't t want to break the illusion of my playing a kind "mum" character. I feel the best was to describe it is to quote Jack Tripp- "you are too young to play dame under 40-because you don't look like a mum. The audience must know that you are a man in a frock-but they see through the pretence and know you are a kind man playing a kindly mum" (If I had a pound for every time I tried to explain that succinctly)

Monday 11th September. 

The last trip to Pat to have a final fit for the walkdown, the belly dance and the Dot Cotton overall plan. I had a horrible thought earlier last week: the two costumes prior to the walk down have padding built into them and so don't require a padded BRA- but the walkdown costume does and there is very little time to put padding in place ,after the song sheet-which Mike has asked me to-do with him. I haven't done many songsheets in my career- apart from Chelmsford who always wanted the dame to do the songsheet with the comic and for Stuart Morrison who follows the same maxim. But there-a girls specialty dance before the walkdown alleviated the need for a quick change. So- the track of the show has to allow for this change-but it is do-able. A quick phone call to Pat-and padding can be sewed into the walkdown dress-saving us precious minutes. 

-I don't know if I would put my trust in anyone to organise my costume changes for me -as it is such a responsibility. I did at Middleborough-as the costumes were supplied by the producers who provided me with a wonderful dresser in the form of Karen Hudsbeth who was a dream come true. But even she had her frustration with two "names" from Ällo allo" who virtually refused to dress each other-when they were sharing a dressing room! (Ludicrous!!) I heard the same story of two ugly sisters at Redhill who maintained the same stubbornness. When you work as a double act-you are your own dressers. And when I worked with the superb Paul Arden Griffiths in "Cinderella" at Stockport- we had our costume changes as Sisters down to a fine art.

 

  

 

Tuesday 19th September 2017

-This would be a good moment to talk about my thoughts on playing Sisters versus Dame. On the two occasions I have played Sisters-I have actually enjoyed them. The first was entirely by accident. I was company manager one year for the legendary comedy duo Hinge and Bracket-arguably the most convincing female impersonation artists ever-as their singing voices and on stage persona even fooled the likes of Pavarotti! I ve described this in greater detail in my blog when I recorded One Little Maid" -the autobiography of Dame Hilda Bracket-in character" -as Patrick Fyffe had sadly died 10 years earlier. George Logan (Dr Hinge) was ill -and as there were no understudies- as company manager I made the executive decision to step in and play the role myself for 4 performances (not as an impersonation-but as a man playing sister-which is what the role normally involves. It was a joy and an honor to work with Patrick Fyffe who was generosity itself-and guided me through all 4 performances-encouraging me to play it "my way". But-it was only a short lived appearance and George Logan was back to work soon after. Then-2 3 years ago-I was asked to play Sister at the Plaza Theatre, Stockport... I was lucky in having an excellent partner in the form of Paul Arden Griffiths (Pag to his friends)-from the original company of "Phantom of the Opera". Pag had never played Dame or Sister before but came from a fine operatic background -and whilst I was assiduously making sure I mirrored him-un-be knowing to me he was doing the same. As a result we blended very well and it was a happy working relationship, despite an indifferent script.

But-hand on heart-I prefer playing a hoomely, motherly dame. The character is better, there is more scope for costumes, business and individuality- and even though I have played Villain in the past- I much prefer the warmth of the audience reaction. Not that I would refuse the role of Sister in the future-but it wouldn't be my first choice. Also-as my friend Philip says- if you play Sister at a theatre one year-the kids will remember you the following year-as someone who played a nasty character and will never quite warm to you as they should with a warm friendly mother type dame.

 FRIDAY 22ND SEPTEMBER 2017

Today's musing will be about learning lines. This year and early January I am playing 2 Widow Twankey's in succession.-at Weston Super Mare ,closely followed by Stornowway.This means I have 2 scripts to learn-some of which is going to be very similar-line-wise and costume wise. Some of the costumes from Weston will double at Stornoway-and as they are a key part of my learning the lines-I have started even earlier than usual. But-I am confident -as I used to learn 3 plays in about 6 weeks-I can do the same with two pantomimes.

To my mind it is vital that one arrives at rehearsals knowing the lines by heart. Pantomime rehearsals are invariably rapid(Stornoway will have only 5 days-including the technical and dress rehearsals) and unless one knows the lines there isn't a cat in hell's chance of getting the pace and the fine tuning in place before opening night. Add to this-the pressure of 10 costume changes-and I think the point is made. I suppose I do have the advantage of knowing exactly what I'm wearing -and I mark my script accordingly-with the relevant outfit. This saves all the panic of what I'm changing out of and into- when we come to technical and dress rehearsals-and is invaluable for the rare occasions when I have an exclusive dresser. It also gives me the knowledge to advise the director -where an entrance is best made from to facilitate quick changes and the logistics of the theatre. I can also advise the choreographer-what I am capable of doing within the constraints or freedom of the costume (Not that this was of any use in Redhill one year-when the 2 big company numbers had be moving round the stage in a Christmas pudding and followed by a wedding cake.

- I once had a constructive argument (!) with a very opinionated rep actor in summer season. Who asked how I could possibly learn my lines without knowing how my fellow actor was going to say theirs. My answer was succinct- "having learnt the lines-solidly-I am able to listen to my fellow actors-rather than searching my memory for the next line. He maintained his point of view-but having seen his not putting his script down -when playing the lead in a production of "Blithe Spirit" until the dress rehearsal- I couldn't but be angered by his lack of respect to his fellow performers!

-I've also encountered 2 comics in panto - (one of whom made it to the X factor-who hadn't even decided what gags they were going to be using until the show went into technical and dress rehearsals. One inparticular-I had the miss-fortune to be doing the old routine -"Busy Bee" with. I had been taught the routine years earlier by the wonderful Dame Ian Moore and David Burton in a production of "Dick Whittington" in Middleborough in 1993-and knew the routine could bring the house down (despite the somewhat unsavory idea of spit/spraying water at your fellow actor) Unfortunately -the aforesaid comic couldn't even be bothered to get the order of the gag right-and as a result -after painful and numerous rehearsals-the routine was cut before it even reached the technical rehearsal. I wasn't sad to see the routine go-only annoyed that the "Comic" couldn't be bothered to learn the thing. So-in conclusion -line learning is tedious and boring and we could all find something better to do-buts it the foundation of the show-and without virtually knowing it before rehearsals-how can you hope to be anywhere near ready by opening night. I merely rest my case with this little quote from the late Dora Bryan.

Monday 25th September

-a lovely message today from our Musical director, Josh -regarding my play ons! Certain costumes and entrances require play on-or something to emphasize the costume. And as this year-I will be incorporating a brief entrance/impression of the great Dame Edna Everage -it wouldn't be complete without Edna's signature tune-"Niceness"-penned by Barry Humphries himself. Likewise-my tried and trusted wonder woman costume requires the TV theme to give it credance.Luckily I had it transcribed for me at Hunstanton a few years ago and I've got the Dame Edna songbook for the brief interlude! But-it's all these little things that make a pantomime and the sooner they're thought about the better. It was Jack Tripp's Wonder Woman entrance that first gave me the idea of doing it in "Jack and the Beanstalk " at Chesham (ironically the show which our director Mike Goble first saw me in ,in 2003).And now its come full circle with recent film and TV versions/repeats.

-I did the Edna impression in my very first "Mother Goose" -again for the Palace scene in act 2-and its perfect when the dame gets a little bit above herself and forgets who she really is. There are so many up to date references one can use and so many "characters,within characters one can utilise -with impressions etc.

-similarly-when we were in Chelmsford in 2006-doing a revival of the "Aladdin " we d done in 2002-my colleague and Abanazar-Zach Vanderfeldt suggested that we include the "Strictly come dancing" theme-complete with choreography -in our duet - " you're getting to be a habit with me" he would shout "Dance" and we did the whole of the opening sequence to "Strictly come dancing". We were lucky enough in having a brilliant MD (One of many-with whom I've worked who penned the dots for us -and let us have them after the show. I presented these to the Musical director, at Stockport and politely ask if we could liven up our somewhat dull duet "Sisters"-he barely gave it a glance!! (Ah well-his loss!) By and large I have worked with some of the kindest and most generous musical directors one could hope to meet. (James Harrison at Middleborough and .... At Hunstanton particularly come to mind (but now and again you get an absolute stinker. My worst experience was one who swore at me after the very first show for forgetting to thank the band in the first performance speech that had been thrust upon me on an opening schools performance of another "Mother Goose". He also threatened not to play my opening number. Vengeance was sweet however when I accidentally selected him for Secret Santa that year (a great panto tradition -where the cast and crew anonymously get a present for a fellow cast or crew member,without them realizing who it is from)- I bought him a book on how to make speeches !!!!

 Friday 29th September.

As its now only 8 weeks until rehearsals and two scripts to learn thoroughly- today's musings are about scripts, gags, business and timing.

-It should be remembered that pantomime is the last vestige of variety and that in days gone by- the stars of the time (and I use the word carefully as it is now banded around far to much on people who don't possess one iota of star quality) brought their own tried and tested acts and gags to a pantomime-and that reliability to deliver the goods was why they were employed. To some extent- I hope that is why I am employed each year because:

A. I can be relied upon.

B.I arrive as a package of gags, patter and wardrobe and;

C .Because by studying the art of dame -I've carried on the tradition of the greats.

-All this has to be taken into account when working through script. Most of the standard gags aren't t even written down -they have just been passed down through the years.

When I first played comic for 2 years running for Mark Andrews I learnt all the routines from a lovely dame-Ian Moore-who got quite irritated when I tried to learn them by tape recorder. He was quite right- learn and absorb is the only way. From those early days as comic-I learnt the basic "Busy Bee", "Echo gag", kitchen and decorating slosh scenes( and numerous one liners ).that I still use to this day. Ian said to me I d be playing dame one day-but I m not sure I believed him at the time. I am so glad he realized his prophecy came true when I returned to work for Mark as dame -13 years later.

(If only the aforementioned x factor comic had learnt from Ian-the aforementioned busy bee routine might have remained in our show! (funnily enough-I have never performed it as dame-thanks that particular comic!)

In a similar vein-I had the supreme honour of working with comedy greats-The Patton Brothers in Bolton on 2011.I was working for the late Duggie Chapman and when I asked about the routine I would be doing with them -so I could pack an appropriate costume .He was unable to tell me, as they would decide that in rehearsals. I was a little concerned that my costume would fit in-but I packed one that was bound to get a laugh come what may and hoped for the best .As it turned out-Jimmy and Brian Patton (brothers of the Chuckle brothers) were professionalism itself. They taught me the routine A little bit of heaven"-purely ad lib -which then became pretty much the same every time. But they would throw me lifelines to guide me through the gag-and when I got more confident -they were only too pleased to go with any lines I put in myself . It was a joy to work with them and a wonderful trip back in time to working in that vein. Much as I do like a well planned script-some things just have to be spontaneous. (Incidentally-being next door to them in a dressing room -I was in awe of all the posters of their past pantos adorned their walls)These two extraordinary gentlemen showed their professionalism and kindness when one night the rope snapped in the routine and we had no choice but to finish the gag early. It was no ones fault -but Jimmy and Brian apologized profusely for cutting the gag short! (Always keep your stage management happy and apologize!!!)

 

(I am very happy to say that Damian Patton (Jimmy's son is now passing down that legacy with comedy partner-Tom Rolfe,who was also in that show at Bolton. Check out their website at : 

https://www.doubletroubleuk.com/ 

 -There is a handy book of routines by Chris Harris and another by Bob Heather with all the old routines.

 

As they themselves say-it is an "aide memoir " and not to be used word for word. Unfortunately-I did work for a company who used it as their bible and did it all word for word! (With all respect to Chris- it didn't work because the cast didn't t put their own stamp on it!)

- That brings me rather neatly to the way I tackle a script. After sorting out the entrances and the possible costumes I can use- I just try to make it "speech pattern friendly". By this I mean that all actors/dames have their own style of patter and delivery-and I think it's reasonable to allow some flexibility-as long as it doesn't put unnecessary time on the show or throw others and most importantly-that it keeps the pace going. Panto MUST be fast paced and I think my main criticism with amateur pantomimes is that the pace is too slow and loses its impetus. ("Say it and leave it" is my motto!)

-After working out the technicalities-I try to make the lines have that definite rhythm that every good script should have. If an extraneous word or syllable holds up the flow-then I either delete or substitute it. (I am very much a patter man-having been weaned on the likes of Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan, Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer ET all)- One MUST be even more careful of diction in pantomime -as lively audiences, indifferent sound systems and varying venue acoustics make panto delivery very difficult to sustain for 12 performances a week (sometimes more!)- And whatever "voice" one adopts as dame- just remembers -the audience needs to hear the words! There is also that fine balance of being two wordy and patter based and just getting the line across.

So-to summarize;

1.I adjust lines to suit my vocal pattern and character.

2/With gags- I use these sparingly, with respect to the writer and with an eye on the running time. BUT-there is nothing worse than exiting with a bad tag line. SO- a word of advice- if you feel its not working-POLITELY- confer with your director and ask advice or offer a replacement line. Nine times out of ten they will agree with you (as long as it doesn't get self indulgent!)

3. The same applies with exit gags- there is nothing worse than walking off in the middle of a scene to the silence caused by a bad gag. If it doesn't at least get a decent laugh-change it to something that does!

4.Opening spots need to be succinct-and over the years I've learnt not to do too much "waffle" on the shows which are predominantly schools audiences. One can allow a little more patter on an evening show-but again-don't over egg the pudding. I do think some kind of an opening spot is needed-in order to adhere yourself to one's audience-otherwise they don't get what you're all about. Yes- I agree that the first half hour of a panto can be a setting up off all the characters- but by the same token-the kids have to understand the characters and sympathize with them or "hate them"-as in the case of villains.

2 Years ago- I did a show where there was no dame opening spot- merely a scene with Aladdin and Wishee Washee-and I felt it took the audience some time to realize what my angle on the dame role was. The director gave an explanation that not every one needed an opening spot-but I personally believe Dames and comics DO!

5.-I find a lot of my dialogue/patter follows the rule of three in its delivery- with a set up, 2 fast lines and a pay off.

To demonstrate this I can do no better than quote the late Jack Tripp:

DAME: Still-I may be a widow-but I haven't been neglected. So Fellas-if you're looking for a bit of fun-always take out a widow;

We don't yell

We don't tell

And we're very grateful.

- Watch Jack's delivery and hand gestures-and you'll see exactly what I mean.

 

- My friend Philip Leather also taught me the importance of facing front when it's your line and looking at your fellow actor, when it's theirs. This may be an over simplification-and is a rule that can be broken-but it gives the dialogue a vaudevillian type quality-and points up the set up-and the tag lines.

- This would also be a good time to discuss the use of radio microphones. Personally-I hate them-but I totally concede that in this age of amplified sound and music -they are essential to get the balance right and enhance the quality of the show-especially for singers. The problems occur when you are not given fold back (These are the onstage speakers in the wings-directed back to the actors-and facing upstage-so that the performers can hear themselves) As actors-we are taught to "project"(IE to produce our voices so we can hear the sound coming back at us-bouncing off the back wall) and it should be possible to be heard in the biggest of the UK's theatres-if the acoustic is good. Sunderland Empire comes to mind! Unfortunately radio microphones and sound systems put all our training as actors out the window-as they produce a false awareness-where it's not always possible to hear your voice "coming back" at you. As a result-we push and push -because we feel we can't be heard-invariably leading to hoarseness and vocal strain.

The worst time this happened to me was at Chesham playing "Mother Goose"-when the producers kept turning the keyboard up! The theatre manager duly went to turn it down-but for us on stage it was nothing short of a nightmare-and for me a personal disaster-as I lost my voice overnight- with 3 shows the next day. There was no alternative but to cut songs ,in order for me to get through it-and all the herbal remedies in the world won't do a scrap of good-when all that is required is rest. Mind you- when I was at Mansfield 2 years ago-and the threat of vocal strain was looming - I actually recovered within 2 days-just by having a boiling hot bath each night, steaming my throat and not talking to anyone for 12 hours.

- It seems to be in the modern brick built theatres that this occurs in,most-some of them quite small-but any theatre that doesn't use fold back for it's performers is failing to realize how we, as actors function. If we can't hear ourselves-we can't do our job properly. Each year I tell myself not to force it-but when you feel as if you're singing and speaking into a vacuum- it's not easy!

- While we're on the subject of radio microphones- it rather dismays me-why they have to be on public display-either glued to the face like cancerous growth -or resting on a cradle-reminiscent of a bingo caller. Because of the number of wig and costume changes I have to undertake-I insist on the microphone being glued to the centre of my forehead -secured with mircopore and spirit gum-so it cannot move. So many sound engineers have told me this is the best place to wear it -as the forehead is the actor's sounding board in voice projection (a technique so many West End shows endorse)-unfortunately this doesn't always work when the microphones are of inferior quality.

  Earlier this year I was performing a panto in January in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. The theatre barely held 300 and not hard to work in at all. But -unfortunately-with no fold back and radio mics that weren't of the best quality - the same problem occurred. Within a day-my voice was strained and never really recovered during the short run. I was advised to try and wear the cage type microphones -but with wigs and earrings-this is pretty much impossible. (I'm afraid- I did wear one at the press launch for this year's panto-just to see if it was possible to wear one-and it fell off within seconds of walking onstage. But-as it was only a small audience-projection prevailed and I was better off without it. A quick chat with the sound engineer for this year-and I'm back to the original plan of wearing it taped to my forehead!

Saturday 21st October 2017.

- An interesting article from Bill Nighy talking about how young actors aren't learning their lines:

https://www.celebretainment.com/movies/bill-nighy-claims-young-actors-don-t-learn-their-lines/article_0bfdac5b-6d47-5ed2-af34-4d7105b2e5c1.html 

 This sort of backs up by previous comments- of knowing the script backwards before rehearsals. I 'm still waiting for the final script for this years show-but at least I have had last years script to base my costumes on and to pretty much learn what there is. (I d much rather take a chance and learn to much, rather than be rushed at the last minute-and of course-I also have the Stornoway script to learn as well) I just rest my case that if you want a stress free rehearsal period and a guilt free drink after rehearsals-get them learnt before day 1 !I was at Wakefield with very little rehearsal for a "Mother Goose" and I'd gone up a few days before to unpack costumes, settle in the dressing room and get to know the theatre. I was off book within 1 day of rehearsals-and just as well with only 5 days before technical and dress runs. I was working in costume within 4 days and the comic made the barbed comic- you're doing full dress rehearsals -when I'm still holding my script"! That kind of summed it up -but when he then upstaged left right and centre, once he'd learnt his lines-it did make me question what it was all for at the time !

- With 5 weeks to go-I am literally getting all the bits and pieces done in advance- ordering make up, arranging parcel force to pick up the 3 costume boxes and working from endless check lists to ensure nothing is overlooked.

-I'm working my way through scripts, learning the songs and lyrics for Stornoway (until the Weston ones arrive) and still considering every entrance. My main concern for this year is the Dame Edna Entrance for the palace scene. It's probably the quickest change in the show-but is do-able with help in the wings and forward planning. I am going to suggest that the offstage "Hello Possums" prior to the entrance is put on a track-so that it gives me a few extra seconds to change and compose myself-and also eliminates the risk of my radio mic not being live for that one line-which could potentially jeopardize the entrance. I will record a track myself(albeit one line) as a back up and send it in advance to the theatre/crew/director -so that point is covered well in advance(after all-If I 'm spending £320 on a specially made wig -just for that outfit- I want it to be spot on !)

I'm putting together various reflective videos along the way-and will continue to do so this year-during rehearsals, performances etc-. I'm particularly keen to compile one of the great dames-and the bits and pieces I've "borrowed" from them over the years and re-cycled to make them as fresh as ever. Of course- Terry Scott's entrance as dame always comes to mind-when you first walk across the stage, get to about halfway and then suddenly notice the audience for the first time. I've always used this idea as the basis on my first entrance-and his notes about welcoming them and giving that first overwhelming look of surprise and joy have always stuck with me.

 

From John Inman of course-I think I've inherited the knack of playing for comedy one moment -and then knowing when to switch to pathos in a second.Likewie- his wonderful way of walking and the use of his hands has always stuck in my mind.

 

 

From Jack Tripp-came the technique of using one's hands in 3 ways to tell a gag as a dame. His Wonder Woman entrance inspired me back in 2003-and I still use it. I also study his wonderful facial expressions and the way he points his feet and legs to create a wonderfully elegant line.

 

 From Billy Dainty -I think I've inherited the knack of suddenly making it "butch" for a moment-and ever so slightly breaking character.

 

From Dick Emery I have studied the fantastic way he "tripped" on his exit from a scene- personified by his wonderful creation- Mandy-the Buxom Blonde!

 

 And then from George Lacey of course-his wonderful rant -talking non stop for 30 seconds before proclaiming- "oh if only I could think of something to say"!.

 

You'd be amazed at some producers not getting the point of that gag. When I talked it through to the producers at Newpalm-there was a moments pause and then John Newman said- "will that be funny"? I just hope the producers this year-see what it is I 'm trying to achieve in using that particular routine.

And then from the great Douglas Byng-via my friend Philip-I have developed a very pristine, stylised way of using my posture, hands and voice.

 

And I think this was compounded-working with Michael Garland and Mark Andrews at Hunstanton. The cloths were so beautifully painted and we had footlights in the stage that gave the piece a comedia del arte feel-and thus enhanced all of the stylized and precise hand movements, poses and gestures-which brings the whole thing round full circle in the evolution of pantomime.

 

(The Sleeping Beauty- Princess Theatre,Hunstanton-2007/2008(DR 2nd from left) 

Summing up- as Terry Scott says-any young person studying the art of dame will never be out of work at Christmas. I d like to think that was true but I m afraid there is so much sloppiness adopted by some dames-with no thought to style, precision, dress or tradition. I'm not saying we have to be trapped in the past-only to learn from the technique of the greats and develop our own technique that is equally precise. I 'm not decrying drag acts-(as I had actually done "drag" as such before dame)-but remember the character and play within the role-not against it. I feel my dame can pretty much work for every subject now-as long as the script is strong. (And after several bad ones over the years-I have the strength now to change them for the better!)

-I always think about the logistics of the character-if the dame is a humble mother like Dame Trott (Jack and the Beanstalk ) or "Mother Goose"-I will perhaps tone the make up down or omit nail varnish until there reaches a time in the plot when the dame may become rich and glamorous. With characters like Gertie in "Goldilocks" I can veer towards a more show biz dame-as the whole show is set around a circus-with the dame as the ring mistress/owner of the circus.

 

(as Tilly Tart -Circus owner- "Goldilocks"-Bolton,2010/2011) 

I was very disappointed when I was playing Queen Hermione in "Sleeping Beauty" at Middlesbrough -when it got back to me via the Chinese whispers that run that theatre - "everyone thinks you re too glitzy"!! I was actually stunned and my reaction was -" well-I AM playing the queen-in costumes NOT supplied by myself"!

 

(as Queen Hermione in "The Sleeping Beauty" -Middlesbrough 2013/14) 

 -So this year with Twankey it will be a combination of homely motherliness for the first act and beginning of the second-until the family get rich-and then the glamour emerges in the form of a Mollie Sugden type outfit and of course- the inimitable Dame Edna. This will then heighten the fall from riches later on-when I resort to an old worker costume and my Mother Goose,grey wig (with bun at the back) -and even a "Mother Goose" ,missing front tooth (another homage to the great John Inman)

 

 

 

 

(TO BE CONTINUED-WATCH THIS SPACE)