This year marks 35 years since Kenneth Alan Taylor first brought pantomime to the Nottingham Playhouse when he arrived as Artistic Director. For a generation, his gentle northern tones were the voice of the quintessential panto dame, a role he reprised over and over before hanging up the costume changes for writing instead. It’s also been 21 years since John Elkington first appeared in a Playhouse panto and solidified himself as the current dame of choice. Our Stage Editor – and massive panto fan – sat down with them both during rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty to find out about this year’s production…
Did you love pantomimes as children?
Kenneth: During the war, I was taken to a panto near Aldershot by a family we were staying with. We were taken as a treat and I hated it, because all I remember was two girls singing love songs and it seemed to go on forever. But later that day I was taken to another panto where the Dame was played by Arthur Askey, and I was just bowled over.
John: I didn’t go at all. The first one I saw was one of Kenneth’s, here. It was Aladdin – and he wasn’t in it!
So your pantos don’t have girls falling in love?
Kenneth: This year we’ve actually gone back to having a Principal Boy as the love interest. But they don’t sing soppy songs – in fact they hardly see each other in the whole show!
What about your first panto as a professional?
Kenneth: My first pantomime was 1959 at Oldham Coliseum. It was Robin Hood and I played Muddles – quite a boring part. The pantos there were written for Guildford and were very twee, so we were asked to rewrite them. In the third year, I’d played three leads in weekly rep in a row – I was tired and got shouted at. I rebelled by saying the pantos weren’t right for Oldham, and the director said ‘if you can do better, you write one!’ A week later, I took it to him, and he chose to do it. It was Cinderella; I wrote myself as one of the Ugly Sisters – that was my first dame.
John: I’ve only ever done pantomime for Kenneth, all at the Playhouse except for one. My first role was the baddie in Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s a completely different feeling to any other form of theatre; I love the anarchy of it, the freedom you get within the story. Kenneth is very good at getting the story through, but there’s also scope to go off script. I love experiencing it with the audiences too; it’s Christmas, so they’ve always just come to have a good time.
How long do you rehearse a Playhouse panto for?
John: We have a surprisingly long time, actually. We do three weeks, then have the tech week, and open at the end of that. There are a lot of numbers in it and they take up a lot of time – some of us are not natural dancers, and that’s much harder than the ad-libbing.
What’s the biggest number of costume changes you’ve had to pull off?
John: I’ve got eight this year, but I’ve had thirteen before.
Kenneth: I had fourteen once. That’s the killer of playing dame!
Has panto changed over the years?
John: I don’t feel it’s changed in itself, apart from bringing in topical references – I don’t know if audiences have changed much.
Kenneth: Scenes are much shorter compared to my older scripts. Attention spans are much shorter now because of television, so they’re much sharper. And I do have a rule about topical references – you don’t come to the pantomime to talk about politics. I won’t do bad innuendo or Brexit!
What are Nottingham audiences like?
Kenneth: I don’t think there’s much difference between Oldham and Nottingham – most of my stuff has an Oldham slant to it, but the humour is the same. One year I took all the old jokes out and I got complaint letters because they didn’t get the gags they know. I got a letter from a family who said that every night they say to each other ‘Nighty nighty, pyjama pyjama,’ and they complained that we didn’t do that one year, so I have to find a way to get it in.
John: It’s a bit like Rocky Horror – audiences know what’s coming and you can’t disappoint them. The loyalty is wonderful; there are parents in the audience now who were children when Kenneth was first starting.
For some people it becomes their Christmas treat, as much a part of Christmas as dinner and the Queen’s Speech. It’s that important.
Kenneth, do you miss performing in the pantomimes yourself?
Kenneth: I do sometimes, when I sit out there watching and I think ‘say that now!’ and nobody does. When I come in to see them in a matinee, I’m always pleased I don’t have to perform in two shows that day. I don’t know how long John will be able to do it…
Any plans to retire from your current roles?
John: I don’t have any plans to retire – I might be made to retire!
Kenneth: I’ll keep writing as long as I can get down from Oldham – and as long as I’m asked to do it – and John knows I’ll have him as long as he’ll do it. I’ve already been asked for next year, so that’s something at least!
What’s your favourite pantomime?
John: That’s tricky, but as a spectacle I do like Sleeping Beauty. To be in it, I like Mother Goose. It’s not that popular but to do the dame in it is great – she has a central storyline rather than being a nurse or nanny. But they all have something about them. I love the magic of it.
Kenneth: Mine is also Mother Goose, without a doubt. We used to sell the costumes and sets on to commercial companies, and the year we did Mother Goose, no one wanted to buy them. They said it was because there are no star dames anymore to play such a rounded dame character. There’s probably only Christopher Biggins left. There used to be a ton of dames. There were even people who played panto animals – like the woman who played a goose every year. Not sure what she did the rest of the year…
The Playhouse panto doesn’t rely on a celebrity being in it. Is that intentional?
Kenneth: Absolutely. When I came here, they’d never done proper panto and I said I would do it in my interview. The board weren’t sure – it was the Theatre Royal who did Nottingham’s panto. I said I would use actors who could really sing and dance, not celebrities. We broke even with the first one, Jack and the Beanstalk.
About a month later, I had to go to the Council House for a meeting, and Barry Stead who ran the Theatre Royal was there. I was told we couldn’t do pantomime because the Theatre Royal did it and the Council funded both theatres, so it was a conflict of interest. I said that was fine, I wouldn’t do pantomime as long as they stopped doing plays. Then the Council leader, Betty Higgins, realised I had a point. The air was blue! I didn’t stop – eventually Barry and I became great friends and did co-productions together. The Theatre Royal did stop doing panto for a while, but it didn’t go well. And we both survived!
Why is pantomime important? Will it endure?
Kenneth: It will, as long as it’s good. It’s special, as it’s often the first time children go to the theatre. Sometimes the only time in the year. And cynical sixteen year olds still come to see it – they say they’ve been coming since they were five and wouldn’t miss it! That’s the joy of it.
John: For some people it becomes their Christmas treat, as much a part of Christmas as dinner and the Queen’s Speech. It’s that important. We have a college group who come from Toronto every year. Also, this year we’ve got four new people in the panto! Fresh blood…
Kenneth: And, for the first time ever, five women to three men, so no complaints about equality. I love it when we get new people. They’re lovely. We’ve hardly ever had any rows behind the scenes here.
John: It’s very intense for two months. We live in each other’s pockets, so you do have to make an effort to get on. You virtually live here, with two performances a day.
Why should people buy tickets for Sleeping Beauty this year?
John: Expectations for a panto depend on how old you are. Kids see the lights and the colour, then it goes dark – they have sweets and flashing things they can wave, they’re sick, they wee themselves. But it’s different for adults. You check your sensibility at the door and come to be a child again. It’s a completely different world, and it’s a place to forget.
Kenneth: And it’s safe. I remember going to a panto with my kids where the dame’s humour was very blue. My kids were asking me what it all meant, and that made me angry – I thought they should be enjoying it without that. I won’t have smut or innuendo. People say it goes over their heads and that it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. They should come and see the panto because, for many children, it will be their first experience of theatre and the production values here are amazing. You won’t see a better panto.
Sleeping Beauty is on at Nottingham Playhouse from Friday 22 November to Saturday 11 January.
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