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Tue 11 Dec 2012
Deep within the O2 in London, a smaller white dome is mushrooming. Metal barriers stop an early-evening commuter crowd from exploring a backstage area that is a chaos of scaffolding, rigging, giant cables and heavy-duty packing trunks peopled by purposeful-looking men in hard hats and young women talking urgently into their mobiles. At what appears to be the auditorium's entrance, two men are transferring the contents of a giant pallet of theatre programmes into a stall. The front and back of the programmes feature Lily Savage, "appearing by kind permission of Paul O'Grady", the star of Aladdin – A Wish Come True.
Ten days ago this was an empty space but, I am assured, within 26 hours this entrance will be transformed into a winter wonderland of Christmas trees twinkling invitingly as the pop-up pantomime welcomes its first preview audience. Go past the embryonic bar into the impressive velvet-lined, 1,900-seater auditorium and you discover the stage set for a fantasy from Old Peking, and Widow Twankey's Laundry.
It is only a fortnight since an austerity-defying crowd of 40,000 – all having paid at least £95 – flocked to the O2 to see the Rolling Stones. And yet here's another story of a long-in-the-tooth, quintessentially British institution celebrated for its pouting peacockery, riding a feelgood wave of success: as a freezing Britain enters its fifth winter of economic doom and gloom, Panto is booming.
For pantomime people, this is the biggest weekend of the year when – from debutantes such as Priscilla Presley in Wimbledon and Britain's Got Talent winners Ashleigh and Pudsey the dog in Woking to veterans such as Julian Clary in Southampton – they welcome their first paying audiences. Nick Thomas, the chairman of Qdos, the country's biggest pantomime producer, which is this year staging 24 productions, has despatched 80 lorries, packed with more than 50,000 costumes and props, from his company's depot outside Hull to venues across Britain during the past fortnight.
Yet even before the first interval, ice creams have been sold, and box office records are being smashed. Qdos expect its ticket sales to exceed £25m this Christmas, with 12 theatres taking more than £1m each at the box office. The country's second-biggest panto producer, First Family Entertainment (FFE), a division of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), says sales are already up 10-15% on last year – which was in itself a record year – in the 10 theatres in which it is staging pantos.
So why is this form of old-school live entertainment proving so resilient? "I'll tell you why," says independent producer Michael Rose, the man responsible for bringing Savage to the O2's temporary theatre until January. "Because more than anything else at the moment – as a nation and as a society – we need an escape from the Six O'Clock News. This is two and a half hours of pure escapism – and it's cheaper than therapy."
From opposite ends of the country, Christopher Biggins, who is preparing for his 38th panto season, this year as the dame at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and Elaine C Smith, mistress of the revelries in Aberdeen, agree wholeheartedly. "In a place like Plymouth, you're being told by the government you haven't got any money to spend, you're being taxed, everything is going against you, and perhaps you're not going to have as much of a Christmas as you normally would, because you can't afford it," says Biggins. "But we let them forget all that for a few hours. For £80, a family of four can have a bloody good night out and a laugh, as a family."
Smith, who once wrote a thesis on panto, says: "In the 1960s, when there were loads of jobs and a real sense of optimism, people wanted bleak northern dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. What they want now is light and joy and laughter, and to be reminded what really matters to them. It's like when, during the second world war, people flocked to musicals."
Michael Lynas, managing director of content at ATG, says this rings true for our times of austerity, too. "In our London theatres and touring shows, musicals and comedies are thriving. The Lion King, for example, which is now in its 10th year in the West End, has had a brilliant year."
Undoubtedly, part of contemporary panto's success is down to the way the form has innovated and adapted to appeal to today's audiences. Television hits such as X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing have brought interactivity into the nation's sitting rooms: today, even very young audiences are comfortable with the concept of tearing down the fourth wall. What our youth will not do, however, is stay in their seat if they are bored. "The scenes are much shorter than when I started in panto," says Biggins. "We're catering to children who are used to switching over."
These productions also have to cater for kids who expect good special FX and are multimedia-savvy. All the dames I spoke to will fly above the audience at least 12 times a week during the next month. Qdos have also introduced gizmos such as 3D-goggles, though Rose says: "I think that's cheating, personally. I'd rather do some proper theatrical magic – when our carpet flies, I know how they do it, and am in thrall to it every time."
Another factor in panto's boom is the thriftier economic model pioneered by Qdos. Thomas insists: "We don't do cheap shows." It is the case, nonetheless, that in contemporary panto, it is not just the jokes that get recycled – the sets, scripts, costumes, and even the stars, are all expected to do their bit in different locations around the country for many years to come.
"Pantomime scenery, made properly, lasts for 25 years," says Thomas, who has more than 40 productions in his stores, costing £750,000 to run annually. But there's money in them frills. Pantomime accounts for 40% of Thomas's business, of which he is the sole owner. The company is projected to have a £60m turnover in 2012/13. Thomas entered the entertainment industry as a teenage performer after winning a New Faces competition as a puppeteer in 1975. His wife of 27 years used to be one of his hero Ken Dodd's Diddymen. Their two daughters now work in the expanding restaurant side of their business. Qdos's primary base is Scarborough – "all the content is in the north" – though there is also an office and a home in London's Covent Garden.
Staying true to your regional roots is, for Thomas, fundamental to the success of his shows. "There is nothing worse than a five-minute-wonder reality star or a faded US celebrity just there for the payday," says Thomas, in what is almost certainly a dig at the casting policy of ATG, whose roster of stars this year includes the untried Presley and, as Captain Hook in Manchester, the returning David Hasselhoff. "We encourage and develop regional 'names', like Allan Stewart and Andy Gray in Edinburgh, Clive Webb and Danny Adams in Newcastle, and Billy Pearce in Bradford. These artists fill theatres for pantomime in their city, yet never appear on TV."
The biggest local names, such as Berwick Kaler in York, who writes and directs as well as acts, and is doing his 40th season in 2012, work their audience by intuition. "People in York feel a real ownership of this panto," he says. "If they've got visitors they say, 'Come and see our panto.'"
Smith, a Glaswegian, helming the Aberdeen panto for the fourth time, says: "If I did Glaswegian material here it would die on its arse." There are certainly plenty of jokes in the Aberdeen production that might fly over the head of all but the best-informed of Londoners. There is an authority figure called Alex Mackerel, for example, who is prone to independence-related malapropisms such as, "I'd like to welcome you all to my devolution, I mean celebration."
Salaries for the top-name performers are rumoured to be as much as £30,000 a week – Biggins says his is around the £20,000-a-week mark – and some stalwarts are contracted for up to six years hence, meaning pantomime isn't only providing its audiences with security in an uncertain world. Panto's success also shows a more robust picture of theatre in the regions than was depicted recently by Danny Boyle and National theatre director Nicholas Hytner, when they protested at proposed cuts to local theatre funding. In the worst reported case, Newcastle city council has now axed all its arts funding.
Last year, the previously struggling Orchard Theatre in Dartford, which is now run by Qdos, reported a profit – part of the turnaround in its fortunes was a panto fronted by Ann Widdecombe, who this year appears alongside her Strictly Come Dancing nemesis Craig Revel Horwood in Snow White in High Wycombe. "We did that by investing £350,000 in improving the bars and restaurants, programmed more popular shows and marketed them well," says Thomas. "But that certainly wouldn't work everywhere. I have never banged the drum for privatisation. It is by no means a fix-all. Our big cities deserve a varied cultural diet – and not all of that can be done on a purely commercial basis." He is dismayed by the situation in Newcastle, which he hopes will be reversed, seeing the council's decision as shortsighted, since all evidence points to the fact that when people go out to the theatre they spend money on meals and transport too, contributing further to a city's economy.
Michael Lynas at ATG agrees. "A successful panto can make enough money for a theatre to fund its programming more experimentally later in the year," he says. "But subsidy is still very important."
York's resident dame, Kaler, has seen production costs and casts shrink over the years, but he thinks York staging its own panto every year and not one bought in, is part of its USP. Another more traditional aspect of the York panto is that it runs into February. How would he feel if the York Theatre Royal brought in a production from a producer such as Qdos or ATG? "Well, that would be the end of my career," says the 67-year-old. "I'd be heartbroken."
My first experience of theatre came in the 1970s at His Majesty's in Aberdeen. My brother became so overwrought he ran to the stage to try to grab Lulu's leg and warn her Captain Hook was behind her. This year, he will take his four boys to the Theatre Royal, Plymouth – his parents-in-law's annual treat. My parents and I will be back at His Majesty's, where we will be introducing my own two sons to pantomime. Dames view this part of their job with real seriousness. "I feel very strongly that we are building the audiences of the future," says Biggins. "Family groupings range from babies sucking on their mummies' titties to great-grandparents. If what these families see is good, they will not only book for next year's panto, but also for the shows in between, and that way our panto becomes the breeding ground for the next generation of theatregoers."
Read the article on the Guardian website.