Being a comedian can be a risky business at the best of times, but at Christmas that risk goes up a notch or ten. In December, comedians usually find themselves entertaining very drunk office parties who are not interested in the slightest about sitting nicely and listening to them or their jokes, which is why I think all comedians should be given the month off on full pay, either that or they should do a Pantomime. Panto is a really fun thing to be in and I can heartily recommend it, I mean where else do you get to battle against Giants, Evil Queens and Monsters? Be made Lord Mayor of London or rescue and marry a Princess? I also love the fact it brings different people from completely different aspects of show business all together in one show. Over the years I have worked with everyone from Pop Stars to comedy Legends, actors, acrobats and dancers to a 15 stone bloke who is a Prima – Ballerina.
For the last 10 years I have been lucky enough to have been asked to appear in the annual Christmas Pantomime at King Georges Hall in Blackburn, Lancashire. In fact all of the Pantomimes that I have been involved in have been there, all that is except one year when I was sentenced to six weeks hard Panto in Rhyl. Rhyl (in case you don’t know it) is a lovely little seaside resort in north Wales. Think “Royston Vasey by the sea” and you wont be far wrong, the local residents all share one tooth that is passed around daily from person to person depending on who is having steak that day for dinner. One of my co-stars that year in Jack and the Beanstalk was the great (and now sadly late) Jack Douglas, Jack was probably best known for his numerous appearances in the “Carry on” movies. He was a very tall man who wore a flat cap, round glasses and had a “comedy twitch” that had to be seen to be believed. Half way through the Panto, Jack and our Panto baddie “Flesh creep” played by Larry Dann from the hit TV cop show “The Bill” would perform a 10 minute music hall type act that used to go down a storm with the young kids in the audience and adults alike. I used to stand in the wings glued to these two old pros as they worked their comedy magic, Jack would tell me, “Phil my Lad, if you make the kids laugh, they will love you and so will their families and then you have got them!” Jack was getting on in years and would spend the entire show sat in the wings in an old armchair waiting for his next entrance in his part as “The King”. He would watch everything that was happening on stage and many times as I came off he would gently grab my hand as I passed and offer some sagely advice, which I gratefully accepted. “Try this next time you do that thing, It`ll get a laugh Phil.” most of the times he was right, you see he had been there and done it all before me, you’ve gotta respect old pros like that. I think if anyone offers you advice they are mostly doing it through kindness so I think you should always listen to what they have got to say as you could probably learn something you didn’t know, the worst you can do is throw it back in their face. I would look forward each night to sitting down to supper with Jack and his lovely wife (who was the fairy in our show) as he gave me comedy tips and told stories from his past career. I was really sad to hear of his passing a few years later and I will always be eternally in his debt for all his help and advice towards comedy and acting.
Someone else who was helpful in my early Panto career was Legendary funnyman Bobby Ball. Bobby lives near to me, so one day I decided to knock on his door to ask his help and nice bloke that he is, he invited me into his house, instructing his lovely wife Yvonne to “Put a brew on” he then went on to give me a comic masterclass for the rest of the afternoon. I remember pinching myself as I watched this funny little bloke who, as one half of one of the country`s biggest ever comedy acts stood in front of me acting out imaginary scenes and giving me all sorts of comedy goodies. He also warned me to watch my voice during a Panto run as you can easily strain it, the voice is a comic`s greatest weapon so its important to look after it. During a run of a Panto you can be doing three shows a day over a month, it’s a lot of strain on your voice. On the last day of this year`s show my voice decided to pack up its bags and leave, it was hard work and I struggled to make it to the half time curtain, I was in agony every time I opened my mouth. As soon as the interval came I dashed out of the stage door in full costume and walked into Boots Chemist and bought some Sandersons voice medicine. I will never forget the expression on the girl`s face behind the counter as she looked at me standing in front of her sweating in makeup and tights, after I typed in my pin number she asked, “Would you like cashback?” I replied “no its alright love, I’ve got a golden goose at home!” She just looked at me like I was an idiot. In between scenes I gargled the medicine all through the second half and somehow got through the rest of the show. There is also a lot of strain on your body, so some physical fitness is also required for a Panto. During the show I’ve just finished for instance (Mother Goose) I sang, danced, told jokes, did slapstick comedy, performed a magic illusion that involved running up six flights of stairs in under a minute, oh and flew fifteen feet in the air!
You should always expect the unexpected during a panto, I remember we were doing Peter Pan one year (pardon the expression) and just before the end of the first half, during a big scene where we were about to fly to Neverland, the fire alarm belted out through the theatre tannoy system instructing everyone to evacuate the building. So out we all trooped, audience and cast (in full costume) standing together outside in the cold car park. I remember thinking that the magic of the show had now been somehow lost between us (the cast) and the audience, a line had been crossed because of this unfortunate circumstance that we had now all found ourselves in together. I tried to remain hopeful we would be able to get it back when the show resumed but my hopes swiftly faded as I glanced across the car park and saw Captain Hook & a mermaid sharing a cigarette with an audience member beside a skip.