Christopher Biggins talks about the actors who play any identity
Taking the family to see Christmas pantomime is a national tradition, up there with (drunken) caroling at midnight mass and listening to the Queen’s – or, this year, the King’s – speech stretched out on the sofa after a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Yet despite being an integral part of the country’s theatrical heritage, Britain’s great panto has always faced criticism and snobbery from the so-called cultural elite.
Back in the 1720s, when John Rich, actor and theater manager, staged comic harlequinade plays (forerunners of modern panto, derived from the 16th-century Italian Commedia dell’Arte), his slapstick humor was ridiculed by highbrow actors who they believed the theater should be reserved for serious plays like Shakespeare.
Despite this, panto has a following at all levels of society and at all ages.
During World War II, the teenaged Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret used to perform Christmas pantomime for their family at Windsor Castle. They staged four productions between 1941 and 1944 and one of them, Aladdin, in which Elizabeth played the title role, may even have helped foster a royal romance when Prince Philip, who was visiting for the holidays, saw her in it.
These days, panto is again under attack, this time by politically correct activists who take offense at its double meanings and off-color jokes, calling it crude and outdated. However, whatever its detractors may say, the fact remains that people love panto, especially children. And the centuries-old formula of satirizing current affairs through folk or fairy tales works just as well for adults.
We all enjoy the show on different levels, and the familiarity of the scenes and sketches, slightly adapted each year to reflect what’s on the news, radio or TV, feeds our childhood love of being told our favorite stories over and over again. again. .
If John Rich has a modern heir to his title of Lord of Pantomime, it is surely Christopher Biggins who, at the age of 73, is starring in his 44th pantomime this year.
Christopher Biggins in panto last year in the role of the lady he has played for 46 years.
Speaking from her dressing room at the Darlington Hippodrome, where she plays Mrs Smee in Peter Pan, she told the Express how panto has changed over the years.
“When I started, the main guy was always played by a girl with fishnets, beautiful legs, a short little jacket, all very glamorous,” he says. “Slamming his thighs and saying ’12 o’clock and still no sign of Dick’…referring to Dick Whittington of course!
“But I understand why the producers changed the lead child from a female to a male because they wanted to give the kids in the audience a hero to look up to.
“Nowadays everyone says ladies shouldn’t be played by men, which is ridiculous. Because, although there is the occasional lady played by a woman, it is, essentially, the man who assumes that character, as in Shakespeare’s time when men played women.
“And it’s also fun to see a man dressed as a woman, with a funny dress and wigs, it’s part of the humor. Every time I go in I wear something different for each entrance and I always have. Normally I have about 12 or 14 costumes for each panto”.
Originally from Lancashire, Biggins comes across as tolerant of a resilient ‘show must go on’ attitude to his profession, the exact opposite of overly sensitive types who try to take all the fun out of pantomime. It’s quite possible that his hands-on approach helped him win the seventh season of I’m A Celebrity… in 2007.
“The problem is these days a lot of comedians have to be careful what they say because of the awakening thing,” he continues. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
Panto choreographer David Wood, left, puts his stars to the test
Describing an earlier production, he reveals: “We were in Richmond and another cast member made a joke by asking an audience member to kiss parts of his body. That member, who was in his early twenties, complained afterwards and there was almost a lawsuit. They had to bring in the police and sign a statement. It’s completely ridiculous because it was just a joke.”
Given the kind of reactions above, isn’t that enough to make a lady want to hang up her panto dress?
“Not at all, what keeps you going is the crowd, it’s fantastic. You may be feeling pretty down or you may have stayed out late and when you go to the theater the last thing you want to do is put on a dress.
“But the audience is so enthused that they really make you pantomime sail with their energy. And you have to return as much energy as possible, it’s natural, it’s just wonderful.”
Money helps, too, of course, as Biggins himself is the first to admit: “When I was asked to do my first pantomime in 1976, which was Mother Goose here in Darlington, I was pretty horrified that I’d been asked.” he says, with mock disdain.
“I said ‘no’ because all the ladies I’d seen were over eighty, and besides, I was a professional actor, I didn’t pantomime.
“But they kept offering it to me and I turned it down. Then one day I was told that he pays £1,000 a week, that was 46 years ago, and I thought, ‘That’s a lot of money!’ So I did it and fell in love with it and have been doing it ever since!”
Audiences north of the border, Biggins reveals, are some of the best to play.
“I was at Dick Whittington in Glasgow with [panto legend] Allan Stewart. He had been terrified beforehand, since he was the only Englishman in a Scottish panto, I felt like an alien. But it was like a pop concert, they laughed, they loved it. The Scottish public is something else, it’s an uproar.”
While the wacky antics on stage might make pantomime acting look easy, it’s actually all very well planned and orchestrated.
Newcastle-born David Wood is a choreographer who has worked with everyone from Diana Ross to Kylie Minogue to the Spice Girls. He’s the go-to man for pantos who want to put the zing into their dance routines.
David spoke to the Express as he was putting the finishing touches on His Majesty’s Theater Aberdeen’s version of Peter Pan, which stars former Strictly star Brendan Cole as Captain Hook.
“Ladies have had to tone down their jokes to become aware of what’s going on,” he says, referring to “awakened” modern culture. “But dancers are taking more risks. There are more dancers around, but possibly less exercise, so they have to up their game.
“Everyone gets faster and fitter, just like the competition. Being a great dancer is not enough these days, now you also have to be able to act and sing. And the way they dance now is different than 20 years ago; it’s more physical. That is evolution; dancers continue to develop and improve. He adds: “Choreography of a panto is like making a musical. But whereas a West End or Broadway musical can take months to prepare, we only have two weeks.”
PRINCESS ELIZABETH as Aladdin, with her sister Margaret in a 1943 royal panto
David reveals that doing panto, even at an amateur level, is a great way for young people to get into the performing arts:
“Pantomime is the perfect first job because they are learning everything about theater and how it works: behind the scenes, on stage, the setup, how it’s put together. So if they continue to do a musical in the West End, they have a complete understanding of what are the props, what are the ins and outs, everything. It is the perfect production for an audience to watch and for a young dancer to participate in to experiment and learn. I learned my trade through pantomime.”
Although this will be pantomime number five for professional ballroom dancer Brendan, he grew up in New Zealand where pantomime is not well known.
He revealed: “There was a learning curve at the beginning. When I saw my first panto, I thought ‘What is this all about?’ during the first 15 minutes. But then you see the magic of it, how the silliness and the show come together.
“When you have your own children, my daughter is turning 10 and my son is five, you see them enjoying themselves, and to be in one now and be a part of that magic is phenomenal. Now it is the job I look forward to the most every year.”
Despite the challenges and the need to adapt to changing sensibilities, the days of panto are far from behind. As Biggins reveals: “I was worried this year about panto because there’s a lot going on. Money is tight, people are worried about the cost of eating and keeping warm. But we’re actually up from last year. People want to go out and have a good laugh. They don’t want to stay at home and get depressed. They’re saving up for a big night out, which is what we’re going to give them.”
While he may not be as household a name as Biggins, professional lady David Rumelle – appearing in his 36th panto this year, Dick Whittington at the Epsom Playhouse – feels just as strongly about this Brit’s grit and playfulness. 300 years. he brings the tradition, whatever your age.
“Pantomime is a Christmas dessert full of fantasy, magical spectacle and escapism,” he says. “It’s one that audiences new and old can return to time and time again with the knowledge that it’s always money well spent, to escape, if only for a couple of hours, the harsh reality of these troubled times.
“And that’s something we all need right now.”
Let the old ladies reign!
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