The Panto King is back at the Bradford Alhambra for his 18th season, playing Smee in a spectacular production of Peter Pan.
It’s your 18th panto at the Alhambra. What makes you want to come back to Bradford each year to do panto?
The money! But in all seriousness I love it. It’s a beautiful theatre, all the staff and crew are great, I can be at home for Christmas, the productions are always really good and I love being part of it. I’m a lucky man.
Has the Alhambra Theatre become a special place for you?
Oh yeah. Sometimes I go see other shows there and I sit in the stalls and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to pace up and down that stage shouting at 1,200 people.
Can you tell us a bit about this year’s show?
This year it’s Peter Pan. Darren Day is Captain Hook and John Lee from S Club 7 is Peter Pan. I play Smee, who is Captain Hook’s sidekick and the essence of the story is that I want to be a Pirate but when I find out how evil he is I finish up on Peter Pan’s side. There’s all sorts of fun and games in between and we’ve got a giant crocodile and some really exciting 3D sequences.
I have to say the whole cast is brilliant, we’ve got loads of children involved and they’ve all been fabulous.
You mentioned 3D sequences and giant crocodiles, do you feel the panto has changed a lot since you started?
Well, this may sound big-headed but we are sort of in the first division at Bradford. They spend a lot of money on it and you can see that in the costumes, the set and the special effects. It’s great for us. But that doesn’t take anything away from the smaller pantomimes who don’t quite have our budget as it’s a fantastic format and there’s a charm to any pantomime.
But it has changed a lot, especially with the special effects. I’ve flown over the audience in a helicopter, on a magic carpet and on a motorbike. I think people come to expect it now but we were the first pantomime to use 3D scenery in Aladdin in 2015 and it went down so well that it’s become commonplace now. You’ve got to move with the times and we’ve been at the forefront.
How much of a say do you have in the script and the rest of the production?
They kind of give me carte blanche really. Basically, I get a script and I try and make it funny. I’m always trying to improve it and tweak it so that it works. That’s where I come in handy really because I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. But it is a combined effort, it’s not just down to me.
I imagine that continues to develop throughout the run as well?
Without a doubt. The audience tell you where the laughs are…there were some really funny bits last year but they weren’t in the script.
Are you encouraged to ad-lib?
Haha, yes. Nobody bothers me, they just let me get on with it. As long as I don’t overstep the mark of course, which I haven’t really done.
Do you ever watch other pantomimes to see how you compare?
I very rarely see another pantomime because ours is such a long run. The only one we’ve been to see recently is the one at the Birmingham Hippodrome. It is interesting to see other pantomimes and I wish I could go see more.
How do you keep motivated and on top form for such a long run?
I love it for a start. And if you’re surrounded by young and enthusiastic people it rubs off on you. There’s a lot of energy around and I do keep the pace up so that the final shows are just as energetic – if not more so – than the first shows. It is hard work and I usually lose about a stone over the run, but I need to do! But I’ll always I give it every ounce of strength I can give it. It’s the audiences really that allow that to happen. Making them laugh is a powerful thing to be able to do and I love it.
Has injury or illness ever got in the way of that?
Yeah, I’ve had broken ribs, broken fingers, broken toes. My hamstring went once and that were right painful. The other year I knocked myself out putting the bins out. It was frosty outside and I was trying to put this big cardboard box into the bin and I fell straight over onto my head. I headbutted the patio, knocked myself out and I had to have eight or nine stitches in my eyebrow. They kept me in hospital overnight and my head were banging, it felt like my head was a bell and somebody was hitting it with a lump hammer. I said to the nurse, ‘I’m gonna be in pantomime at two o’clock’, she said ‘No you won’t’, I said ‘I will, there are a thousand kids depending on me.’
How long do you think you will go on doing pantomime?
I’ve got no intentions of retiring. They say you don’t retire, the phone stops ringing. Well, I’ve been busier than ever this year. I’ve done a play and I’ve done lots of clubs. I had my own show in Scarborough three days a week. Next year is the same, I’ve got three days off after touring and then I’m in a play called Seriously Dead. Then I’m doing Mr Toad in Wind In The Willows for a couple of weeks. So I’ve hardly got a day off until the end of June.
I was going to ask what you do to relax once the panto season ends!
Haha, well that’s just the way it has worked out this year and you can’t really control these things. There have been years when I’ve had time off and you just flop about the house. You get pantomime blues, because it’s been such a big part of your life and all of a sudden it stops. It’s coming down to earth after such a big high.
What about during the run, how do you wind down on an evening between shows?
Get pissed, haha. To be honest, I’m that buggered after doing two shows that I come home, have a bowl of soup and a mug of tea or maybe a glass of wine and conk out. You’ve got to do it all again the next day so you need your sleep. Also I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I used to go out partying and all that but I can’t do that anymore. But I wouldn’t anyway because there are people relying on me and expecting me to perform and do my job properly.
Do you feel a weight of responsibility as the face of the pantomime, knowing lots of people come to see you?
Yes, absolutely. They pay a lot of money to come and see it and we have to get it right. The audience are the most important people and I do thank them in my act. We thank the people on sound and lighting, the bar staff, the cleaners and the people selling the tickets but I say to the audience, ‘You are the most important people, without you everybody in this building – including myself – would all be out of work. In fact, if you weren’t here it would have been called a rehearsal.’
Are there any of your co-stars over the years who you haven’t got on with?
Yeah, very much so. There have been some people who I’ve been looking forward to working with who have turned out to be right miserable. Haha.
To be in panto you have to be a team player and sometimes you get people who don’t want to be part of a team. There have been one or two who maybe thought they were above everyone else, you get that in showbiz. But it doesn’t go down well in Yorkshire! To have done it as long as I’ve done you’re bound to come across people who you don’t click with, but generally speaking everyone I have worked with has been fantastic.
The last few years couldn’t have been better. I’m still friends with a lot of them which is really good.
I imagine they can learn a lot from you as well?
Well, I’m working with Darren Day this year and I’ve known Darren for a long time. He’s doing a sterling job of it but he’s been very complimentary towards me. He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do pantomime with you because you’re the master’. It was a bit embarrassing but for somebody like him to say that is very humbling. I’ve written a couple of bits for him, like I do with anyone. I think that helps, rather than cutting myself off.