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Traditionally the great British pantomime has been a real stamping ground for comedians of all shapes and sizes.
Yorkshire comedians Like Billy Pearce have triumphed in the Buttons type role, while Duggie Brown Paul Shane and many others have shown great versatility in other roles.
And now Ladies and Gentlemen…. Its confession time.
I have always fancied having a go in a pantomime myself!
As the years rolled past I thought my chance had gone, especially as some of the companies I work for, most notably The Stage newspaper in London, employ me on a retainer basis.
This means that for a number of days during the month I am at their beck and call.
So, they were hardly likely to allow me to go ‘swanning off’ to mess around in a frock for weeks on end. Or so I thought.
In recent years I have been reviewing more pantomime productions for The Stage, which has made the temptation to actually get up there and have a go absolutely unbearable.
Then something rather wonderful happened.
My old friend the producer Tony Peers, who many older club-goers will remember as a club comedian, made me an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.
Over the last decade Tony has built up his Scarborough based business , which produces summer shows and pantomimes right across the North of England.
I mentioned my unfulfilled ambition to appear in pantomime during a conversation with Tony over a drink one evening.
His reply rather took me aback.
‘Well you’ve been working for me for years doing your act in hotel cabaret shows. I know you can deliver comedy, so I’ll cast you in something’.
I then mentioned that a long pantomime run just didn’t fit in with the rest of my working life.
Even that didn’t put him off and he mentioned the production at the Parr Hall theatre in Warrington, which is less then a fortnight from start to finish and doesn’t include the Christmas period, the first night being January 4.
When I mentioned this to the Editor of The Stage Brian Attwood he was equally supportive. ‘Please go off and do it and I’ll commission a feature in The Stage where you tell us about your experiences as a pantomime virgin’.
So, there it was, I had the opportunity and was able to fit this short engagement in with the rest of my life.
The next question was, which part could I play?
I have always fancied having a go as a Les Dawson/ Norman Evans style pantomime Dame.
After all , I’m too old for Buttons and too fat for a villain.
Tony Peers, who I remember seeing many years ago at The Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, was , in my view, one of the greatest Dame’s ever.
Unfortunately Tony told me there was no vacancy in Warrington for the Dame role, but he would cast me as an Ugly Sister.
The few so-called friends who I have told about this so far have been repeating the same jokes with depressing regularity.
The most notable ones being ,’ Well, you won’t need much make-up for that then’, and ‘Don’t you think there is a danger you could be type-cast’?
My own son Steven has threatened to disown me and has also told me that he his delighted that Warrington is on the other side of The Pennines.
Despite all of this, I am still going through with it.
Throughout a 25 year solo career I have worked in clubs, holiday centres, military bases, cruise ships, foreign nightclubs, fly-backs, in after dinner work and I’ve even been lucky enough to land some very nice theatre tour work in the past with some very big stars.
The one missing piece in my light entertainment jig-saw puzzle is the pantomime scene.
So I accepted the Ugly Sister role and met up with the man who was to be my ‘sister’.
Ian Ganderson is a proper actor chappie with an impressive CV.
Ian has done the lot, from Ibsen to Shakespeare and in pantomime from Dame to Widow Twankey.
On the telly he also played one of the leading characters in the popular drama series London’s Burning.
So, what would he make of being lumbered with ‘a turn’?
Well, we met up while I was reviewing a matinee performance of a summer season show for The Stage in Bridlington.
We hit it off straight away and Ian also told me that his wife ( a theatrical costumier) was very useful as she was constantly able to find outsize and oddment clothing.
Being around this business all my life and working in so many area’s of showbusienss, I seem to know just about everybody.
Another old friend leapt forward with assistance.
Ian Sandy is a producer and holiday centre supplier. He also works in pantomime every year as a company manager for pantomime giants Qdos at their biggest pantomime at the Hippodrome theatre in Ian’s native Birmingham.
I reminded Ian that while I was touring with the great Midlands comedienne Lizzie Wiggins some years ago he had introduced me to two actors called Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robins.
The meeting had taken place in the bar at The Prince of Wales theatre in Cannock Staffordhsire and I genuinely enjoying meeting them.
Nigel and Peter have been together for 28 years and they are widely acknowledged as the best Ugly Sisters in the business.
Peter's wife is an actress and Nigel's partner is a writer of pantomimes and scripts.
Qdos employ them in their biggest production of Cinderella every single year.
It turned out that Nigel Ellacott runs a sort of pantomime school for complete novices like me at The Kenneth More theatre in Ilford Essex.
I travelled down there along with my secretary Beverley and we met up with a charming French photographer sent by The Stage , Stephanie Methven.
Over a period of four hours Nigel put me through my paces in make-up, wigs and the dreaded frocks.
The whole experience was quite surreal and as I stepped out onto the pavement after my session with 'Ellacott the panto genius', as Ian Sandy refers to him, I couldn’t help feeling that I had bitten off more than I could chew.
There is much more to it than I thought!
Oddly enough in a City with millions of people milling around during the rush hour, I bumped into our intrepid photographer Stephanie a couple of hours later quite by chance on the London underground.
Stephanie kindly told me how well I had done.
For her the work was over, but for me it is just beginning!
Mark Ritchie