Pantomime is a family Christmas tradition that many of us in the UK will sadly miss out on this year.
To keep the spirit of panto alive this season, we asked R&D Publishing author Lowri Madoc to share some of her memories of growing up in the theatre as the daughter of the “principal boy” at this most wonderful time of the year.
Christmas 1981 was a good one. Although they were all pretty good, spent the same, fun way. I would go to work with mum every day, backstage in one of the glorious, major provincial theatres of the UK, usually a different one each year. Mum in Panto was an absolute given in our family’s calendar — a permanent fixture every year. It’s a time I loved and am so very grateful for. This was my everyday life, but how very special and unique it was.
When I was aged between 6 to 18, mum played principal boy, every year, with such glamour. The sights and smells of being backstage — intensely evocative. Her dressing room was always full of great ‘stuff’ over Christmas as she would pretty much move in for three months.
The productions were lavish. Costumes to die for. The smell of pancake stage makeup and the ‘half-hour call’ marked the count-down to showtime. I can remember stroking her gorgeous, Wolford-shiny legs as she got ready. Short costumes and high-heeled boots showed off her great legs. Dick Whittington or Robin Hood were her usual roles, so a feathered cap on top of her iconic, jet-black, short hair completed the look. With a little assistance from Wonderbra, some false lashes and bright red lipstick, not to mention her sword fighting skills and RADA training — she was a force to be reckoned with, by any baddie’s standards! She did it all with great ease and expertise.
If there were a spare seat in the auditorium, I would often be allowed front-of-house to watch, and I always had my favourite bits. These usually involved the dancers and exciting choreography, or the comedians who would often make mum corpse.
My favourite was Les Dawson. For a few seasons, he played the nurse in Babes In The Wood. During one of the scenes, he would make raspberry-farty noises, deep into his mic, just at the point when mum lifted her leg to climb through the scenery window to rescue the children. During the same scene, he famously skillfully played the piano badly to send the Babes to sleep and the audience into hysterics as only this genius could do. Then, at the end of another scene, after he had been ‘blown up’ in an explosion gag, he would leave the stage only to walk straight across the stage in the middle of the next scene where mum was singing a love song to Maid Marian, so he could take a short cut to his dressing room. I would be doubled over with laughter. Plenty of gags like this were repeated every night. I remember laughing a lot.
Sad bits too, brought tears to my eyes every time — performance after performance, I would sit and cry when Dick (Mum) was banished for stealing from the Alderman.
It was a lot to take in aged 8, and I loved every minute. This was mum’s work, and I believed it was the best work in the world.
1981 was a special time. It was the beginning of my ‘Panto’ experiences. Hi-De-Hi had been airing for about a year at this time on BBC 1, at 7 pm on Friday nights — prime time family viewing (remember there were only three channels back then). It was very popular, so there was no surprise that the show was sold out for the three months it ran for.
It was Babes in the Wood and mum was Robin Hood. Lena Zavaroni starred, Paul Squires and all the Hi-De-Hi cast members too. I was seven and it was at the beautiful, Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. I recall so many cast and crew members.
The theatre was full of hubbub in the corridors as people narrowly squeezed past each other to get to the stage or their dressing rooms. Wardrobe ladies, sound engineers, stage-management and other cast members bustled around popping into mum’s dressing room. As I curiously cracked the dressing room door open, layers of fabric swooshed passed by me, held up high and being carried along by a little pair of legs scuttling down the corridor. Technical staff with headphones chatted and gave pointers to each other. Props and wigs were being delivered to dressing rooms.
The dancers were my idols. Glamorous and smiley, they were like the glitter glue of the pantomime. And then there were the juveniles. These boys and girls (mostly girls) about my age were from the local dance school. I was a shy child, very clingy; in fact, I had no desire to perform myself, yet I was very jealous of these children. They danced and wore amazing costumes throughout the show. I so wanted to be one of them.
Most importantly, I yearned to be a Robin in the woodland ballet scene! Probably to ease the torture she could see I was going through, mum took me to their huge dressing on the top floor and introduced me to their dance teacher. It was hectic in there but somehow, they found a spare Robin costume. I know, the magic of theatre! What luck.
I can remember lining up in my costume at the side of the stage with the other children. We weren’t allowed to speak or move in the wings until directed to. The teacher explained what I needed to do, but she needn’t have worried — I had stalked and studied the robin’s moves through the last three weeks and knew exactly where I need to be on stage. The build-up to this moment was immense, and yet over in seconds. I remember the stage lights mostly and that I couldn’t see anyone in the audience because of the glare. I exited stage left to much applause from the audience, which I obviously assumed was only for me.
Elated by the whole experience, I now wanted to be in the finale! I wanted the gold headdress and shoes. I was getting a feel for it now. I rather liked being on the stage and wanted to wear all the costumes. Now the memory is a little blurry as to what exactly happened at this point, but all I do recall is that the magic had clearly run out and there was no finale costume for me. Having three children of my own, I can imagine how breaking this news to me probably went!! The narrow corridors pre-finale were not a place for seven-year-old children like me to be running around and getting over-excited or hysterical.
Memory is a wonderful thing — as I’ve blocked any tears and tantrums there may have been from me during this episode but it concluded with my patient stepdad, John, sweeping me up in his arms and putting me in the sink in mum’s dressing room to “wash my feet.” How odd you may think — but I now know this was the finest parental distraction moment in history. Genius. I laughed a lot whilst in the sink — thank you, John!!