Twankey set for a Grand old time

Talking shop: Christopher Biggins in conversation with Roger Clarke about Aladdin and pantomime

I HAVE always thought that pantomime is the most important show in any theatre's calendar, indeed it is the most important show in theatre.

There is the financial implication of course. For instance Birmingham Hippodrome attracts about 500,000 people a year to its shows, roughly 10,000 a week - except 100,000 of them, 20 per cent, appear in the six week panto season.

For many theatres the Panto is the cash cow, effectively subsidising shows which might not otherwise find a stage in these commercially minded days.

But the importance of panto is much more fundamental than mere income. Panto is often the first live, theatre to be seen by children.

If they see a magical, wondrous show that fires  a young imagination then panto will have spawned a new generation of theatregoers - people who will explore Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, Lloyd Webber or whoever. Panto is the seed and places a great responsibility upon the cast.

Someone who knows all about that responsibility is the delightful Christopher Biggins, who has become a panto institution in his own right and will be playing Widow Twankey for what  he reckons is the 14th or 15th time in Wolverhampton Grand's Aladdin this Christmas.

Biggins, who like me was born in Oldham, is a part of my children's lives. My late father-in-law who lived in Brighton,  took my sons when they were small to the panto every year at the Theatre Royal in Brighton where for three year's they saw Christopher Biggins. As they both go to the theatre the magic must have worked. 

Biggins said: “I love the fact panto encompasses audiences from three to 93 and if you can play to an audience like that, all those ages, and give those people something, I think it is quite fantastic.

“And I say this boringly, because I think it probably does get a bit boring, but I really sincerely mean it, the fact is that we are a breeding ground for future audiences.

“There are pantomimes all over the country, thankfully there are other pantomimes, and the people who go to them perhaps it is the first time the have ever been to the theatre. So the magic we create is so important. If they have enjoyed it they will immediately book for next year's pantomime but they might even go to theatre in-between because they may be hooked on what is such a fantastic media. 

“I think theatre is one of the greatest forms of entertainment there is. You can forget television because television just takes everything and throws it up at you. You have to be more discerning with theatre. In theatre you can do so many different things. You can do drama, you can do comedy, farce, musicals - it is a great media and there is nothing quite like a live performance either being in one or seeing one.”

He has just ended a run in The Rocky Horror Show is is about to tour with a great British variety show with the likes of The Krankies, Dana, The Grumbleweeds, Syd Little, Paul Daniels.

Biggins, who thinks some alternative comics are “hit and miss” is looking forward to the tour. He said: “I think there are a lot of people out there of a certain age who would like to see traditional variety.”

Ridiculous frocks - and lots of them - are the stock in trade for the pantomime dame as Christopher Biggins shows with his nice little washing number

This year down the road at the Hippodrome is Joan Collins, a good friend of Biggins, who encouraged her to try panto for the first time when another project fell through. His advice to her and indeed to anyone in panto is simple.

“I know she is excited about it. She has amazing energy. The secret is to give 100 per cent. I have seen pantos with so called pantomime stars and you go on the first night and they are fantastic. Go back a week later and they are walking through it. There is no walking through a pantomime. It makes it tougher for the audience and for you.

“Let me tell you a day in my pantomime life. I get up at ten o'clock at the Novotel here.I go back, read the papers, have a shower, get myself together, go to the theatre, do the matinee, have something to eat between the shows then fall fast asleep - I have to have a bed in my dressing room - walk up on the half, titivate the make up and go on and do the show and back in bed at the Novotel by 10 o'clock that night. 

“Very little socialised because you can't do it. All your energy has to be put into those two shows every day six days a week.


“There is also my openness and love of people and that comes across. I'm like everyone big sister, nice mum, favourite aunty and people identify with that. Yes there is a little innuendo but it is all good clean fun and the audiences love that being a big man they love the fact I do 12, 13, 14 costume changes in the most ridiculous costumes - you should get a lough every time you come on.”

This won't be his first visit to the Grand having appeared in Summer Holiday, Lady WIndermere's Fan, Charley's Aunt “but never a panto. I am looking forward to it because I know this is a great pantomime date. It is one of the few that does a seven week run and it is a beautiful theatre. 

“It is beautifully run theatre as well. They make it easy for you.”

Starring with Christopher Biggins is comic and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin as Aladdin who has appeared in three Royal Variety shows.

The Panto opens on December 11 and runs until January 30 2011.

Roger Clarke

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