Christmas used to be the time of year which, workwise, meant one thing – panto. Oh no it wasn’t … oh yes it was! This year, at this moment, we’re not actually seeing a pantomime. It must be the first time … ever. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t either see one, act in one, or write one.
As a kid I would go with my family and see the panto at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. They still have a panto there every year, but now it runs for weeks, not months as it used to do. In the 1960s I saw Cannon and Ball there, this was way before they had their own TV show. They were playing the brokers men and they were brilliant. Impeccable timing that I’ve never forgotten.
Was I ever a great lover of pantomime – I don’t know, it’s just always been there. I can’t remember my first theatrical experience, but it could quite easily have been panto.
My relationship to pantomime continued at college. We did Cinderella and I ended up, along with David Boyce, playing the ugly sisters (we didn’t need a lot of make-up). I’m not sure who wrote the show, I know I didn’t, but the music was definitely written by Martyn Read, a talented individual in more ways than one. He may very well have written the script, because he went on to write a number of very successful plays. I don’t remember much about the show except one of Martyn’s numbers, which I can still sing today.
The first year after leaving college I played Dame in Babes in the Woods which toured Yorkshire and the second Christmas I played Tom in Little Red Riding Hood at Chesterfield Civic Theatre. For the next few years playing in panto at Chesterfield was a regular feature at Christmas. This was followed by pantos at Croydon then the following year Eastbourne, playing the Captain of the ship in Robinson Crusoe. It was during the show in Eastbourne, that I had one of those moments’ actors fear. On a Saturday we did three shows, the first one being at 10.30 in the morning. It wasn’t easy. And there I was belting out ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ which was the opening number, when it suddenly hit me: ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m a grown man, and here I am dressed in tights and a frilly shirt singing a song to over a thousand people fighting the mother of all hangovers.’ I had to question my own sanity.
I got over that dodgy moment and continued to the end of the run. I could say the reason I stopped doing panto was because of that moment, but in reality, it wasn’t. My writing career was taking off and that became so full on, I didn’t have the time to do panto.
But the reason I mention my panto career is because ironically, a panto was the first piece of professional theatre that I was actually commissioned to write. It came about because the artistic director at Chesterfield, Colin McIntyre, sadly no longer with us, was looking for a panto to fit the actors he had in the company. Colin was the reason I went to Chesterfield in the first place and like everyone else that’s taken a chance on me over the years, I’ll be eternally grateful. He asked me if I’d write it for him, which I did. I got paid £80.00, which seeing I was probably on about £30.00 a week at the time, seemed a good deal. Also part of the deal was that he would be credited for script and I would keep quiet about my involvement. None of this was a problem for me. I just loved the idea of writing something that would be watched by a few thousand people. That was the buzz.
Since then I’ve written a couple of other pantos. One for Q20, the first theatre company I ever worked for and the second for the Thorndike Theatre Leatherhead. That came about because Sophie Lawrence at the time was playing Diane Butcher in EastEnders, and she asked if I would write it. Leatherhead agreed it and I fancied it, so I did it. And that was the last panto I wrote. I think if I were to write another panto in the future, I would also want to direct it. As always, I believe the story is the most important element and now it often seems to get lost in the gimmicks. You have to care whether Cinders and the Prince will get together, you have to care that Jack’s selling his cow for a handful of beans or that Snow White doesn’t eat that wretched apple.
Those days involved in panto were vital in the development of my career. In my teens and early 20s I concentrated on writing for the stage, developing my own ideas. I had my own collection of stage plays ranging from Shakespeare to modern day classics, most of which I’d nicked from the school library, nobody missed them, because I was the only person who read them. These books of scripts were my reference point. I loved the idea of writing for TV, but I had no written scripts to reference. I didn’t even know how a script was formatted. Then I managed to get hold of a copy of A Chelsea Trilogy by Kenneth Jupp. These were three plays for TV obviously set in Chelsea and I had watched them when they were transmitted. I treasured this book for years and still have the copy today. But it wasn’t until I actually started doing bits of TV as actor, that I started to understand the process. My first job on TV was in Coronation Street – a very small part, but for me it was a start and I got a whole script to hold onto and cherish.
From that moment I started writing TV scripts on spec. I’d send them off and they’d coming flying back saying no thank-you. Most are still in our loft. Then eventually I got a break – thanks to Ron Craddock and Jenny Sheridan, which eventually led to me working on EastEnders.
Which brings me back to writing those pantos. Writing for long running TV series is very prescriptive. You have to write to a specific length, it can’t be three minute over or three minutes under, you can only use a certain combination of characters, the sets and locations are set in stone. Having to write a panto for certain actors and with a tight budget, set me off on the right track. Writing in such tight parameters is actually a great discipline for any writer and at times forces you into being more creative. But having now written hundreds of hours of series TV, I’m dying for a shot at writing something without those types of restrictions – like a Bond movie. Think of the amount of countries I could use, the buildings I could blow up, the stunts I could create … and of course the story I could tell.