PANTOMIME: UNCOVERED – PART ONE
FEATURING AN INTERVIEW WITH THE GRANDEST OF DAMES, CHRISTOPHER BIGGINS
Hop aboard the magic carpet, step up into the golden carriage, and cry “anchors aweigh” as we transport you through the Stage Door into the magical world of Pantomime. Panto season is, as they say, behind us…and as dames across the nation catch their breath, we look behind the scenes at what goes into the theatrical tradition that is, for thousands of theatregoers, their first ever visit to wonderland.
Over the past few months, British audiences have collectively booed, cheered and marvelled at Marauding Pirates, Pouting Princesses, and more Widow Twankys than have ever been named and damed in the New Year’s Honours list.
We’ve been spending time at one of the country’s biggest Pantomimes, Peter Pan in Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion to see just what goes on – both onstage and off, and to meet some of the people who, like Captain Hook’s reptilian clock-swallowing nemesis, make it all tick!
The Production Team
The Cliffs Pavilion’s Peter Pan is produced by Qdos Entertainment – this year alone Qdos shows feature the likes of John Barrowman, Brian Conley, Craig Revel Horwood, Lee Mead and Nigel Havers. Working for them is the pinnacle of most performers pantomime career and panto is now attracting major international stars too – a fact illustrated by the number of U.S. names now coming to appear in British Theatres: Pamela Anderson, Priscilla Presley and of course, The Hoff himself!
Directed by Michael Vivian, Peter Pan’s 2014/15 run broke all box office records at this HQ Theatres venue, 30 miles to the East of the Theatreland. On the day we visited, Barbara Windsor was in the audience – we’re pleased to report she is just as charming off camera as on…and her bra didn’t ping off once!
Biggins, himself known as much for his larger than life persona and catalogue of showbiz buddies as his unforgettable on-stage performances, is never more at home than in panto. When Babs had finished with him, we snatched a few moments between shows in “Mrs Smee’s” dressing room with the I’m A Celebrity Queen of the Jungle.
Hello Mr Biggins!
“Hello!” (Despite our intrusion, he puts down his powder and lets out an enormous belly laugh)
Thank you for allowing us in – we know you’re a busy Dame.
You clearly love being on stage. For you, what’s the best thing about pantomime?
“The audience! And certainly in Southend, the audiences have been absolutely fantastic. And you might sit here in your dressing room like we are now, and you think, oh God, I wish I could go home…and suddenly you hear on the tannoy, the audience coming in, you go out there and they just lift you. And it is fantastic.”
Audiences are loving Peter Pan, but what’s your personal favourite pantomime?
“Mother Goose. Because Mother Goose is like the Hamlet of the Dame world. Because it’s all about her. And it’s very rarely done. And it’s just such a shame – it is the best pantomime. I’ve done about five Mother Gooses in my career and I’ve loved every minute of them.”
If you could travel back to any time in that long panto career knowing what you know now, and change something?
“Do you know, the answer to that question is that I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t go back. I think I’ve had a charmed life. Everything I’ve done had has been marvellous. I’ve done everything I could possibly want to do and more. I’ve had such a varied career. I’ve met wonderful people. I wouldn’t want to change anything.”
So if you were to speak to someone starting out at drama school who wanted to go into the industry….?
“No, I’d say no. Don’t do it. Because it’s very, very difficult. It was so much easier when I started, 50 years ago. And now it is impossible. There are so many people out of work, so many really good people. It’s a nightmare. (He pauses) I always qualify that remark of “don’t go, don’t do it” though by saying if you really want it, go for it… But realise how difficult it is.”
Do you have any routines or superstitions?
“I always, after the first show – because we do them twice daily as you know – I always cook something. I have a nice little cooker in the corner there, so I cook a Marks and Spencer’s meal, I eat that. And then this (he points to a comfy seat), which turns into a bed, I pull it down, and I go to sleep for about fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. Wake up, brush my teeth, then I check my makeup, and on I go. So that’s basically it…what else..I don’t think there’s anything else. Oh, I hate having my Dame costumes in the dressing room so they have to go in a quick change room because it just takes over, and I find it rather terrifying!”
During Pantomime, have you ever had anything go horribly wrong on stage?
“I was in Brighton, doing the song sheet, which is one of my favourite things at the pantomime. And a little boy who was looking rather pale, I sort of said, “look don’t worry” and I turned away. As I turned away he threw up all over the stage. And then as I turned back to say “don’t worry”, he threw up again. So we were knee deep in vomit, and I had to somehow get rid of the children, give them a prize, and bring on the comedy policeman to clear up. That was pretty grim…(he smile) but really I just love it.”
From their reaction, it’s pretty obvious that the audience loves him right back. Fans of Biggins will be delighted to hear there’s lots more to learn about one of our greatest Pantomime Dames at http://www.christopherbiggins.com/
Of course, Panto is very much a family affair – not just for the audience, but for the cast and crew. Whilst West End casts may bond (and bitch) during long-running shows, and National tours may become a wearisome round of packing and unpacking, Panto is rather a different beast. Pantomime casts really do bond like a family – most will be away from their own homes and families throughout Christmas and New Year due to a packed schedule. Add to that the audience participation with it’s unpredictable moments of mirth and mayhem, the tight rehearsal time, and often fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-flying (it’s not unknown for Peter Pan to fly straight into the set with a rather audible thud) and you can see why a supportive family is so important. Panto casts create a cameraderie which can be quite heartbreaking to leave behind.
Even the Stage Door is a part of the family with one cast member describing it “like coming in and having your Mum welcome you home”… Wendy and Diane (pictured) allegedly have over 300 years Stage Door experience between them, with Wendy claiming that Diane may have joined “some time in 1892.”
For one very special Pirate Captain, family is particularly important.
We caught up with the very charming Nick Corjon, Road Manager, and nephew, of David Hasselhoff.
THE ROAD MANAGER
How long have you been Road Manager for Mr Hasselhoff?
“I’ve been working with David for four years now – this is actually our fifth panto. My first job with David was panto for Wimbledon.”
What’s in a typical day for you as Road Manager?
“It really depends what David needs. We’ll check emails. The thing with the time difference in LA is that when I wake up I get all my LA emails are with an American time zone. After, go to the gym maybe with David. Usually we have a driver who would pick David and I up, but actually we got a car from Audi this year, so I’ve been driving David around and I’ve been driving to and from the show. The roads here are tiny compared to LA. Thank God I have the beepers!”
How did working with David first come about?
“David’s my uncle – I was actually doing my Masters in Sports Psychology and working at a hotel to pay my way, but I was looking to earn some extra money. David took me on the road to Loughlin, Nevada for a show – that was minor stuff, mainly as a P.A. And then a month later, he said “I need someone to come to Wimbledon for a panto”… And I was like “what’s a panto?!” And he was like, it’s Peter Pan, it’s really fun…”
“Right after that, he got Britain’s Got Talent, so we ended up staying on the road – in the UK for about four or five months. David’s assistant back in LA quit I think I did a good enough job for him and he could trust me.”
And how was Britain’s Got Talent? You must have met some interesting characters!
“Well, we’d already done Americas Got Talent, so we were prepared! But David still has a really hard time with English accents. So a lot of the times he has no idea what the people are saying anyway… We got to travel around the whole of the UK, all the cool big cities. We did it with Michael McIntyre and Amanda Holden, and then at the end, Simon Cowell.”
What’s the more memorable experience – BGT or Panto?
“Actually, BGT was pretty boring – you just do the job and then go straight back to the hotel. Panto is always interesting, because you meet so many diverse people. The cast here is great, and we really have a lot of fun during the panto season – we go out a lot. It’s hard too, because we’re away from our families. This is our fifth Christmas away from them. David’s daughters come over, but my parents have my sister back home. And I can’t convince my Dad to come over in the dead of British winter! It was 85 degrees last week and they were lying out in the sun in Los Angeles…”
So have you been staying in Southend?
“We have apartments about 5 minutes away from here. This is more of a mix between a venue and a theatre, but the people have been great, really accommodating. David was worried at first because there’s no live band for the show this time, which is challenging. But Glen, the sound guy, is amazing at his job.”
And you’re off to Glasgow next year?
“Yes, Glasgow, and then Southampton the year after. Actually, we were in Glasgow for the European Music Awards.”
And what do you have planned between now and Glasgow?
“From here, we go to Finland. For three weeks, David hosts his own chat show with Finnish celebrities. Obviously the gag is David has no idea who they are. We’re going to Lapland after that, hopefully to see the Northern Lights. Then after that fingers crossed we go back to LA and have a little time off. We’ve been away since September 27th! I’ll go to Mexico and David will go away with his girlfriend. Then we’re gonna be back here – a lot. There’s going to be a new TV show called “Hoff The Record” on Dave. That airs in June. We do a lot of stuff in Germany – we’ll be going to the Berlin Film Festival for a few days, but 60% of our work is in the UK. We go where the opportunities are.”
And for you personally?
“For now, I have a few projects. One with David, Knight Rider Heroes, and a few others of my own. Sport is my passion, but the problem with Sports Psychology, is there’s such a small market. If I went into that field I’d be paying back my school loans forever! I played professional water-polo for 2 years in France, and basketball, but then I fell into the world of Entertainment and it’s great. I do really love it. I never wanted to do a job where I’m stuck in one place. It gives me the freedom to work from wherever I am, to travel the world, do different things and meet so many people. It’s fun!”
In Pantomime: Uncovered – Part Two, we meet the comedian who almost died for his art, and the curious case of a Fly-man who disappeared into thin air!