The joys of panto

I used to love pantos as a child – they’re funny, you get to shout and sing and it’s a feast for children’s eyes. Only once a year do we ever sing such things as Gilly Gilly Ossenpfeffer and Puff the Magic Dragon, but we put our hearts into it. You always took for granted that they’d be there in the run-up to Christmas, rather like an all-singing, all-dancing advent calendar.

I don’t recall ever seeing one with my parents, however. My dad’s work organised a trip for all their employees’ children, which involved the extra excitement of a coach trip, a party in a local hotel and the possibility of making new friends (even if for only a few hours). Buxton Opera House, our local theatre, still did such things then (it became a cinema before its triumphant refurbishment) and was a gem of a location for the traditional treat.

Many of the larger pantos had star names involved (I don’t remember any at ours but it didn’t matter), mainly TV comedians. Having grown too old to go to pantos in my teens, I had one of the nicest afternoons of my life when my friend Chris inveigled us into going to interview John Inman for our hospital radio show (and local radio) between shows (Chris had the ideas and the drive but didn’t like to be ‘on air’ so we made a good team). To be honest, we had no idea what we were doing, but Mr Inman couldn’t have been kinder or more patient. He graciously gave us full tea and his full attention and was wonderful. My abiding memory of the afternoon is the fact that he had the most spectacular legs (still in dancer’s tights from the performance). I’ve never been able to measure up to them.

In the 1980s, panto popularity began to wane, but there was a brief return in the form of ‘adult’ versions such as Jim Davison’s Sinderella. One Christmas, we put on something called Red Hot Cinders, which was mildly naughty in a Carry On kind of way. I got to play Prince Charming as I had over the knee boots and could do the thigh slap! I still bear the scars…

Now pantos are back and are big business. Top names pack the ranks and they’re a great moneyspinner for children’s TV presenters, soap stars and Big Brother winners. But something strange has happened lately. Even Hollywood names are being lured to camp it up a bit. I don’t think anyone was surprised by the relish with which Ian McKellen took on Widow Twanky, but it’s the Americans who haven’t been brought up with the tradition who seem to be coming with such enthusiasm.

Which is why I’m looking forward to this panto season with such excitement. On Saturday, I shall be happily taking my seat at the Churchill in Bromley to watch Paul Michael Glaser playing Captain Hook. Now, back in those far-off days when I was too grand to go to pantos and loved PMG with all my teenaged heart, I would never have believed it if you’d told me I’d ever be in the same room as him (there’s a party too, but I promise not to stalk him) in Bromley of all places. It’s a wonderful universe sometimes…

And do you think I’ll tell you how it was? Oh yes, I will!