With panto season upon us again, Nick Ahad speaks to local legend Billy Pearce who is back at the Bradford Alhambra for his 17th pantomime.
In a national newspaper recently Nick Thomas, the pantomime svengali responsible for shows across the land, quoted Billy Pearce.
Of course he did.
Nick Thomas, the man who has produced literally hundreds of pantomimes over the years, in the process turning his Scarborough based operation into a multi-million pound business, reached for the words of Pearce when he was searching for a mot juste.
The borrowed quote was ‘they keep having me back because I’m cheap’.
Okay, it’s not Wildean, but it’s not so much the content of what was said, as the fact that Thomas could have quoted Joan Collins. Or David Hasselhoff. Or Christopher Biggins. Or any other famous name from an incredible rolodex of stars who have appeared in his pantomimes, but it was to Pearce he reached while speaking about the art form.
The reason is that Billy – it seems strange to call him Pearce – is pantomime.
Appearing this year in his seventeenth Bradford Alhambra pantomime, this king of the form has not perhaps the acting chops of Berwick Kaler, the legendary dame of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime, nor does he have quite the status of someone who might opt to live in a celebrity-packed jungle, but what he does appear to have is the spirit of pantomime running through his blood.
Pearce has a unique skill, the secret of which he has openly shared with me on several occasions. “The kids think I’m one of them, but the adults know that there’s a nod a wink in the performances that can keep them interested and entertained,” he says. That’s the secret: the kids in the audience really do believe he is one of them and the adults are entertained – he’s basically the embodiment of a Pixar movie.
It is a unique talent – and it seems to be the kind of talent that simply can’t be taught. It can, however, be honed. It’s Billy’s background, working the working men’s clubs, that makes his stage presence so powerful. When he strides on to the stage of the Alhambra, he holds the almost 1400-seater auditorium in the palm of his hand.
Even when he’s off stage, he’s never really off. “I started at the bottom and I like it here,” says Billy. Even when he’s off stage, he’s never really ‘off’. “I don’t think the folk at the Alhambra can think of anybody else to get to do it.”
Back for number 17, it’s easy to wonder if the run will ever come to an end. It feels unkind to the children who love him to reveal Billy’s age, but pretty soon he won’t have to pay any bus fare. You get the feeling he will have to be dragged from the stage kicking and screaming.
This year, in Jack and the Beanstalk, he will be shouting the familiar refrain of ‘hiya kids’ in the costume of Jack. He will be joined on stage by John Challis, a classically trained actor best known as Boycie from Only Fools and Horses, Lisa Riley and Jake Canuso.
Billy is serious for just a brief moment when we talk about his co-stars.
“Pantomime is a great leveller. It’s very unlikely, given the kind of world I come from that I’d ever meet someone like John. It’s a different world where I come from; I was born in working men’s clubs, and I’m out there on my own doing my stand up, so without panto it’s very unlikely I’d ever work with someone like John.”
For the record, Challis was just as excited about working with Pearce.
Jack and the Beanstalk, Bradford Alhambra, until January 24. Other pantos around the region: Wakefield Theatre Royal, Dick Whittington, to January 3. Harrogate Theatre, Aladdin, to January 17. York Theatre Royal, Dick Whittington and his Meerkat, to January 24. Sheffield Lyceum, Aladdin, to January 3. The Victoria Theatre, Halifax, to January 3. Leeds City Varities, The Rock n Roll Panto, to January 10. Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, Aladdin to January 4.