It’s panto season... Oh, yes it is! Oh, no it isn’t... you get the picture. Neil Hudson looks at the people behind the best pantos past and present.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a good panto to go to. They might be cliched and the gags about as subtle as a flying brick but we just love ‘em.
Year after year we turn out in our thousands to go watch men dress up as women, women dress as men, someone dons a horse outfit and we laugh out loud as countless cream pies end up in people’s faces.
Leeds’s own Billy Pearce, below, the ‘King of Panto’, took time out from rehearsals for this year’s production of Aladdin at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre to speak to us about why he thinks the tradition still appeals to audiences.
Now in his 15th year at the Alhambra, his name is almost synonymous with pantomime, although he still performs regularly as a solo stand-up artist to adult audiences.
He said: “There are a number of reasons why people love panto - firstly, it’s a variety show, it’s not just a play or a film, it has all sorts in it for all kinds of people. This year alone we’ve got gymnasts, magicians, special effects and I even ride an elephant on stage (not a real one, of course).
“There’s a point in this year’s show where I ride the magic carpet around the theatre and it’s that kind of thing which makes panto special. It’s especially wonderful for younger people because it’s magical and it’s happening right in front of their eyes. “With panto every show is different, there’s audience participation and that really means a lot to you as a performer because you kind of feed off it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m nervous before I go out every time, those ten minutes before the curtain goes up are agonising but once I go out and begin to get a few laughs, I kind of relax.”
We take a look back at pantos from the last century to see how they were just as popular then as they are now...
Teddy Turner (1917-1992)
Joseph Edward “Teddy” Turner was a Yorkshire-born English actor and comedian who shot to fame as dustbin man Chalky Whiteley in the top rated ITV soap opera, Coronation Street. In the late 1970s he played the part of Mrs Pumphrey’s manservant Hodgekin in All Creatures Great and Small and subsequently the part of Banks in the popular 1980s sitcom, Never the Twain. But he also trod the boards in Leeds in numerous pantomimes - in our archive picture, he is seen playing King Butterfingers in Jack and the Beanstalk at Leeds City Varieties in December 1986.
He died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 75.
Chris Fox (1945-2012)
Widely regarded as Leeds’s best known pantomime dame, Chris Fox, was born in Cheshire. Adopted as a child, he was first introduced to the world of theatrics by his aunt at The Empire at Aldwick Green, Manchester at the tender age of five. Aged 11, he won a part in the Cartwright Family on BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour and worked with Violet Carson, best known as the granite-faced matriarch of Coronation Street.
He also toured with Bill Maynard in a national production of Annie and others such as Salad Days, Showboat and Anything Goes and was one of the few performers to have appeared alongside the old guard who so often appeared at music halls, such as Leeds City Varieties, among them names like Hylda Baker.
For the last eight years before his death, he worked with the On Stage Theatre Arts Academy, based at The Carriageworks.
Speaking to the YEP in 2010 he said: “No two performances are ever the same. If I see a road to getting another laugh I’ll go down it. I’m a big believer in the power of pantomime to introduce children to what the theatre [and life] has to offer... I don’t think it will ever die - hopefully not before I do anyway; I need the work.”
He added: “Panto is unique to Britain, I think it’s just that we’re slightly off-the-wall, crazy really. Adults enjoy pantomime because kids enjoy it but it’s a thin line because there is adult humour in there. A lot of it’s quite near to home, true to life - you would never get a laugh if there wasn’t an element of truth in what you are saying.”
A master of stagecraft, in his later years he mentored dozens of young actors.
He said: “In theatre-speak, a ‘dry’ is when you forget your lines, you dry up, but a ‘cod dry’ is when you forget your lines deliberately. To the audience, it looks spontaneous because you are genuinely cracking up but you’re not – it’s rehearsed.”
Chris, who was diagnosed with a lung condition before his death, was a founding member of Breath Easy Leeds.
Charlie Cairoli (1910-1980)
Charlie Cairoli was a legend in his own lifetime. A celebrated performer, he was the uncrowned ‘King of Clowns’ and Leeds was his home from home.
Born in Milan in 1910 to a travelling circus family with French origins, his father was a juggler and it’s reckoned the young Charlie was seven when he got his first taste of clowning around.
Over the years he became one of Europe’s top clowns, appeared on TV shows around the world and was a much-loved figure for Leeds audiences of all ages.
His first appearance in the city looks to have been around the late 1930s when he trod the boards at The Grand. It may have been his first time in Leeds but he quickly developed a fondness for the place.
He returned numerous times and appeared at the world-famous City Varieties, at Leeds Empire and even crossed the city boundary into Bradford to entertain at The Alhambra.
Michael Joseph, along with his brother Stanley, owned and operated Leeds City Varieties at the time and both knew Charlie well.
Michael said: “Leeds was always a good stamping ground for Charlie. He had the most successful season with us in Jack and the Beanstalk in 1972, and it was our most successful pantomime.”
It was that year that Charlie brought Christmas shopping to a standstill as he led hundreds of youngsters through the streets of Leeds and herded them to the City Varieties where he promptly gave a special show to 600 invited children.
Indeed, it was in the 1970s that his career really took off in Britain and he became one of the country’s best-known clowns. Charlie was the only clown to have been the subject of This is Your Life.
Special effects on even the most basic pantomimes might be taken for granted these days but back in the 1930s, before most cities had municipal electricity supplies, things were a lot simpler... that was until a Leeds man helped the industry take a huge step forward.
Not exactly a performer, William Whiteside was the electrician for many years at Leeds Grand Theatre but it was while he was working at Bradford Theatre Royal he made history by creating the first electrically lit ballet during a performance of the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor.
The brainchild of theatre manager John Hart, it fell to Mr Whiteside to interpret his idea - special light bulbs were important from Germany, the electricity supply coming from two diesel generators which had to be placed back stage.
It enabled them to create a spectacle never before seen on stage - there was an illuminated ship as a background, ballet girls danced while holding electrically lighted corals and seagulls with blinking eyes floated across the stage.
It caused quite a stir not just in Bradford but across the country, with people coming from far and wide to view the innovative electric display.