NEILSON’S COLUMN (December 2017): Christmas is a great time for people in show business

Michael Neilson as Dame Dolly Dingbat in Snow White in Kettering. Picture by Alison Bagley
Michael Neilson as Dame Dolly Dingbat in Snow White in Kettering. Picture by Alison Bagley

Christmas is a time when most people get home to see their families, but not in my case.

I spend most of the year with my family and being in panto takes me away. I think I’ve only had one Christmas off in the past 17 years.

I’m not complaining.

Christmas is a great time for people in show business to be employed, as the whole country goes panto crazy. Even the smallest towns will have a panto and that means lots of work, not only for actors, but stage managers, company managers, musicians, choreographers, directors and backstage staff.

This year, I’m in Kettering again playing Dame Dolly Dingbat in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We have all the necessary ingredients; a Principal Girl, a Prince, a Comic, a Villain, a Dame, a panto Horse and dancers. Modern panto has evolved from it’s beginnings in the 19th century and it continues to evolve to this day.

Until quite recently, the Principal Boy, would have been played by a girl, but today, Principal Boy roles such as Peter Pan or Dick Whittington will often be played by male actors. I suppose it is possible that one day, the role of the Dame, may be played by a female actor and possibly, somewhere, it already is.

The length of the run has changed too. I remember starting rehearsals for panto at the Swansea Grand in October 1984 and ending by wishing the audience ‘Happy St. David’s Day’, which falls on March 1! My old friend Roy Barraclough who played Dame many times, told me that when he was a young actor, pantomimes would often run until Easter and the comic would hand out Easter eggs to the kids who got onstage to sing the final song.

The final song is called the ‘Song Sheet’ and allows the audience to participate, which is another main requirement of panto, but in truth, it serves a dual purpose. You see, the final walk down, when the Princess has married the Prince, requires a complete change of set and usually, a staircase to be constructed on stage. The song sheet allows time for all of this to take place behind the curtain.

That’s the magic of theatre...but don’t tell anyone.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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