The big­gest panto on Earth

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - CONTENTS - By Jim White

When it comes to putting on a pan­tomime, Jon Con­way has a sim­ple rule. ‘ Make it as big as you pos­si­bly can,’ he says. And this Christ­mas, the pro­ducer who has worked on more than 500 pan­tos over a ca­reer stretch­ing back some 35 years, is do­ing just that: stag­ing what he breath­lessly de­scribes as the big­gest pan­tomime the world has ever seen.

Fill­ing the floor of the Birm­ing­ham and Wem­b­ley Are­nas, this is a per­for­mance of Peter Pan soso so mus­cu­lar, so ti­tanic, so su­per­sized it re­ally ought to be tested for steroids. It will have a stage three times the size of that at the Lon­don Pal­la­dium, a fullscale pi­rate ship pa­trolling the aisles and a cast of more than 100. It will have trapeze art-art- artists, BMX rid­ers and stunt­men tum­bling sky­scraper heights. And when the 5,000-strong au­di­ence screams out ‘ Be­hind you!’ it will be be­cause a gi­ant, 24ft an­i­ma­tronic croc­o­dile is creep­ing up un­no­ticed on their hero.

‘We want to put twee­ness and naffness be­hind us,’ says Con­way. ‘ What we want to do is rein­vent the form be­cause panto al­ways has rein­vented it­self.’

It is one of the coun­try’s most en­dur­ing sea­sonal sta­ples: head­ing off to your lo­cal theatre to watch girls dressed as boys and blokes dressed as women slap­ping their thighs as they de­liver lines so creak­ingly ven­er­a­ble the script ap­pears to have been ex­ca­vated from the near­est comedy mau­soleum. In­vented by the si­lent clown Joseph Grimaldi, the mod­ern panto has been stalk­ing our re­gional theatres since 1806. And since 1982, ev­ery panto worth its salt has been the work of one man: Jon Con­way.

‘In the Six­ties and Seven­ties television al­most killed off the panto,’ he says, as he sits in his pub­li­cist’s Lon­don of­fice, a lap­top show­ing the plans for his lat­est hi-tech pro­duc­tion open in front of him. ‘It be­came a bit care­worn. There was no in­vest­ment, no imag­i­na­tion in the stag­ing.’

So in stepped Con­way. Born into the cir­cus – his fa­ther was the gen­eral man­ager of the Ber­tram Mills Cir­cus while his mother had an act work­ing with ele­phants and hip­pos – he re­ally should have es­caped his back­ground and run off to be­come a char­tered sur­veyor. In­stead, he be­came an acolyte of Paul Daniels, who men­tored him in an early ca­reer as a stage ma­gi­cian. ‘Paul taught me that if you want longevity as a live act you need to do two things: sur­prise and con­stantly rein­vent.’

And in 1982 he saw a chance to do both. In the year the film came out, he achieved an am­bi­tion he had har­boured since he was a young boy: he put on a panto that he called

The fol­low­ing year he ca­joled his great comic hero Frankie How­erd, then fi­nan­cially on his up­pers, to play in Goldilocks in Slough. Oh, the glam­our.

‘If I’m hon­est with you, he was dread­ful,’ he re­calls of How­erd. ‘But from him I learned an in­valu­able les­son about panto. He told me that a five-year-old knows noth­ing about tra­di­tion, he’s see­ing it for the first time, so don’t think there are rules you have to stick to.’

It was a phi­los­o­phy Con­way took to heart. His next suc­cess was cast­ing the then Page Three girl Linda Lusardi as Snow White. Hav­ing the most fa­mous vir­gin in fairy­tale played – with supreme taste­ful­ness and ab­so­lutely no hint of sleaze – by a top­less model he soon dis­cov­ered was a joke that had real fi­nan­cial mo­men­tum. Dads were sud­denly very keen to take their kids along to that show. Plus, he part­nered her with the finest bunch of small comedy peo­ple he could round up. ‘At the time there was a bit of a PC back­lash against Snow White be­cause it was thought it was be­lit­tling to dwarfs,’ he re­calls. ‘ We got a great group to­gether and they were thrilled to get the work. The poor lit­tle bug­gers had been miss­ing out on a good pay­day.’ And from there, with his Snow White play­ing some­where in the coun­try for the next decade, his panto em­pire bloomed. ‘I’ve writ­ten, di­rected and played in pan­tos on five con­ti­nents,’ he in­sists. ‘I did a panto in Man­darin, tour­ing China. The lead was Marie Os­mond’s son – I used to man­age The Os­monds – and he’d done his Mor­mon mis­sion in Tai­wan. He speaks flu­ent Man­darin. So you have a guy who looks and sings like Donny Os­mond but speaks Chi­nese. Come on, tell me you wouldn’t want to see that.’ Yet his suc­cess abroad might seem odd, given that panto has long been re­garded as a Bri­tish tra­di­tion, its nu­ances fail­ing to work the mo­ment it crosses the sea. ‘Ac­tu­ally, we found the op­po­site: a fart gag is funny whether it’s in Man­darin or in Manch­ester.’ As Con­way’s port­fo­lio de­vel­oped, he tried all sorts of dif­fer­ent ideas, though he does not take any credit for their in­ven­tion. ‘There is noth­ing new in panto. Daniel Mendoza was Bri­tish boxing cham­pion when he played in panto in Drury Lane in the 1800s. Yet when we put Frank Bruno in, peo­ple said that’s not tra­di­tional,’ he says be­fore paus­ing and slap­ping his thigh. ‘Oh yes it is.’ As au­di­ence tastes and ex­pe­ri­ences have changed, so has the Con­way pan­tomime. ‘Hav­ing a

‘When we put Frank Bruno in, peo­ple said that’s not tra­di­tional ... oh yes it is!’

woman play the male lead, that was a tra­di­tion in­tro­duced in Vic­to­rian times purely for sex. Sex sells. Putting her in shorts al­lowed a woman to show a lot of leg. But Anna Friel ru­ined that. As soon as she did that les­bian kiss on telly, the mo­ment they saw a girl dressed as a boy kiss­ing a girl dressed as a girl in panto, au­di­ences started shout­ing “Ooh, Brook­side”.’ And, he sug­gests, our at­ti­tude to dames has changed too. ‘A man play­ing a woman has been funny since the dawn of time. Be­cause when a real woman gets a kick up the bum it isn’t funny, but when a man does it’s fair enough. The prob­lem is older ladies have changed. My grandma looked like Les Daw­son but my son’s grandma looks like Joan Collins.’ But even if the pe­riph­er­als al­ter and adapt, the heart of a suc­cess­ful panto re­mains as it was. ‘The best shows are al­ways the fun­ni­est,’ he says. Which is why laughs will be in abun­dance dur­ing the big­gest panto on Earth this Christ­mas. Amid the wa­ter foun­tains, the ac­ro­bat­ics, the CGI se­quences play­ing out on mas­sive screens, the gags will flow. Es­pe­cially from the mouth of Mr Smee, played by long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor Bradley Walsh. ‘Bradley is as funny as it gets,’ he says. ‘ ‘As As good as any­one I have seen in my time.’ And that, he says, is ul­ti­mately the point. This may be a huge arena set­ting, its £2 mil­lion bud­get might dwarf the av­er­age re­gional panto out­lay, but the plea­sure will still come from the in­ti­macy of the know­ing chuckle. ‘I’m not say­ing I’m do­ing any­thing fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent here,’ he adds. ‘I’m do­ing what they have al­ways done, just putting a mod­ern spin on it. And what pan­tos have al­ways done above all is make you laugh.’ ‘Peter Pan – An Arena Spec­tac­u­lar’ is at Arena Birm­ing­ham Dec 20-24, and SSE Arena Wem­b­ley Dec 29-30, worlds­biggest­panto.com

Main pic­ture: the huge pi­rate ship. Above: an an­i­ma­tronic croc­o­dile. Left: Martin Kemp as Cap­tain Hook

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