OH YES IT IS!
The biggest panto on Earth
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