In June 2013 I was sitting in my car, the sun was shining and I’d found the only spot in a 5 mile radius with phone signal. I was over looking Harlyn Beach in Cornwall and that night I’d be performing at Harlyn Sands. The phone rang and my heart leapt into my mouth. The name on the screen was Martin Dodd and underneath it said ‘UK Productions’.
I’d had this contact saved into my phone from earlier that year when I’d initially contacted them in the hopes of being in a pantomime. Unfortunately at the time I’d been unsuccessful.
I’d initially spoken to Martin after being recommended to him by a friend and at his request sent some videos of my act. He said he loved my work but was fully cast for that year as panto usually casts around February and is mostly already booked with people returning from the previous year. He had nowhere he could fit me in. I thanked him for taking the time to watch my videos and he said he’d keep me in mind for next year. Despite us getting on well and his praise of my act, I’d heard this plenty of times before and didn’t hold any hope of ever hearing from him again.
Four months later, his name appeared on my screen.
I sat upright, took a deep breathe and calmly answered the phone saying ‘you know most people just reject me once, they don’t wait until I’m over it and call back to do it again’. We both laughed.
He told me that some things had moved around a little and that a guy who was playing PC Pong (comedic policeman in Aladdin) was now going to play the title role and that if I still wanted to do a panto, today was my lucky day. Suddenly, I felt the sun shine a little brighter.
I accepted the gig and although it wasn’t the part I was initially looking for I had my foot in the door. I’d first been put forward for the role of ‘principal comic’, this is the character in any panto who talks directly to the audience most frequently, warming them up and handling most of the heavy lifting when it comes to comedy. (Along with the dame)
I wasn’t worried though, I was in and that’s all that mattered. My chance to play the lead comedy role would come two years later in Mansfield as Wishee Washee in Aladdin.
Martin told me the budget wasn’t great for that role but I didn’t care. I was so excited at the time, I’d have agreed to do it for free!
I remembered an old contractual agreement that happen often in vaudeville. Variety show acts would sometimes take a lower fee in favour of a higher billing. This would bump up their profile elsewhere. If a 5th on the bill act could trade some of his fee for a higher billing, he might start getting 3rd on the bill money elsewhere.
I asked Martin if I could be on the poster and he said yes. I knew that when it came to booking other pantomimes in the future, this would be important. It’s much easier to gain credibility when you have poster proof of what you’ve done. As DelBoy Trotter was fond of saying, ‘what can’t speak can’t lie’.
So there I was, Johnny Nobody on the poster for a pantomime. What the hell was I thinking!? I couldn’t sing, my dancing was average and I had no idea whether or not I could act. I’d been asked to devise some tricks for the show and knew that if all else failed I’d have that to fall back on.
I’d also been asked to come up with a ‘magic off’ section between me and the evil character ‘Abanazar’. I tried my very best but everything just felt like a conveyor belt of bad magic tricks that nobody would react to. It also meant me having to teach a non magician a handful of tricks which I knew would be time consuming and ultimately pointless.
I came up with a host of ideas but one in particular had me excited. It was a comedy magic routine with the star of the show Colin Baker. I’d never been a fan of Doctor Who myself but I doubt anyone could claim to be unaware what a phenomenal success is it worldwide. To perform some magic alongside one of its stars would be something I was sure I’d remember. He was playing Abanazar and so I did the one thing you’re never told to do and put all my eggs in one basket.
I hoped that my idea with Colin would be good enough to replace the concept of us trying to out-trick each other. Thankfully I was right.
In my experience whenever two ‘magical characters’ are going to be in a scene together, the first thought is always for them to try and out do each other with magic. I can also tell you that it absolutely never works. A great magic trick is about setting up expectation and then breaking it in a way that is both satisfying and unexpected. There is no space for this to occur if you’re trying to do 10 quick things in 2 minutes. When magic tricks are reduced down to their basic mechanical elements they become little more than puzzles. This has the complete opposite effect from the one you were looking for as the character is no longer regarded as magic.
Now, whenever I am faced with this situation I patiently explain my thoughts and hope they trust me. Then I promise to come up with something better and hope I trust myself!
The show was incredible fun and I worked with some truly wonderful people. Martin told me I was lucky to be working with Ian Good who would be playing the dame and directing the show. He said that if anyone could show me the ropes it would be Ian. As things turned out he nearly hung me with them!
It took a long a time for us to ‘get each’ other and the chasm between us was entirely my fault. I’d never been directed before and though I welcome it as an opportunity now, I didn’t understand it then. I didn’t see the bigger picture, only how the decisions affected my own act. Looking back on it now I see that everything Ian did was right and that even if it wasn’t, my place was to respect his decision as director. I think my inability to take notes made him push me even harder which only caused me to rebel even more.
Once the show was up and running I saw how brilliant he was and how much I’d misunderstood the new world I was now in. Pantomime is not a ‘cabaret show’ and the rules are completely different. It also moves at an incredibly fast pace! I learned this and a great many more lessons from Ian. His passion and encyclopaedic knowledge of the format really showed it to me in the best light. I became interested in its history and all of the conventions and tradition that it plays host to within each performance. I began to see it on a whole new level. Much more sublime than silly.
On the last day I went out of my way to find Ian a really personal gift that I knew he would love and wrote a letter to say how thankful I was for the opportunity to work with him.
I think it would be fair to say all was forgiven because I found myself being directed by and working alongside him again the next year. We still argued all the time but now it was for fun. I knew ultimately that he would steer us towards a great show and that’s exactly what he did.
Another great year under my belt and this time working alongside the British acting legend Robert Powell. I’m not sure that playing a mean magical power hungry ego maniac in a panto was quite in the same realm for him as his starring role in Jesus Of Nazareth but he was a good laugh in the pub and very professional.
My third year was the change I’d been looking for and I finally took the step up to principal comic. For the 2015 panto season I would be playing Wishee Washee in Malvern.
I had the opportunity to work alongside a very funny magic act who billed themselves as ‘Two Men Without Assistance’. I’ve always been a great lover of duos, from Morecambe and Wise to Laurel and Hardy. We shared so many laughs over those 7 weeks. This year I took a step back from the magic a little so as not to crowd their space. Thankfully, now with previous panto experience behind me and having worked the two prior years with a great principal comic called Derek Moran (star of Channel 5’s ‘Milkshake’), my confidence was high and I knew I could get by without it. I still incorporated variety skills into the show like fire eating and juggling but I also trusted my ability to act and chat to the audience.
Above you can see me crying about having to kiss my mother (panto dame, David Rumelle) and below I’m messing around with the washing powder boxes. Both of which were among my favourite moments in the show.
Outside of the show I also saw the huge change in responsibility that comes with being principal comic. In many ways you become the ‘face of the show’ and I found myself giving a great many more interviews than I had done in the past. If I wasn’t onstage or rehearsing I was usually babbling on about it in a local radio station or reading to some children at a library in character as Wishee Washee. The people of Mansfield were wonderful and I grew extremely fond of the town. Not least because for the first time, rather than living in rented accommodation by myself, I was living with two actual friends called Chris and Helen.
Helen and I had worked together years earlier during my days in Blackpool and she was now living between Mansfield & Nottingham with her husband Chris. The day I met Chris I knew we’d get on like a house on fire and we duly did for the whole of that Christmas. Between this and playing the lead funny man for the first time, my panto experience was total thrill. I’m thankful to everyone who made it so.
That was to be a big year for me, a few months prior to starting panto I had three offers come in that would significantly change my life again.
The following February, across a grand total of 20 days,
I would fly to Ohio to lecture for live on the internet for magicians all over the world, I would perform and lecture at the world’s largest magic convention and… I would perform at the World Famous Magic Castle in Los Angeles!
When I started to write this entry I had planned to continue into part 7 if needed. I realise now though that I the very first story on the whole of this blog is the end of this entry. So I caught myself up. To see where the story goes from here, check out all of the other entires that I’ve written and keep up with me live. 🙂
Stay well friends.