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24 September 2014

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You are in: Beds Herts and Bucks > Entertainment > Theatre and Art > Panto-time > Sisters are doing it for themselves!

Peter Robbins and Nigel Ellacott

Peter Robbins and Nigel Ellacott

Sisters are doing it for themselves!

Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins have been Ugly Sisters together for over 25 years and this year can be seen at the Wycombe Swan. They told us all about the roles and their lives as uglies!


Swan Theatre, High Wycombe

7 December 2007 - 6 January 2008

Starring Brian Conley, Nigel Ellacott, Peter Robbins, Dawson Chance and Michelle Potter

For Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins, panto is not just for Christmas! The duo have been starring as Cinderella's Ugly Sisters since their first panto together in Ilford in 1981 and for them, the job is not just a December thing!

As probably the UK's leading "uglies", they come as a pair and bring all their costumes with them, designed by Nigel. The job starts in the early spring when they get together and decide what costumes aren't needed and what is going to be re-made, what's topical and what's funny. Then there's the panto press launch as early as September, rehearsals in late November and then marathon season runs over Christmas and New Year with performances well into January.

Amongst all this they find time to run It's Behind - a Website dedicated to the magic of pantomime and also run their special roadshows, where they tour schools with an educational programme introducing children to the magic of live theatre and especially pantomime.

So who better to ask about the role of the dame and where the character comes from? Panto is their passion, as I found out when I went to meet them!

Where do pantomime dames come from - because there's a long tradition of men playing women's parts isn't there?

Peter: You're going back to Shakespearean times when women weren't allowed on the stage, it was considered vulgar and so the young boys of the company played the women's parts, but pantomime is different. The pantomime dame doesn't come from actors having to play women's parts.

Peter Robbins and Nigel Ellacott

Peter Robbins and Nigel Ellacott

Nigel: There is one theory that, in the later medieval mystery plays, some of the old crone characters started to be played by men so in a funny sort of way I would argue that possibly the dame did come from gentlemen playing the old crones. If you think about it, in those olden days, there weren't many actual old crones on the stage! Think of the illustration of Mother Goose, whenever we see her illustrated, she is actually an old crone with a sort of witches hat on, very different to our pantomime dame.

Peter: Pantomime dames as we know them really come from the Victorian times. In those times, ladies weren't allowed to show their legs and things like that and it would be considered vulgar for them to fall over and show their knickers. So, the chief comic thought it would be funny to do a parody of this. They had had the clown in pantomime for years and years and so the clown sort of developed into the pantomime dame - it's almost the same sort of make-up really when you think about it. So the pantomime dame evolved in the Victorian era when he could fall over and show his bloomers and of course he'd get a huge laugh because men weren't used to seeing ladies undergarments.

Nigel: What's interesting too is that we always credit Augustus Harris at Drury Lane as the father of pantomime as we know it and he's also the man who introduced the celebrity element into it because before him we didn't have the idea of bringing in a top of the bill. But what I've been fascinated with is that I always thought these comics became dames in pantomimes because somebody must have said to them 'oh wouldn't it be funny if you wore a ladies dress', but actually all these comics in music hall did sketches in their acts where they dressed up as ladies, it was part of British comedy and that in itself went into the pantomime element. You'll find photographs or illustrations of nearly all of them playing ladies before they went into panto.

Who has been a great dame?

Peter: think one of my favourites was Arthur Askey. He was a bloke in a frock which to me is what a pantomime dame is and he was also somebody's mother. Nowadays you'll get a lot of dames that are very very young and you look at them and think well you can't really be somebody's mother. Of course Arthur also had fabulous timing and comic skills, he was brilliant. A lot of the time today they'll put someone in a dress and say 'right, go out there and be funny' and it isn't. Without that experience, without that maturity, it just doesn't work.

Nigel: For me it has to be Norman Evans in the 1930s and 1940s. He really was the person who influenced Les Dawson. If you think of Les Dawson's dame with all the gurning and the taking the teeth out, he was playing a tribute to Norman Evans who had a music hall sketch called Over the Garden Wall where his character was the gossipy over the garden wall northern lady with her hair in curlers. The epitomy of the pantomime dame to me is Norman Evans.

Nigel Ellacott

Nigel Ellacott

So, it's a lot more than putting a dress on and trying to be funny? There are many different characters aren't there?

Peter: Yes - and the Ugly sisters which we play are completely different. We're fulfilling two roles, not only are we the pantomime dames, we're also the  villains so we have to play a very fine line between the villainy and the comedy. But the traditional pantomime dame is usually somebody's mother and is usually cuddly, warm and very silly, and they usually get things terribly wrong and great catastrophes happen.

How long have you been playing Ugly Sisters?

Peter: Many, many years dear! We get confused - it's either 26 or 28 years!

Nigel: I get confused but it's somewhere between 25 and death!

Have you always been the sisters or have you played other dames separately?

Peter: When I first started I actually broke my own rule and I played a pantomime dame which was a disaster - I was far too young. It was a very silly thing to do and I apologise deeply to anyone who saw it!

How did you first start together?

Nigel: We made a conscious and deliberate decision to become Ugly sisters. It wasn't an accident. We sat down and thought 'we're not going to get any work in panto. We're not names, we're not on telly, we don't sing and we don't dance so what are we going to do in pantomime'? So we decided to do something that nobody else wants to do and nobody wants to do the ugly sisters. If you're a famous person with a famous face the public don't want to pay to see your face completely disguised. Stars won't play Ugly Sisters unless they are characters like Kim and Aggie who are doing it this year. So we chose something that really nobody else wanted to do. Nobody wanted to put all that stuff on their face and change their costume 12 times, so we found ourselves a niche and I'm so pleased we did because if we hadn't what WOULD we be doing in pantomime?!
Peter: We'd seen Ugly Sisters in the past, some great ones like Bartlett and Ross, and they had their own wardrobe so we thought what we'd do is invest. So,  for five or six years we invested all the money into the act so everything that we have is ours. We couldn't understand the thought that you go along to a  production and they give you the costumes because how would you know that they work, how would you know that a certain costume is going to get a laugh?

Nigel: We get together usually about March and decide what we're going to ditch and what are we going to have re-made, and what's topical and what's funny. I just wish I had an Amy Winehouse costume!

Peter: Panto isn't just for Christmas - it goes on all year round with us.

So, the Ugly Sisters are the villains and the comics?

Nigel: Yes - and there's a bit in the audience where we have to be real.

Peter: Yes - when it comes to the ticket tearing scene in Cinderella, we always say no effects, no bangs or whistles, that sort of thing, and it becomes real. Cinderella has won the lottery, she's got this golden ticket and suddenly the villains take that away from her - they make her tear it up and make her cry.

Nigel: We have to do it for real because, when all's said and done it's all jolly, with the men playing women, but it's the story that's the most important thing in pantomime. The children are with the story and they want to see her go to the ball and we stop her. We become the most hated people. It's a wonderful moment - it's my favourite moment in panto.     
Peter: And if we do it right, you can hear a pin drop. It's how we like to spend Christmas - making children loathe us! But we're also so silly, we always insult each other.

So, that's a good lesson - the silly ones get their come-uppance?

Peter: Yes - the bullies get their come-uppance in the end - they don't get to marry the Prince. They get ostracised and sent away.

The Ugly Sisters

Peter and Nigel as The Ugly Sisters

After making the decision to be Ugly Sisters, did it work for you straight away?

Peter: No, not at all!

Nigel: I actually remember, that if we had 12 costume changes, by the eleventh costume change I'd used up all my costumes and I remember standing in the wings thinking 'how is this possible'? I have nothing else to wear - I've worn it all! But I think we did bounce off each other immediately!

Peter: Yes we did - that came naturally. But when we were working with Rula Lenska she came back and said to me one day, why are you putting all that rubbish on your face, you look dirty? Why don't you just simplify it? 

Nigel: So, our make-up that we wear today is actually the product of a countess and a baroness because I think Rula is a Countess and she taught us to clean up our make-up and my eye make-up was created for me by a baroness who was a Fairy in pantomime!

Peter: Then over the years we developed our own characters that we have. The sisters are these incredible characters that take over our lives! Help me - I'm in here - help me!  

What sort of qualities make a good dame?

Peter: They've got to be loveable, they've got to be cuddly, they've got to be something where you have to think what a silly old woman - it's that sort of quality.

Nigel: But also they have to take umbridge because every pantomime dame thinks that she's wonderful, but she will be insulted by Abanazer, she will be affronted by one of the characters, and outraged. That is what she does in life, she spends her entire life being a female Victor Meldrew. She has no money.

Widow Twankey would sell her own son to get a couple of coins for her laundry but on the other hand she's got a heart of gold! She's an amazing character and she is British - she does not exist anywhere else in the world! Only the British find it really funny to see a gentleman dressed up as a lady.

There's a lot of double entendre when a man is dressed as a woman and you have to walk a fine line for both adults and children. It's like Carry On isn't it?

Peter: Absolutely, Carry On is pantomime. If you were ever going to have an equivalent cinematically of what pantomime is, it's Carry On. 

Nigel: It's witty, it's funny, it's not smutty. British pantomime owes an awful lot to the seaside postcard - the image of the pantomime dame is very  Donald McGill.

Peter: Yes - a well upholstered lady!

Nigel: A comfortable woman with her stays and her corsets! Pantomime should be littered with stays corsets and trusses! That's our British humour!

Do you foresee a time when you won't do it anymore?

Nigel: I think personally from my point of view it's when I really can't do the shoes up anymore, because I've noticed that I now sit down to do the shoes up! I don't really want to be staggering around the stage in my dotage dressed up as a cooker! I have to say it's a very physically demanding role because we change costumes 12 times in a show very quickly, the shoes are killers and that's something I'm going to take on board as I get a little bit older - the shoes are going to get lower! Then we'll not play theatres with a rake to the stage, and then it will be - 'do you have a nice bit of carpet?' It really will be a physical thing that will stop us doing it.

Peter: I think the time when we stop is when we can't make the staircase in the ballroom for the entrance and we have to come on in the flat - that will be  the ultimate. When you can't do the stairs, then give up! And also, with pantomime you have to have 100 per cent energy whether it's 10 or 10 million people out there. If you don't give it the energy - it ain't panto! We're very lucky in this production because it starts from the top and Brian [Conley] is an absolute master at that -  even if we had only two people in the audience, he will still give it everything.

Nigel: He's an absolute dynamo and that leads the rest of the company.

Panto is traditional but what about the topical stuff?

Peter: Yes - we bring in all sorts of things such as 'I'm a Celebrity' and other topical references. But the most important part of the show is the story - we don't sacrifice the story for the sake of a cheap laugh.

Nigel: But there will always be catch phrases - references to programmes like Little Britain and Catherine Tate. 

Peter: And we have lasers, lights and real ponies!

Nigel: Yes, real ponies - you can bring in as many special effects as you like but you put six Shetland ponies on that stage - or even two in economy times - and then you will see magic. There maybe people concerned about animal rights but no one is more concerned with the welfare of those ponies as us - we've been with some of those ponies for 18 years. They are so well looked after and the children adore that moment!

last updated: 30/12/2007 at 17:20
created: 30/12/2007

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