The great British pantomime is still packing in the crowds

Kenneth Alan Taylor as the dame in the Nottingham Playhouse's production of Jack and the Beanstalk
Image caption Kenneth Alan Taylor playing the dame in Jack and the Beanstalk

The theatre was in trouble when Kenneth Alan Taylor was appointed artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse 30 years ago - it was £200,000 in the red.

The Playhouse had seized national attention when its controversial, futuristic building opened with a memorable production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus in 1963.

But 20 years later the impetus was slowing and the money was tight.

"I turned it round in a year," says Mr Taylor. "I changed the programming from classical to populist: making theatre that entertained people - musicals, locally written plays. It brought in the crowds... and the revenue."

Among the changes he made was bringing in a pantomime, something he'd previously been doing for some years in Oldham.

The move raised eyebrows among followers of a local theatre with a strong reputation for drama rather than mere entertainment.

But Jack and the Beanstalk broke even. Kenneth Alan Taylor directed the panto, and he also appeared as the pantomime dame.

Now 30 years later, he's still got both roles. But he has vowed that this is the last year he will tread the boards dressed in the dame's clothing.

He's said that before, but this time - at the age of 77 - he says he means it.

Cross dressing

This year's pantomime at the 770-seat Playhouse is once again Jack and the Beanstalk.

And this is the panto season, when families who would never normally go near the theatre realise that Christmas would not be Christmas without a substantial dash of old jokes, actors swapping sexes, and plenty of spectacle, and glitter.

Image caption US actor David Hasselhoff is the big name in panto in Nottingham this season

For hard pressed local theatres, pantomimes remain a substantial part of the working year. For almost two months managements ought to be able to rely on 90% full houses night after night, and a parade of matinees, too.

And audiences are astonishingly loyal - some people come out after the performance and immediately queue up at the box office to book the same seats for the following year, handing over the money there and then.

They object loudly if modernising zeal knocks time-honoured jokes out of the performance. For two hours, they want to immerse themselves in that curious mixture of comedy, cross-dressing, childish repertoire, wild ad libs, mild innuendo... and relentless tradition.

It pulls people off the TV sofa at home and into theatres; and it gives hard-pressed theatre managers the chance to blank out a month or more in their production diary of fairly predictable financial success.

Against the odds, pantomime survives. But there are fears that traditional panto (such as that at the Playhouse) is under attack... undermined by the influence of rival forms of entertainment.

'The Hoff'

As usual in Nottingham, a pantomime battle is raging this Christmas. Just down the road from the Playhouse is the 1,200-seat Theatre Royal, run by Nottingham City Council.

Image caption Pantomime season offers regional theatres an essential economic boost

It has a big American TV star as the main attraction: David Hasselhoff, still remembered from Baywatch and Knight Rider, the man who glories in the nickname "The Hoff". He's playing a swaggering Captain Hook in Peter Pan, a casting decision that had the internet buzzing, and notably boosted advance ticket sales.

He's joined by the bubbly Nottingham-born star, Su Pollard, from another affectionately remembered TV show, Hi-de-Hi!

But despite early fears when the ear-catching identity of Captain Hook was announced, Jack and the Beanstalk ticket sales do not appear to have been dented by the rival show. Both venues are ahead of last year's sales.

Perhaps extra buzz gets more people thinking about a family night out, and both shows benefit.

The Playhouse pantomime is home-grown: Kenneth Alan Taylor writes it and directs it, and steals the show as Dame Daisy. He started in the summer of 2012 ready for a script to be sent to the production designer at the start of 2013... for a show that was still almost a year off at that stage.

Then there's three weeks of rehearsal before opening night at the end of November.

The Playhouse panto costs between £250,000 and £300,000 to put on, according to the theatre's chief executive Stephanie Sirr. And it rakes in a profit of £300,000 to £400,000.

As she says: "Pantomime is financially essential to the theatre."

Big names

Costs are higher for the rival Theatre Royal show Peter Pan, created by a company called Qdos Entertainment, which bills itself as the biggest panto producer in the world, by which it means Britain, of course.

Image caption Preparation for each panto can begin a year and a half in advance

Qdos is a private company founded and run by the theatrical veteran Nick Thomas. This season it is presenting 24 pantomimes across the UK, using tried and tested stars, and drawing on a big store of sets and costumes which can be rotated round the country for years.

The scripts, I'm assured, are newly written, fitted to the stars and the location. The Theatre Royal is run by Nottingham City Council, and Qdos shares the takings with the theatre.

Are TV personalities swamping traditional panto, as the critics maintain? Qdos managing director Michael Harrison says big stars have always been part of panto, dating back to its early days in the late 18th Century.

"We need funny people," he told me in the company's offices in Drury Lane, London. "And a lot of the funny people who work in light entertainment today are famous." Personality counts, when it comes to getting audiences into the theatre.

Just as Nottingham Playhouse was ramping up rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk in November, there was some grim news on the money front.

Nottinghamshire County Council announced it was proposing to axe its annual grant to the theatre, currently worth more than £94,000, some 6% of the theatre's total public funding.

The Playhouse is now lobbying to overturn the decision.

The pantomime will help balance the budget, as it does in so many places. But a lot of Britain's regional theatres could do with even more magic beans.

Peter Day will also be exploring the world of pantomimes on Radio 4's In Business programme. The episode will be first broadcast on Thursday, 19 December at 20:30 GMT, and then repeated on Sunday, 22 December at 21:30 GMT. It will also be available to download from the In Business webpage, and to listen to via the BBC iPlayer.

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