This season I have been very lucky to see 3 pantomimes but that is a very small number compared to Daniel Dawson who has clocked up over 30 pantomimes this Christmas for his pantomime blog www.pantoinsider.com. I caught up with Daniel last weekend at the Hawth in Crawley before his visit to Jack and the Beanstalk to ask him about his rather unusual hobby, his blog and his pantomime awards.
What is the appeal of pantomimes for you?
I am very lucky, I have made a awful lot of friends in the pantomime business over the years so it is not just a case of going to see a great show, but also catching up with friends after the performance.
Everyone knows each other in the pantomime business, even if they are employed by different production companies. Pantomime is like a big family and very friendly. Many of the actors work with each other throughout the year as well, for example, Steve McFaddon starring here at the Hawth tonight works with fellow EastEnder Scott Maslen who is only down the road at The Churchill Theatre Bromley, where I saw Aladdin this afternoon.
How did you find Aladdin in Bromley?
It’s funny, you don’t know in advance which pantomimes are going to be good and sometimes you get really nice surprises, today was one of those days. I thought it was brilliant, Mark James as Wishee Washee was fabulous, he is really good and really should be selling bigger venues if I were to be honest. Scott Maslen just nailed it playing the evil Abanazer as a comedy crook. The slave of the ring (Jess Robinson) was also very good.
It was the best panto in Bromley I have seen and to be honest I have seen a few. I even saw Steve Guttenberg playing Baron Hardup there in 2008, I love Steve Guttenberg but I admit, he won my ‘Fish out of Water’ award. I created that award just for him.
So how long have you been doing this and how did it start?
To this extent only about three or four years, I used to go to a few, about 8 or 10 a year and then got friendly with Nigel Ellacott, the man behind www.its-behind-you.com who invited me to write a blog for the website which I agreed to do. His site is more factual, it is more about the history of pantomime and lists who’s on where and performing what. I use the site as my bible as I plan where I want to go.
As I started posting on social media, everything just snowballed and then I was asked to go to more and more pantomimes. People started asking my opinion on what I saw, so I began to feel that if I was going to voice my opinion then I had to cover more than just a few shows. I began to see more and more because I felt that to make an informed judgement I had to see at least 20-30 pantomimes in a season.
As time has gone on I have become friendly with more and more people and tonight is one of the few shows this year that I don’t know anyone performing, however I do know Ian Smith the director quite well.
Word is also getting around about me, this year the BBC contacted me which was great, I did 17 radio interviews in the space of two hours whilst I was full of cold. Off the back of that my website has had more hits than ever and even more people have contacted me.
Jumping from 10 pantomimes to nearer 30 How to you fit them all in? Do you have a month off work?
I continue working. If I can, I take the entire week off between Christmas and New Year. I am based in Wellingborough which is fairly central, and after work I go anywhere that I can reach within an hour, so I can easily visit Northampton, Milton Keynes and so forth. Disappointingly for me, Dunstable and Kettering had only 5pm performances so I couldn’t get to them this year.
Certain shows start in November and others finish at the end of January so I have to plan it accordingly. I don’t see Bradford which I love until the final weekend, only Bradford and Birmingham finish that late so I see them last because I know I cannot see anything after that. I do try and plan it so my season is as long as possible.
I also look at the finish times and work out if I can get to another pantomime the same day like today. Sometimes you have to risk it.
But I cannot get everywhere and I still upset people because I am unable to get there. It is quite simple, the majority of pantos run for a 2-3 week period and I cannot get to them all in that time. Secondly it costs a fortune. On occassion I kindly get given complimentary tickets but even then I still fund transport, hotels etc. Therefore it is no surprise that if I do get a bit of help with tickets it encourages me to visit their shows.
There are other factors too, I will always think twice if a show is exactly the same as the previous year, with much of the same cast but in a different location, for example the show in High Wycombe is the same as the show I saw last year in Dartford so this year there was no need to see it again.
Now I am getting established and I have many friends in the industry another important thing is whether I can get to see them after the show to catch up.
You must have a favourite Pantomime and ones that you don’t care for.
To be honest I plan my visits based on who is in it and where it is on rather than the title.
If you’d have asked me last year and I’d have said that I hated Peter Pan because it is just not a pantomime, but I have seen two Peter Pans this year, one in Stoke and one in Wimbledon that are both amazing. Both totally re-written and both were totally different and amazing.
First I went to Stoke and saw a brand new version of Peter Pan written by Christian Patterson who also plays Captain Hook. Christian really looked at making Peter Pan a pantomime rather than a children’s show and it worked. He also plays Hook better than anyone I have ever seen, he and Johnny Wilkes who plays Smee are brilliant.
My biggest upset is that I won’t get to see it twice. Because it was THAT good. It was so good that I didn’t want to go to Wimbledon because I didn’t think it would get close to how brilliant it was but as I watched Wimbledon’s performance I honestly couldn’t decide which one was better.
Marcus Brigstocke who plays Hook at Wimbledon was sensational. Adaptor Eric Potts wrote fantastic material keeping in mind his three stars Marcus Brigstocke, Verne Troyer and Jarred Christmas. It really worked.
Both productions were very different but brilliant. They turned what is usually a pretty dour pantomime into something really exciting. I still can’t work out in my mind which is the better of the two. Wimbledon runs for another week so if you can get there do, I really recommend it.
Your site is pantoinsider. What is the panto gossip this year?
Every one wants to know what everyone is doing next year. Some people know and some people don’t.
I have certain friends who will tell me what they know but a lot of them don’t know. Damian Williams in Sheffield has already announced that he has signed up for another three years, but you don’t always know. You will also hear that people are doing one pantomime and then they end up swopping titles nearer the time.
The big panto buzz this year is who are going to play the Ugly Sisters in Newcastle next year. Newcastle is Qdos’ biggest panto, everything debuts up there and parts of the production go to Birmingham the following year. Newcastle always does things a bit differently, so the question is…is it going to be a traditional set of sisters or something a bit ‘out there’.
I was talking to Qdos’ number one Sister’s Duo in Southend David Robbins and Martin Ramsdin and I asked them if they knew anything – they had no idea. They said sometimes they get a phone call in January other times it’s June. They know they’ll do somewhere, they just don’t know where. That’s how it works.
You have your own panto awards as well, the titles are ingenious. They are especially geared towards pantomimes therefore very different to other theatre awards. How do you put your shortlist together?
It is incredibly difficult but there are criteria that I try and use.
If there is a big cast with big names and someone really stands out above all others, that really must count for something so Matt Slack won in Birmingham last year, because he was not only brilliant but he shone in a cast that also featured Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmott, Chris Gascoyne, Duncan James and Jane MacDonald, it was a huge cast yet he stood out.
Also if you took that person out of the show, what would be left? Would it still be a good show? That has been Chris Haywood’s problem in Newcastle this year for best dame. He is a fantastic dame, one of the best dames in the business, but if you took him out you would still have a great show and that counts against him, whereas Damian Williams in Sheffield is the lynch pin that drives that panto forward. He has won best dame for three years in a row for that reason, but this year he has got very very tough competition.
Do you have a favourite production company?
Last year the best shows were all Evolution, this year it is more even, so you cannot predict. They all offer something different, Today’s show (UK Productions Ltd) was fantastic, Qdos has amazing special effects, that sets them apart from the others, this year they have had a man-eating shark, upside down flying carpets, they deliver an amazing wow factor to the shows. Special Effects are where Qdos are head and shoulders above everyone else at the moment.
FFE (First Family Entertainment) tend to have the bigger names, which is where they excel, and what I like about Evolution is their consistency and that they have a great standard, the other companies there are some shows that are better than others. Evolution tend to be really good across the whole board, you know what you are going to get. You might not know everyone in the cast but you know you are going to get a good show. I expect tonight’s show will be very very good.
We have had Stephen Mulhern at the Hawth for the past two years and this year he is just up the road in Croydon.
Mulhern is probably Evolution’s biggest name and I think he is brilliant. Last year, Mulhern with Hilary O’Neil and my mates Ian (Smith) and Michael (Batchelor) were all here in Crawley last year and they were very blessed to have such a strong cast. Michael and Ian are genius’, their best roles are as the ugly sisters and they are brilliant onstage and one of the best ugly sister pairings in the country. I went to see them in ‘Aladdin Rocks’ at Butlins recently and that again is a great show, but you could tell who the professional actors were in the cast as they stood out a mile.
So the novelty isn’t wearing off. What happens if you are really disappointed in a show?
I get to see a decent one pretty quick,
I guess I am getting a bit more critical now, and I have my own ideas how things could be improved. I was disappointed in Birmingham on New Year’s Eve, it was a fantastic show but I thought that they could have done a lot more. They had Marti Pellow from Wet Wet Wet in it but they didn’t play on that at all, they didn’t play any of his songs or cash in of the name Wet Wet Wet which I’d have thought would be an obvious gag. No singalong too, and considering it was New Years Eve they didn’t even sing Auld Lang Syne – it was all a bit flat. I had seen Wimbledon the night before and think that made it even flatter because Wimbledon had been so brilliant leaving me buzzing.
How do you write it all up, if you are on the go the whole time?
I try and find time to write my blog every night but sometimes it is impossible and I had five to catch up on the other day.
I have notes and a sheet I fill in to remind me of the key points but when you have 5 or 6 to do it feels too much. If I manage every day I only have 1 or 2 to fill in. It is a good job that after you get back to the hotel you are still full of life after a good show.
Pantomime may not be for everyone but I found Daniel genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about the shows that he has seen and the friends he has made. Take a look at his website www.pantoinsider.com to find out about his travels over the last month, more about him and do check out the Pantoinsider awards! I wonder if any of the South East Theatres will feature this year.