"Panto is easy to do, but so hard to do well"
Widely recognised as the face of CBeebies, Chris Jarvis has been entertaining audiences on stage and screen for over twenty years.
Touring extensively with fellow Show Me Show Me presenter Pui Fan Lee, the two have visited almost every town in the UK, delighting their fans with an array of characters and bringing the joy of live theatre to young audience members and families alike.
Since 1995, Jarvis has spent every Christmas in pantomime and is now one of the most sought-after and experienced pantomime Comics in the country. 2013 will mark Jarvis's fifth consecutive year at the Bournemouth Pavilion and his second Aladdin at the venue.
"We've started from scratch with the tale," he tells me, "It's going to be a very Bournemouth pantomime." As his home town, Jarvis knows the local audience well and is passionate about creating a new and exciting production especially for them. This year, he's playing the role of Wishee Washee and as well as having written the script, or "edited" a new version as he prefers to call it. He will also direct the production, with a cast including a mixture of seasoned panto pros and new faces.
"I really wanted Bobby Crush and I got him," Jarvis reveals, having wanted to work with Crush for over a decade since seeing his Dame at the Poole Lighthouse. This year's top of the bill is EastEnders' Scott Maslen. "Scott's a joy to work with," Jarvis tells me. "It's his first panto and he really understands the fact you can have fun, but it's rehearsed fun."
Having appeared in over twenty pantomimes throughout his career, Jarvis is one of a handful of practitioners who, passionate about the artform, relish the opportunity to return to it year after year to keep learning and drive the genre forward. For Jarvis, "It's all about the detail. Panto is easy to do, but so hard to do well and you need absolute focus. It's all about time invested."
Jarvis has been working on Aladdin for the past twelve months making sure that every little detail will be perfect. "This year we tell the story very well," he says. "We've got the humour, we've got great singers, we've got lovely sets and we've got massive specially built pieces of scenery for slosh scenes."
"We're doing the usual through-the-mangle-out-of-the-washing-machine-shrinking joke, but in the second half we're doing a massive brand new slosh," he reveals before thanking his producers UK Productions for investing in the new set. "I don't think it's cheap!," he chuckles.
For many traditionalists, the slosh scene is a fundamental aspect of 'traditional pantomime', but as Jarvis reminds us, "Everybody has their own idea and interpretation of what a pantomime should be, but none of them are right or wrong. It's a pantomime, a one-off creation. Each one is different."
Over the years, Jarvis has worked with many pantomime greats, citing Matthew Kelly and Bernard Cribbins as people from whom he learnt a lot. "I've also worked with a whole host of other people who aren't necessarily famous, but know exactly what they're talking about," he says.
"People like Andy Ryan and Nigel Ellacott; these are the people that know all about it. They fuel people's attitudes for pantomime through everything they do, from performing, to the web site its-behind-you.com, their schools tours and talking in the press. These are the people that through their passion, keep everybody interested in pantomime and keep it alive."
Jarvis recalls with great fondness the seasons he spent in pantomime with Su Pollard, Vikki Michelle, Michael Knowles and Nicholas Smith. "I've been so lucky over the years to work with these people because they talk to me and they tell me all about that process of being in a very successful sitcom, particularly the discipline and the theories. Like pantomime, they appear very simple, but the reason why they were successful in their simplicity was because of the detail, the polish and the care that went into them."
Jarvis is worried that pantomime is currently suffering from a lack of performers from similar backgrounds to those who appeared in David Croft and Jimmy Perry sitcoms. "I'm worried we don't have enough family rep company sitcoms to keep that flow of talent coming in," he tells me. "People don't just come in with comedy genes, they come in with the right work ethic and the right knowledge because they understand how important the script is and how important the timing is. They also come in with their fame, and it's important that audiences get to see people they absolutely adore."
It is often remarked that television is one of theatre's biggest rivals; however Jarvis reflects that this relationship can sometimes work in theatre's favour. "Pantomime, I think, is actually the antidote to bad television," he says. "Over Christmas, all the soaps have their big death scenes and divorces and shooting and it plays right into the hands of us, because where do people get family entertainment that's going to be funny, that's also an event? Nationally, figures for pantomime go up every year. I'd like to think it's because of us, but I also think it's because television doesn't' offer it."
Television has played a large role in Jarvis's career and he is keen to point out that, whilst television can influence theatre in terms of pantomime casting and cultural referencing, theatre can also influence television. Since 2009, CBeebies has produced its own Christmas pantomime and Jarvis tells me that they now form an important part of CBeebies' programming.
"Every year they're spending more money on them and investing more time, making them bigger productions, because actually it has more to do with how people watch television now; it's all on demand, it's all on iPlayer. Children will watch the same Disney film over and over again and that's the same with our pantos. They video them and they sit in people's Sky Plus box all year."
Jarvis has written around half a dozen television pantomimes for CBeebies and CBBC, including Jack and Jill (2009), Strictly Cinderella (2011) and last year's Jack and the Beanstalk in which he played Dame Trott.
Dame Trott constituted Jarvis's first Dame after years of playing the Comic on stage and roles such as Baron Hardup and the Emperor of China in the CBeebies pantomimes. Jack and the Beanstalk was also the first time CBeebies had filmed its pantomime in a theatre, rather than studio and, although plagued by technical problems during the first two shows, Jarvis still had a lot of fun in his pantomime 'D(am)ebut'.
"I felt strangely at home in the role," he tells me. "I really enjoyed it and it made me really appreciate how hard a Dame has to work. I'd love to do it again."
One of the most glamorous Dames of all time was Danny La Rue, who appeared in numerous pantomimes throughout his career and in 1978 gave his Merry Widow Twankey at the London Palladium, where Jarvis's grandmother had also appeared as a pantomime dancer. Twenty-eight years later, in 2006, the pantomime worlds of Jarvis and La Rue collided in what Jarvis fondly describes as the "most memorable moment" of his career to date.
"During the run of Snow White in Tunbridge Wells, we discovered that Danny La Rue was saying there," he tells me. "This was the year after he stopped doing pantomimes and he was living with Annie (Galbraith), his dresser. Johnny Morris, who was our Company Manager that year, managed to find out where he was living and give him a ring. He 'phoned him up and he came."
Whilst La Rue and Galbraith sat in the front row drinking pink champagne on ice, Jarvis hurriedly educated the younger members of the cast in La Rue's pantomime pedigree by way of YouTube before having to make his first entrance.
"So he's there in the front row and I'm onstage trying desperately not to do an impression of Danny La Rue in front of Danny La Rue because it's all just too tempting. In the interval, Johnny went out to see Danny and check he was alright and get him another bottle of champagne and, this is absolutely true, Danny said to Johnny: 'My dear, I like the show but why, why is your friend not doing an impression of me? He's taken off everybody else apart from the great Danny!'"
Jarvis's impression is excellent and evokes a wonderful image of the conversation between La Rue, pink champagne glass in hand, with Morris, the Company Manager. Did Jarvis succumb to his Act One temptation? Did La Rue get his wish? Jarvis continues his story with great energy and excitement, re-living it as he speaks.
"That year Carol Harrison was our Wicked Queen. I've done two pantomimes with her and she knows her role inside out, she never gets it wrong and never makes any mistakes, always gives flawless performances. For some unknown reason, she got her words round the wrong way and I just went, 'My dear, how dare you get it wrong in front of the great Danny La Rue? How? My dear, I find you rude and inarticulate!' Anyway, Danny laughed and he stood up, he turned around and he waved at the audience, the follow spot went down on him and so he did do pantomime that year."
After the show, La Rue took the cast and crew to a local Chinese restaurant. "He told us all these wonderful stories," Jarvis tells me. "It was lovely, it was really magical."
Just like pantomime traditions, the stories of pantomime past too get inherited and entrusted to those passionate about the genre. Jarvis is now part of that long line of celebrated pantomime performers, which began with the likes of Dan Leno at Drury Lane in the late nineteenth century. As well as entertaining audience members young and old alike, they inspire the practitioners of the future and, with Jarvis at the helm, this particular pantomime tradition looks set to continue stronger than ever at the Bournemouth Pavilion for years to come.
Aladdin runs at the Bournemouth Pavilion from Saturday 7th December 2013 to Sunday 5th January 2014.