And start. And stop again. Then some can start but others can’t but that’s OK because they’ve got to stop again anyway. And start. Possibly.

I’ve heard government policy towards theatre in 2020 described as a rollercoaster. Rubbish! It’s more like stuttering.

Or perhaps it’s been more like the Hokey Cokey. Left arm in. Out. In. Out. Shake it all about. Move on to right arm, then legs. Then everything. Then nothing.

Oo! Look! Headless chickens…

Yes, it’s been a funny old year…

I feel a bit like Arkwright (or, latterly, Granville) ruminating while taking in all the pavement display at the end of every day in (Still) Open All Hours.

Have you noticed he never puts them out? Somehow—magically, it seems—they appear outside in the morning without any human agency but do have to be taken in at night. Ah well, suspension of disbelief and all that…

Let’s start our survey of North East theatre at the end of the year with the cancellation or postponement until 2021 of every NE panto. Some theatres, like South Shields’ Customs House, The Gala in Durham and three Northumberland theatres (Alnwick Playhouse, Berwick Maltings and Hexham Queen’s Hall), replaced them with specially created shows which were streamed or issued on DVD, whilst others (Playhouse Whitley Bay, for example, and the Geordie Panto Co) streamed some of their back catalogue of pantos. And, of course, some theatres, like Alphabetti, Live Theatre and Northern Stage, which don’t do pantos but do have Christmas shows, have created special online productions too.

Incidentally, as I write this, I have just heard that the Customs House show, Arbuthnot and Dame Bella’s Christmas Adventure, has been downloaded in the USA, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Italy, Germany, Canada, Philippines, Turkey, Spain, Belgium and all across the UK. That is quite something for a 437-seat theatre on the south bank of the Tyne!

And there’s one positive thing that has emerged during the year. Here in the North East we have our very own brand new pantomime villain!

Yes! Dominic Cummings is from Durham! And what a villain he’d make: Dom the Dastardly, Devilish Dominic, Demonic Dominic, Dom the Dark Lord, Cummings the…

Well, perhaps not that. Panto is a family show after all.

Tailor-made for adult pantos, though…

Oh, the possibilities!

Mind you, we’d have to teach the rest of the country how to pronounce Barnard Castle! (And anyway, it’s Barney. No one I know refers to it by its Sunday name.)

OK panto writers, get to it!

(I can see Neil Armstrong playing him at the Gala next year. How appropriate would that be?)

I’ve said very often that the best pantos are firmly rooted in their own communities, produced by the theatres (inevitably the mid- and small-scale houses), and that the “biggies”, those which are imported, whether from major national producers such as Qdos or UK Productions or from smaller organisations like Blue Genie, while they may have more expensive bells and whistles, more glitz and glitter and the latest tech or the big names, do not have that indefinable family atmosphere. When I go to a Qdos panto at Newcastle Theatre Royal or a UK Productions show at Sunderland Empire, I am impressed, but when I’m at Durham’s Gala or the Customs House in South Shields, I’m drawn in by the warmth of the audience long before the first notes of the overture sounds.

That’s why—and I promise that this will be the last rant (well, for this year anyway)—I was so annoyed when the government came to the aid of Qdos and London Palladium and left the little ‘uns floundering.

Not that it did Qdos much good in the long run, for the government made such a bog hole of their handling of the whole pandemic that Britain suffered an almost panto-free Christmas.