What a difference a month makes. On 18 September, Panto Season 2020 looked set to welcome 34 productions to stages across the UK. Fast forward and we’ve now hit the milestone of 70 confirmed productions, equating to circa. 25% of a non-COVID season.
Venues and producers have been working flat-out to deliver COVID-19-secure productions knowing that balancing the books will be difficult on account of 'social distancing'. A reduction in available seats means a reduction in income, which has resulted in smaller casts, shorter shows, fewer sets and costume changes as adversity is overcome by creativity. This commitment to pantomime, theatre and audiences is remarkable given the risk involved: what if a new lockdown is announced? Will audiences be confident enough to book? What if our venue becomes a site of outbreak? Will we even break even?
To date, 186 venues that would usually present a pantomime have either cancelled or postponed their festive production, meaning 75% of planned pantomimes won’t go ahead as the risk was deemed too great. With around 20 venues still to announce, all eyes have been on the London Palladium to see if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flagship COVID-19 safe venue would ever reveal its Christmas intentions.
Late last night, news broke that Qdos Entertainment would indeed be presenting a pantomime at the London Palladium. Following the lead of 12 other shows that have opted to forefront regular performers and mix pantomime titles for this year’s festive entertainment, Pantoland at the Palladium will feature a cast led by Julian Clary, who also co-writes, with fellow Palladium regulars Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers. Beverley Knight, Charlie Stemp, Jac Yarrow and Ashley Banjo & Diversity complete the cast, which, after years of criticism against a lack of female representation, at present still only has one female performer (Knight) in its Principal Cast, who is billed as a "Special Guest".
The Twittersphere has been awash with congratulatory messages and excitement as tickets priced £25 - £129 went on sale at 10AM, with sales exceeding over £500,000 in just over an hour. But as further news about the Palladium’s panto emerged, it appeared the show had been made possible due to a new initiative from the National Lottery as part of Oliver Dowden’s Operation Sleeping Beauty, whereby seats unable to be sold due to 'social distancing' would be purchased, thus relieving the production’s box office.
“Pantomime will return to UK theatre,” announced the Financial Times; “Pantomime season has been saved,” cried the Daily Mail; “Lottery scheme to enable other festive shows,” reported The Stage. Prior to this announcement, 69 pantomimes had already made the decision to proceed with 186 venues deciding against. An announcement so late in the year will be no comfort to the almost 200 venues forced to cancel or postpone their panto and who now learn that they could have received financial support should they have decided to go ahead. Some of these venues have been forced to shut and may close indefinitely.
Speaking of the new initiative, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden said,
“Today, we launch Operation Sleeping Beauty. We must hope for the best and plan for the worst. Our hope is to get some panto back on this Christmas, and despite the very challenging backdrop we are going to give it our best shot. We have already supported the sector with our £1.57 bn Culture Recovery Fund and I’m grateful to National Lottery players for helping to make this happen."
What Dowden fails to acknowledge is that 69 shows prior to the Palladium were already managing this risk. His desire to get “some panto back on this Christmas” completely ignores these shows who have worked above and beyond over the past six months to deliver a pantomime. When COVID-19 broke, most thought there would be no Panto Season 2020, so the fact that one in four productions is going ahead is significant. But there is now no time for the 186 postponed and cancelled shows to U-turn. Only 17 venues are still to announce whether they will proceed with their planned productions.
Further intriguing was The Stage’s news that the National Lottery said it would be working with Qdos, “to enable other pantomimes to take place this year,” and determine “which theatres will be staging productions”. Why should a large commercial company and not the Industry’s representative body UK Theatre be determining this?
News of financial aid for the industry should be welcomed and the National Lottery and its players must be thanked, but, as has been seen throughout the crisis, sadly this appears to be another example of too little, too late. 200,000 tickets will be purchased through the scheme, which may sound a significant figure, but equates to only 2,860 per production if evenly distributed.
The fact that the Palladium’s pantomime, produced by the world’s biggest pantomime company at one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flagship venues featuring highly paid celebrities, was chosen to launch the scheme has not gone unnoticed with some industry experts criticising the government’s further support of multi-million pound commercial business ventures and companies above all others in yet another example of London-centrism. It is vital that this money goes to regional venues who are struggling to survive, and to those involved in the shows who are equally struggling as debates around the arts’ viability continue to rage.
This money might be the lifeline some venues have been waiting for and take a little pressure off a season of survival, but it is in no way Sleeping Beauty’s kiss of life to resuscitate an already struggling industry.