The Amazing Empire Pantos
I loved the Empire pantos I photographed. They were for me then—and even now still are—what pantos should be. We were so lucky that, for most of the time I was there, we had Roy Todds as the theatre’s general manager / director, a man who knew panto and how to get exactly the right balance between story, comedy and music, between appeal to the kids and to the adults.
Most were more than 40 years ago so I confess that I forget years and even shows, but I do remember the stars. Many of them, though, are themselves almost forgotten nowadays, except by the aged and infirm of mind like me, so let’s see how many you know.
(This might make a good round in a pub quiz!)
Let’s start with Peter Goodwright in Aladdin, the first Empire panto I photographed, if I’m not mistaken.
Now, Peter Goodwright. Who was he?
Alright, he was quite a number of people.
No help there?
OK, clue no 2. Who Do You Do? (An ITV show of the time)
Still no? Well, he was a comedy impressionist. One of the best—and he really was very funny as Wishee Washee.
Next: Frank Ifield. Clues: he was Australian and yodelled a lot.
No? Right then…
Further clue: he remains the tenth UK artist in the “longest at number one in the charts” stakes: 17 weeks, just behind the Stones who had 18. (The Beatles were top at 69 weeks with Take That coming a poor second at 29).
You guessed! He was a singer. In fact, he was the first artist ever to have three consecutive number one hits in Britain: “I Remember You”, “Lovesick Blues” and “The Wayward Wind”. But he’s barely remembered nowadays. Oh, how are the mighty fallen! He was a big star in his time and played Robin Hood in Babes in the Wood (1978) at the Empire.
What about Sylvester McCoy? You must know him. He was the seventh Doctor Who—but that was long after his Empire panto appearance.
You’ll know this one, though. Basil Brush. But we didn’t just have Basil. Oh no, we had Ivan Owen as well.
More blank looks!
Who was Ivan? The original (always anonymous) puppeteer and Basil’s voice, a voice that was a mixture of Ivan’s own and that of suave film star Terry Thomas—Ivan wanted to give BB some sophistication! That laugh, however, was definitely Ivan’s.
Over the years, it had become an Empire panto tradition that, after a show in the middle of the run, we would have a night out in the bowling alley in Newcastle Road (now long gone, I’m afraid).
It was always a fun night and we laughed a lot, but whenever Ivan laughed you could see heads turning all through the building. People knew Basil was in panto so they were quite sure that if they looked hard enough, they’d see him!
They didn’t, of course, and soon they gave up even reacting, thinking it was just someone doing Basil Brush impressions. If only they knew!
Another puppet which headlined an Empire panto was Orville, although he, of course, was just one of Keith Harris’s puppets. You don’t remember Orville? He was a green duck. Keith was what was fondly called in the old variety days, a vent act—a ventriloquist.
The word means someone who speaks from the stomach. Also known as someone who throws his voice.
Hmm. Throwing the voice from the stomach sounds more than a little disgusting, does it not?
It’s almost like I’m building up to a panto joke. But I’m not.
Now what about these two? Susan Hanson and Paul Henry.
Remember Crossroads? The soap which ran from 1964 to 1988? The one about the motel? With wobbly sets? Well, Susan was Miss Diane and Paul played the rather simple Benny, the motel’s handyman. They were in Cinderella (1981) which actually broke box office records—and was, sadly, one of the last pantos I photographed at the theatre.
I actually asked Paul if he regretted being known for playing what was effectively the village idiot. Not at all! Not only did he get to play panto which he might otherwise have not done, but he was actually cast in Shakespeare (which he loved!) on the strength of his fame.
TV shows, in fact, are always a popular source of stars for panto and one of the most popular sitcoms in those days was Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s It Ain’t ‘Arf ‘Ot, Mum and two of the big stars of that show, Windsor Davies and Melvyn Hayes, came to the Empire. They appeared in another Babes in the Wood (1982) which, sadly, didn’t do as well as the previous year’s show.
Don Estelle, who was also in It Ain’t…, appeared at the Empire too but I can’t remember the year or the show. He and Windsor Davies had a hit with “Whispering Grass”. Perhaps you remember that?
Other big names who graced the Empire’s pantos were Geoffrey Hughes (Coronation Street, Keeping Up Appearances, The Royle Family, Heartbeat), Bill Maynard (Great Scott, It's Maynard! with Terry Scott, Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!, Heartbeat and five Carry On films).
Bill, incidentally, was a lovely man but he could bore for England! No matter what you had done, Bill had done it more often—and probably better! He played the King in Sleeping Beauty.
Appearing in the same show as Bill was local actor, James Garbutt from Houghton, who had begun his career at the People’s Theatre in Newcastle. He’s one of those actors whose face you know but can’t remember exactly what he’s been in—mainly because he’s been in so many! His credits include The Troubleshooters, The Borderers, Z-Cars, The Onedin Line, Warship, Doctor Who, Bill Brand, When the Boat Comes In, Juliet Bravo, One by One, All Creatures Great and Small, Soldier Soldier, Boon, Between the Lines and Casualty. But of course his most important role was playing Brutus to my Young Cato in Julius Caesar at the Peoples Theatre in the late '50s!
Don’t mock! I had lines! OK, there were just five, but lines there were!
I do remember a panto which featured Avril Angers and Bert Wheedon and—I think it was the same show—Carl Wayne. You may not remember the other two, but Carl Wayne… Surely. You Know. The Move? "I Can Hear the Grass Grow", "Flowers in the Rain", "Fire Brigade"?
Well, please yourself!
That, if I remember correctly, was Russell Hill’s first panto when he took over as the theatre’s Director from Roy.
Then there was Ronné Coyles. You won’t remember him unless you’re panto aficionado but he played Dame for almost his entire career and appeared in 66 pantos, as a child as well as an adult and his last appearance was at the age of 78. He also became known as Mr Morecambe because he was a regular at the Palace Theatre and had a fancy dress shop in the town. However he was actually a North East lad, having been born in Blyth.