A Right Royal Do

John Blackmore was asked to direct the pantomime at the Newcastle Theatre Royal and he took me along to do the photographs.

In 1979, the show was Cinderella and it starred Leah Bell as Cinders, David Jason as Buttons and the North East’s much-loved Little Waster, comedian Bobby Thompson (as Bobby Thompson. Who else?).

Leah, of course, is still going strong, writing, directing, producing and starring in panto at the Consett (Co Durham) Empire, as well as writing (with Crissy Rock), directing and starring in touring comedies; Bobby, alas, died in 1988, but David, as everyone knows, has had an amazing TV career in Open All Hours, Still Open All Hours, Only Fools and Horses, The Darling Buds of May, A Touch of Frost, Porterhouse Blue and many more—but he never appeared in another panto.

He was superb as Buttons. Yes, he did have a nasty experience: he was to fly across the stage in a home-made flying machine to impress Cinders. The first time this was tried was at the tech rehearsal. Not only was the harness digging in where you don’t want anything to dig in but the flight got out of hand and he shot across the stage and hit the scenery at the other side. It was only the rapid response of the stage crew that stopped the set falling on Leah. Then David was lowered to the ground and removed from the painful harness.

Needless to say, the flying gag was cut!

He never did another panto and it wasn’t because of the flying but simply because he just didn’t enjoy it. In fact, it seemed to scare him. I remember standing next to him in the wings in the final (public) dress as he waited to go on. We were in the middle of a whispered conversation when suddenly he wasn’t there anymore.

“Sorry,” he whispered when he got back. “Had to go to the loo.”

It happened again. He was just so nervous.

But the minute he got on that stage, he was brilliant, had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I wrote to him, via his agent, in 2002 when I was busy writing It’s Behind You—The Story of Pantomime to ask if he would be willing to be interviewed by phone or e-mail about his experience of panto but he replied that it was an experience he does not want to be reminded of.

But he was really friendly, and I know Leah has happy memories of working with him. Of course, once the show was “on the road”, as it were, I moved on to other things so we didn’t meet again.

Then there was Bobby—the Little Waster—with his slightly oversized red, white and black gansey, his flat cap and Woodbine ever-present between his left forefinger and thumb. I honestly don’t know what he was playing—I’m not even sure that he had a character name—but he was the entertainment at the Prince’s Ball which opens the second half.

“There’s a lot of people in tonight,” he said. “Think of aal the debt! Ye knaa, if it wasn’t for catalogues, this place’d be a nudist colony.

“Aa’ve got debt up to here,” he went on, indicating his neck. “I wisht aa was taller. And din’t ye gan on aboot debt to me. I pay mair in interest than you owe!”

In other words, he was doing his normal club act, the act that had made him a legend around the NE clubs for decades. And did they laugh? They roared, they howled. I’m not sure the kids got much of it, but hey, panto is for adults as well as kids.

“There’s a knock at the door. The wife gans te answer it. ‘Is Mr Thompson in?’ The wife says, ‘No, but come in. He’ll be back soon. Take a chair.’ ‘I’ve come to tak the lot,’ he says.”

(Recently Leah told me that David claimed not to have understood a single word Bobby said!)

Cinderella wasn’t Bobby’s only panto. He’d actually appeared at the Sunderland Empire three times, in 1955 (Jack and the Beanstalk), 1956 (Aladdin) and 1961, (but I don’t know the show). All were before my time at the theatre so I’m afraid I know no more than is written here.

As an aside, no one realised it at the time but we had a man who was to become a very influential figure in panto in that show. It was one of the Uglies, Paul Harris, who went on to write the panto writer’s bible, The Pantomime Book, described as “The only known collection of Pantomime jokes and sketches in captivity” (published in 1996). When I was writing pantos, that book was always within arms’ reach! Pages are coming loose but I still treasure it. Well, I might have to write another panto, you never know—and anyway, there’s always a use for bad jokes!

As for Leah (whom I’d first met when we were both much younger than we’d care to put a date to—but yes, I am older than her. Alright, quite a bit older than her), she’s still going strong. Her pantos at Consett regularly break box office records at the theatre, and we do enjoy a bit of a catch-up and natter every now and then when we happen to be in the same theatre.

Yup! That was a right royal do at the Royal and performed by local and national showbiz royalty. I really loved being part of that show.