And then there were (some) audiences…
Here’s the picture. We’re doing Cinderella in a working men’s club in Sunderland at 10:00. The show starts and Buttons bounces on stage and goes through the old “would you like to be in my gang?” routine but, before the rest of the kids can join in, a little girl, aged ten at the most, who was sitting in the middle of the front row shouts out at the top of her voice, “Fuck off!”
Now actors are not good at mornings—especially that time of the morning!—but of course the company were pros and Buttons already had a load of pantos under his belt before we started work on this one so he seemed to take it in his stride but both he and the rest of the cast were quite shaken, so much so that one of the Uglies managed to drop a stage weight on his foot during the get-out and we had to take him to the local NHS drop-in centre (fortunately less than a mile from the club), so poor old Septicaemia had a pronounced limp for the rest of the week.
(But we did win in the end. The little girl in question rushed to help with the get-out!)
And can you imagine ending your New Year’s Eve show at 21:00, then driving 40 miles home and having a 10:00 show on New Year’s Day?
We didn’t do many years but boy, what we did was more than enough!
There was the time that we were in Crook, almost into the wilds of Weardale, and I was there because it was the last show (I always went to the last show although really my job was finished after the first day of performances). The audience greeted one of the Comic’s “jokes” with groans and boos.
“Don’t blame me,” he said, “blame the writer. That’s him sitting at the back!” and he pointed straight at me. I agreed that I was the writer but felt I ought to point out that I didn’t recognise the script at all!
Well, they’d been on tour for three and a half weeks doing around 60 performances and no panto script, left in the hands of experienced panto folk, ever lasts that long!
Incidentally, that comic was the same Buttons the little girl had told to "fuck off." I came very close to repeating her words!
It was hard work for the cast, for they were cast and crew and drivers, but usually they enjoyed it. Tired they may have been, but when you get a reaction like in the following story, it makes it almost worthwhile. Almost.
The Comic and Dame were helping load the van when this woman came up to them.
“Hey,” she says. “Yous two is as funny as fuck. Fuckin’ loved it! Thanks!” And off she went.
Sadly it wasn’t the kind of comment we could use on our posters!
And we broke the mould! We weren’t the first company to work with these producers and after a struggle—and it was a real struggle over a few years—we eventually got them to pay Equity minimum—a major achievement, I can tell you.
But even today, there are pantos out on tour which use students or very inexperienced performers and pay way, way below the national minimum wage, let alone Equity. Back in 2017 I came across one company which paid £100 a week for three shows a day, seven days a week—that's a long way below the National Minimum Wage. It's sheer exploitation, for students are desperate to get the experience and list it on their CVs.
Touring pantos to primary schools was a lot easier—no evening shows for a start. We did a couple of much shorter tours of those, but, like everything in education, the money for this kind of luxury dried up.
The staff were always delighted for us to be there—it got them out of lessons and they could just sit alongside the kids and enjoy themselves—and there were always cups of tea in the staffroom forthcoming!
I had my hands full producing these shows, selling them to the schools, organising everything and being stage manager, technician and everything else, so they were written and directed by Dale Meeks of Emmerdale fame. And this experience just confirmed for me just how much I hate producing!