Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Pantomimes bounce through recession

By Albert Clack
Journalist turned actor and singer

Albert Clack as Professor Crackpot in Beauty and the Beast
Laugh in the face of adversity: Panto does well during recessions

Christmas 2008 is shaping up to be one to forget for British business.

"Oh, no, it isn't!"

At least not for pantomimes, and for the theatre companies that stage them.

As a general rule, panto actually does better during recessions, according to Michael Courtney - whose company Mad About productions is staging two ambitious pantos at opposite ends of the country this year.

"People have scrimped and saved all year, and now they want to splash out and give their children a good Christmas - which of course includes going to a panto," Michael says.

"And this is what we're seeing nationwide."

Getting away with it

Before I go on, let me declare a personal interest. I recently changed career at 60 from journalist to actor, and I'm appearing in one of Michael's pantos this month.

Albert Clack as Sorin in The Seagull
Albert Clack used to be a journalist. 'Oh no he didn't.' - 'Oh yes he did.'

And yes, to packed houses.

You know that thing the kids shout when something nasty appears: "Look behind you!"

That's what I refuse to do. Whatever I did for a living before is firmly in the past. I'm an actor now, and all that matters is giving my best performance.

For the record, I used to be a foreign correspondent, then a TV news producer.

It has been a huge leap: from staying informed about coups in Congo, revolutions in Russia, and battles in Bosnia, to dressing up as Professor Crackpot with a red nose.

But there is a common factor. Whether you're surrounded by demonstrators in Buenos Aires, or stepping on stage to declare, "A huge bottom, a really huge bottom!" you need one essential quality: an unshakeable, and possibly foolish, belief that you will get away with it.

Tough transition

As a Reuters Correspondent I worked in France, Argentina, Yugoslavia and Cuba, then became a foreign news producer at ITN.

In the 1990s I went freelance and filmed documentaries in Eastern Europe, India and South America, including for BBC TV's World Business Report.

But by 2000 the bottom was falling out of the freelance market. And then it happened.

All those years I had been a journalist, I had been unable to take part in "team hobbies" because of my irregular work hours.

Suddenly, at the age of 58, I had time on my hands, and took up amateur dramatics.

Determined to improve, I took a short summer course at East 15 Acting School and did a term at London Actors' Workshop, realising that I had become seized by a powerful new vocation.

I was over the moon when I got my first (unpaid) professional role in the dark 19th century German drama Woyzeck at the Lion & Unicorn, a fringe venue in north London; and shocked when the first-night audience numbered four people.

Getting paid

That led rapidly to my first paid role.

Albert Clack as John in You Beautiful Ewe
Farmer John changes his career

To my astonishment, I was cast in the dual lead roles of Adolf Verloc and Chief Inspector Heat in previews of a new dramatisation of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad at the Theatre Royal Margate and in Brighton and Worthing.

Since then I've played a variety of minor stage and screen roles; and now - my most wonderful thespian experience so far - I'm in Beauty & The Beast at the Campus West Theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

Most mornings when I wake up I think I've dreamt it. Surely that wasn't really me under a spotlight dressed as a candlestick singing Be My Guest?

The bright side of life

For my new boss Michael it is all about producing magical effects to entrance audiences. Person skills are also required, as is mastery of production techniques.

For most people, producing one major panto would be enough - but Michael has now shot up to Rochdale to direct and appear in his other panto, Jack & the Beanstalk at the Gracie Fields Theatre.

He has made it his professional mission for the past 20-odd years to produce "traditional family pantos" for everyone from "kids to grandmas" through his company, Mad About Productions, which tours the country the rest of the year with the singing spectacular "Mad About The Musicals".

If this is one sector of the economy that actually manages to stay afloat this winter, well that's no bad thing, is it?

Because panto helps everybody look on the bright side of life through the gloom of winter and recession, and gives children a taste of live theatre which, hopefully, they will preserve for the rest of their lives.

Albert Clack is appearing as Professor Crackpot in Beauty & The beast at the Campus West Theatre, Welwyn Garden City, until January 1.

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