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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 10:26 GMT
Panto's strange star attraction
By Genevieve Hassan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Hollywood screen legend Mickey Rooney doing panto? In Sunderland? Oh yes he is! But what attracts stars, especially ones of the Hollywood variety, to participate in a very British Christmas tradition?

Mickey and Jan Rooney

"You know I've only done 350 pictures," Mickey Rooney jokes, as if to justify his credentials for being worthy to take on the role of Baron Hardup in Cinderella.

The Hollywood star doesn't seem to understand the fuss surrounding his and his wife Jan's decision to travel halfway around the world to make their panto debut in Sunderland.

"A lot of people ask why we're doing it - it's because we were asked and we've never done it before," the 87-year-old says.

But Jan explains there was another reason the chance of playing the fairy godmother appealed: "The audience participation to me is everything. I love it when the children are yelling out - I get a big kick out of that."

The Rooneys are not the only Americans to try their hand at a bit of good old-fashioned slapstick.

Street cred

Happy Days star Henry Winkler made his panto debut last year and loved it so much he's come back for seconds as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in Woking.

He must have sung its praises to Paul Michael Glaser as the Starsky and Hutch star is also putting on the hook for the role in Bromley.

Kim and Aggie from How Clean Is Your House?
If Sir Ian McKellen can do it, it's good enough for us
Kim Woodburn from How Clean Is Your House? (left)

Panto seems to have undergone a transformation in the last few years, going from D-list celebrity family fun, to almost being "cool".

Sir Ian McKellen treading the boards as Widow Twanky for two years in Aladdin at London's Old Vic undoubtedly gave panto a much needed boost.

The admission that playing a panto dame was one of the Lord of the Rings star's lifelong ambitions has somehow given permission for other celebrities to have a go.

Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie from Channel 4's How Clean Is Your House? have decided to give it a go as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella in Brighton - despite not having any formal acting experience.

"There's the old story that if you do panto you're desperate for work but I can assure you we're not - we're mad busy and booked up until June," Woodburn says.

"But it's only seven weeks and if Sir Ian McKellen can do it, it's good enough for us - and he's not short of work."

"But we're having fun. We'll see how we go and if we like it, we'll do it again. There's no life experience if you can't talk about it when you're an old woman."

The pair admit panto is a lot harder than they had first imagined compared to their on-screen jobs.

"You have to learn lines which we've never done before. And you can't muck up your line as it's live," says MacKenzie.

"But we're prepared to be booed and to give it everything to be nasty as the ugly sisters."

'Riding a bike'

Tina O'Brien
Coronation Street's Tina O'Brien is appearing in Cinderella

Even old hands such as Les Dennis are getting back into panto.

"It's Bobby Davro's fault as I watched him in Wimbledon and I'd forgotten how much fun it was," says Dennis.

After a decade's break, the TV personality is returning to the stage - although he admits he wanted to play a dame, "but all the parts were taken".

"I did it for 12 years on the run and I haven't done it now for 10 years - but it's a bit like riding a bike," he says.

"But it's the chance to get out there and use the skills you came into the business for."

"People say I'd come and see panto if we had some kids, but you don't need kids because it's great fun for everybody," Dennis adds.

Soap actor Johnny Briggs is making his panto debut after 30 years as Mike Baldwin on Coronation Street.

He will be appearing in Cinderella alongside his former Coronation Street colleague Tina O'Brien in Manchester.

"I heard that Tina was doing it and in all the years I worked on Coronation Street I never worked with her," Briggs says.

"But pantomime brings out the little boy and girl in people. It's the joining in and the laughing and the screaming and having fun."

But for all of panto's audience interaction and family fun, there is probably a more attractive reason why stars are keen to do panto.

As Johnny Briggs admits: "The money is very good for a month's work."

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23 Oct 07 |  Entertainment
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