TEN years is a long time in pantoland. Oh yes it is! Although, when Paul Elliott agreed to write and direct his first King’s panto back in 2002, he had no idea he would still be here a decade later with two Jack And The Beanstalks, two Aladdins, a Snow White, Mother Goose, Goldilocks, Robinson Crusoe and Cinderella under his belt.
The 69-year-old revisits the latter for this year’s Christmas spectacular at the Old Lady of Leven Street, once again reuniting his regular panto team – Andy Gray, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott.
Casting his mind back, he recalls how his first King’s panto, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, pictured right, turned into a baptism of fire.
“We had a lovely girl playing Snow White, but on the day of the opening performance she came down with a severe dose of flu. She couldn’t speak or stand up, so the understudy was called. She knew the dialogue but was shaky on the songs so she played the part while, off stage, another girl sang as the understudy mimed. We got away with this for a few days. Luckily, the main artiste was back within the week.”
The following year, Elliott presented the first of his Jack And The Beanstalks, pictured right.
“That was the first time we worked with Charlie Caroli Jr,” he says. “He used to come to rehearsals each day with another prop – huge poles that came out of his trousers, an exploding toilet, it never stopped. That was also the year that Grant Stott played his first villain, Fleshcreep.”
In 2004, Elliott tackled Aladdin, a production that remains one of his favourites.
“That show also had one of my best ever characters, Elvis McSporran. Every line he spoke contained a reference to a Presley song. Andy Gray was a joy in the role and, as he is such an Elvis fan, enjoyed the part enormously.”
Mother Goose was next on Elliott’s check list. Known as ‘the Dame’s panto’, it naturally starred Allan Stewart. “Allan was born to play Mother Goose,” he says. “He wore a fat suit, so when he was made beautiful, after going into the magic pool, he became thin. Allan must have lost a lot of weight during that run.”
Cinderella, meanwhile, has long been considered the audience favourite and Elliott brought a fresh twist to it in 2006, pictured far right, when he cast a dwarf as Buttons.
“I always have a problem with Cinderella,” he confesses. “It is the least moral pantomime. Cinderella and Buttons are very fond of each other and have a love that should mature. Eventually they would marry and live happily ever after. Instead, a rich Prince turns up, Cinderella’s head is turned and she dumps Buttons for the money. So I decided to have a Buttons who didn’t fancy Cinderella. This worked a treat and gave a new slant to the story.”
Goldilocks And The Three Bears was next and it proved to be a very different kind of panto.
“Andy Gray was not with us so I decided to be different and set the show in a circus ring. I found a strange clown, Tweedy, and ensured that virtually every member of the cast had a circus skill.
“Without Andy, we missed the catchphrase “I’m no very well”, so I gave the line to Baby Bear who used it in the cottage scene when she realised someone had eaten her porridge. This brought the house down.”
He adds, “Goldilocks was the first panto I ever did as a producer and set me off on a career that has lasted since 1968.”
In 2008, Elliott returned to Aladdin. “For the first time we used 3D. The Genie was on film and various scary things zoomed out into the audience. The magic lamp was also 3D so wherever you were you could reach out and rub it. We also introduced the versatile Johnny Mac to our team that year.”
This production also included one of Elliott’s most elaborate stunts.
“We had this idea of a woman sitting in a box, leaning forward and falling out of the box. This had the health and safety brigade going nuts. One of our sexy acrobats dressed up as a member of the public and, together with our company manager, acting as her husband, she sat in the box until Allan Stewart was alone on stage. At that point, she leaned forward to ask for his autograph and, oops, fell out of the box.
“I thought it would get a big laugh, instead the audience gasped and screamed. They thought the poor woman was going to fall and cause herself damage. They were too shocked to laugh and couldn’t see the wire coming from under her overcoat as her ‘husband’ dragged her back into the box.”
The following year, it was a special guest appearance during Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates that Elliott recalls.
“In that show, Allan did an impression of Susan Boyle and, on the last night, she came to see it. Susan asked if she could come on stage and after Allan’s version of I Dreamed A Dream, she appeared at the back of the stage. The audience went crazy.
“She came down and stood next to Allan, who was dressed as her, and they took the cheers together. Afterwards, Allan said, ‘I didn’t know how to get off stage’. But inspiration struck and he said to her, ‘Where’s Piers? Shall we find Piers?’ He then hitched his skirt up, Susan hitched up her skirt, and they ran off looking for Piers. What a night.” Last year, of course, Elliott revisited Jack And The Beanstalk as Andy Gray returned to the company, reuniting the old team. “It was good to have the three musketeers back,” says Elliott, who confesses he introduced one of his obsessions into the storyline of that panto, a move that proved controversial.
“I am obsessed with Cheryl Cole,” he offers. “So I decided that the Princess was a fat little person who wanted to be a thin little person. The only way for her to get Jack was to look like Cheryl Cole.
“We rehearsed this but, at the dress rehearsal, the theatre ushers were not happy. I spoke with them and they felt strongly that to encourage children to be thin in order to get on was the wrong message. They were quite right. I rewrote the ending so that Jack wanted the Princess just the way she was and the Fairy restored her chubby happiness.”
Elliott also voiced the Giant in that production, but is adamant it’s the closest he will ever come to being in one of his own pantos, despite starting his career as an actor in Dixon Of Dock Green.
“When I was producing on the West End many years ago, we needed a second understudy to fill two parts over the holidays. I couldn’t afford another actor so said I would do it – never thinking I would go on. One Saturday, the phone rang. It was my rehearsal call. I was on in three hours. Fortunately, I’d learned the parts. I played to two packed houses but my legs were so wobbly I vowed never to go on stage again.”
Backstage is a different matter, and Elliott acknowledges it was the King’s panto that rekindled his career as a director.
“Just before I directed Snow White, I had sold my company, E&B Productions, which then produced the King’s panto. I wanted to get back into the rehearsal room – that was why I had first come into the business.
“I loved the Edinburgh King’s and got on very well with Stephen Barry, who was running it then, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come back and direct?’ I said, ‘Yes please,’ and went back with such a spring in my step that it was the start of me doing that. From there, I went on to direct all over the place. Edinburgh opened the door for me to do that.”
Cinderella, King’s Theatre, Nicolson Street, until January 22, various times, £12.50-£24.50, 0131-529 6000