Magical legacy of Edinburgh King’s panto

Ugly Sisters: Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Corbett
Ugly Sisters: Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Corbett
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PANTOLAND, a glittering world of magic and mayhem where men dress as women, girls play boys, the audience shout out, sweeties are hurled from the stage and, more often or not to the cry of ‘Bring doon the cloot’, a song-sheet unfurls to start the communal sing along that traditionally brings every pantomime in the land to a close.

It’s King’s panto time again - Oh, yes it is! - which means Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott are ready to enter the good-natured fray once more.

Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and Andy Gray

Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and Andy Gray

Over the next seven weeks the Capital’s panto stars will give no fewer than 83 performances of Cinderella.

It’s the eighteenth time the rags to riches tale of Cinders and her ugly sisters has entertained King’s audiences since the theatre opened with that very title in 1906.

And from the evening Phyllis Dare stepped onto the Leven Street stage as Cinderella in that very first panto, the stars of the day have lined-up to appear at The King’s come Christmas time.

Names such as the legendary comedian and actor Max Wall, who appeared in the 1928 panto Robinson Crusoe.

Anita Harris as Robin and Una McLean as Nurse McCuddles in Robin Hood and The Babes in the Wood, 1989.

Anita Harris as Robin and Una McLean as Nurse McCuddles in Robin Hood and The Babes in the Wood, 1989.

Then there was the young Valerie Singleton. The much-loved Blue Peter presenter once revealed that her first job out of drama school was as a dancer in a King’s panto.

Before that, in 1951, it was a 40-year-old Gretchen Franklin, who would later find fame as Ethel in EastEnders, who donned a cat costume to play Puss in Puss In Boots.

In 1977 it was the turn of Liver Bird Polly James to head north. She starred in that year’s Aladdin. Three years on and it was Hi De Hi’s Ruth Madoc who was slapping her thigh as Robin Hood in Babes In The Wood.

Other household names to appear in King’s pantos over the years include River City’s Una McLean, Russell Hunter, Rab C Nesbitt himself Gregor Fisher, Carry On star Anita Harris, Max Boyce, and Cannon and Ball, who starred in Babes in the Wood in 1994 alongside John Leslie as Robin Hood and, of course, we can’t forget the late, great Scottish panto king, Gerard Kelly.

Over the decades, all the top Dames have sashayed onto The King’s stage too, acclaimed turns such as George Lacy, an inspiration for the young Stanley Baxter, Douglas Byng, Johnny Beattie, Ronnie Corbet, Walter Carr and Jimmy Logan.

In 1981, Terry Scott, of Terry and June fame, gave one of his last performances as dame in Jack & the Beanstalk at The King’s. He died two years later.

Surprisingly, in the sixties The King’s eschewed its panto tradition in favour of light entertainment on three separate occasions.

In 1963 The Andy Stewart Christmas Show replaced the annual pantomime. In 1965 Lerner and Loewe’s West End hit musical Camelot, starring Paul Daneman and Elizabeth Larner, toured to the venue for the festive season, and in 1968 it was The Black and White Minstrel Show that kept audiences entertained over the holidays.

The sixties too saw the first attempts to create a specifically Scottish panto, with a trilogy of tales about a lad called Jamie; A Wish For Jamie (1962), A Love For Jamie (1964) and The World of Jamie (1969).

Current panto favourite Andy Gray remembers the 60s and 70s productions fondly.

The Perth-born funnyman who returns to play Buttons in Cinderella, which opens tommorrow, recalls, “We used to come down from Perth to Edinburgh in the 60s and 70s to see The King’s panto

“I can’t remember which panto it was when I first went, but I remember being struck by the size of the theatre, it was so much like the inside of a wedding cake.

“I saw Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, Jack Milroy and Jimmy Logan in those years.

“Then later, when I was at drama school in Edinburgh, I saw Stanley Baxter and Angus Lennie in panto at The King’s.

Consequently, he is conscious of the legacy and tradition that, along with Stewart and Stott, he has been trusted to continue.

“It’s the one thing that you never forget when you walk out on stage at the King’s,” he says, “that rich history.

“You are always aware of the greats that have gone before you, and what it means to stand up there in front of the Edinburgh audience.

“We’ve become part of that tradition now and that feels like a great honour.”

The secret of the success of King’s pantos is in the detail, Gray believes.

“There’s a lot of care and attention taken with each and every pantomime.

“The current team, led by producer Michael Harrison and director Ed Harris, work on it from when one panto finishes until the next year’s opens.”

Remembering it was another King’s Cinderella in 1999 that he first worked with Stewart, he adds, “We have a lot of respect for traditional Scottish panto and the heroes and heroines of the past - Fay Lenore, a very famous principal boy in her day still comes to see the panto every year. 
“Plus, I have lots of fun with my pals Allan and Grant.”

Cinderella, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tomorrow-21 January 2018, £17-£34, various times, 0131-529 6000