Liam Rudden: From church halls to plush theatres, panto is magical

Allan Stewart  and Dame Liam Rudden
Allan Stewart and Dame Liam Rudden
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OUTRAGEOUS costumes, bonkers routines, and magical transformations, the 109th King’s panto opens today, a return to Cinderella, the pantomime that opened the theatre in 1906 and is today widely regarded as the most popular of all the panto title.

You can be sure that, as always, with Qdos Pantomimes producing the show, it will be a glittering festive spectacular with the regular team of Andy Gray, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott keeping the laughs coming.

All very different to my own first experience of panto, and yet, in many ways not so different at all.

Pantomime as an art form has fascinated me since, like many, it was my first experience of live theatre as a kid.

My introduction to the popular call outs that are now an inherent part of the British psyche wasn’t in a theatre, but in a church hall in Leith where the incumbent drama society had chosen the tale of the little wooden boy with the ever-growing nose to entertain the local flock.

Pinocchio, now a seldom performed title, held me transfixed and while most of the pantos I’ve seen since have faded from my memory or blurred into one, the temptation of Pinocchio, as Jiminy Cricket did his best to keep him on the straight and narrow, remains sharp.

It was in the same church hall that I watched my next panto, Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves, another title seldom performed in these politically correct days. Again I was spell-bound, and can still see in my mind’s eye the ‘thieves’ hiding in the ‘huge’ terracotta pots that dressed the stage.

The following year, the family headed to the King’s to see Babes In The Wood, starring popular singer of the time Moira Anderson and the one and only Johnny Beattie, as Dame.

If the church hall pantos had been magical, well, the big budget productions the King’s has become famous for over the decades just blew my mind.

I was hooked, although it would be another four years before we could afford to return to the King’s, this time to see Sinbad and yes, Johnny Beattie was there again, this time with River City legend Una McLean (much younger then, of course), and singer Christian as the eponymous sailor.

In the years that followed, as well as writing and directing numerous pantomimes, it has become a tradition I do an annual panto tour, catching all the old troopers while they’re still with us.

Their dedication astounds me - I remember seeing Peggy Mount playing the Queen in one panto. Well into her late-70s at the time and half blind with cataracts, a chorus boy played her royal factotum, taking her arm and guiding her whenever she venture to close to the edge of the stage.

At the King’s, the panto tradition started by writer and director Paul Elliot now continues under Qdos producer Michael Harrison who has brought a new vim and vigour to the Leven Street spectaculars that have become the perfect platform for the talents of Gray, Stewart and Stott.

Oh, yes they have!