Christmas, so it’s said, is a time for giving. And that’s certainly the case in showbiz. Actors may spend the rest of the year willing the phone to ring and laughing derisively at final demand letters plopping through our letter box, but come December, whether it’s doing pantomime, playing Santa Claus or merely reading out Nine Lessons and Carols in our church, someone, somewhere, wants us. I should know, for during my 30 years in the business of show, I’ve tried them all.
Panto is, of course, the stock-in-trade of any jobbing actor at this time, and there are hundreds of productions up and down the country, ranging from ornate spectacles starring half the cast of Coronation Street, right down to more homespun offerings at your local leisure centre with a couple of professionals supported by children from the local dance academy.
It might look like fun up there under the lights, but in reality it’s back-breaking work, especially when you’re doing two (or three) shows a day to hundreds of screaming children. And they’re not cheap to stage. In one production of Snow White I witnessed a few years back, the producers couldn’t even afford a looking glass for the wicked stepmother, leading to her declaiming: “Mirror, mirror, down the hall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
In another production I heard about, the management could only afford three dwarfs, with the remaining four created out of hardboard mannequins on tiny wheels. The result was dialogue such as Doc announcing: “Us three will go on ahead, you four stay here and guard the camp…”
A sub-genre of this species is the Nativity musical. Nowadays they’re less fashionable than once upon a time, but in the 1970s and 80s anyone who was anyone in the business was writing their own version of how the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ might have looked and sounded had the Three Wise Men comprised David Essex, Cliff Richard and Tony Hatch.
In many ways Nativities are the ideal festive entertainment, combining jollity and drama with a genuine attempt to convey something of the real Christian message. But unlike pantomimes, they are not so easy to ad lib your way out of when (as inevitably occurs) things go wrong.
During a spell playing Herod in David Wood’s Rock Nativity at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, I witnessed one incident in which the angel Gabriel became trapped on stage after one of his wings got caught on a protruding nail, and another in which Melchior nearly missed his moment at the manger after he was involved in a minor car shunt on his way to the performance.
Worse still occurred during the Nunc Dimittis in Act II. One matinee, the actor playing Simeon was blessing the baby Jesus when the false beard he was wearing came unglued and fluttered down on to the head of the sleeping infant. His next sung line was “Peacefully I’ll pass away / now I have seen what I’ve seen today…” Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house – or on stage, come to that.
If you can’t get work in live theatre, a stint at your local department store is a good standby. I’ve yet to essay the role of Santa in his grotto (although I once did a brief gig as one of his little helpers), but actors I’ve talked to who’ve survived the ordeal tell horrific stories of hours spent clad in yards of tickly red wool and crepe, trying to reason with rapacious and sugar-crazed children, each of whom can barely conceal their disappointment when their promised gift turns out to be a novelty yo-yo rather than an iPad.
This Christmas I’ll be taking it easy by reading some lessons out at a couple of charity carol concerts. These events can be fun, but be warned: they are arranged at the last minute, so you can be sure that either the microphone won’t work, some of your pages of script will be missing when you step into the pulpit or the congregation’s song sheet will be strewn with typos and misprints (“Where and what his swelling” is still my favourite.)
Never mind. It’s usually all right in the end, which is surely the essence of the Christmas message. Although one colleague of mine recalled once playing the eponymous hero in Jack and the Beanstalk in the West Midlands when the elderly actor playing his mother had a coronary thrombosis during the interval. After a hurried conference it was decided the show must go on; and thus my friend had to start the second act by announcing soberly: “You’ll have to be very good boys and girls, because my mum’s had a heart attack.”
“Oh no she hasn’t!” chorused back several hundred gleeful voices…
Michael Simkins is an actor and author
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