“It’s behind you…” or how panto rekindled my love of writing

The start of something.

I’m hanging curtains when there’s a knock on the door. We’ve moved eighty miles and lived here for two days. I know no-one. Who on earth could it be?

From the battered Land Rover parked across my driveway, I guess the man standing on my doorstep is the farmer at the top of our lane. He’s sixty? seventy? Green ‘John Deere’ overalls gathered together with baler twine at the waist; battered brown hat trying to tame wild grey hair; definite ‘eau de silage’.

farmer photo“I got you tickets for the panto at the school on Friday,” he says and he plonks five tickets in my hand. “That’ll be a tenner.”

Now, maybe he guessed I’d have no other commitments on Friday as I’d only just arrived in the area? Maybe he’d counted my children as he passed the house to know how many tickets we’d need? (Yikes!)  And maybe he just assumed I’d go?

“Don’t worry about paying me now,” he says with a grin. “I’ve put your name on the door.” (Eek, he already knows my name!!!)

audience laughing photo

Photo by pedroreyna

But we go anyway. I’m not expecting much. How good could a pantomime be in a place with a handful of houses, two pubs and a shop? But the school hall is packed, the acting hilarious and, even though I don’t understand the many references to local ‘characters’, we all have a great night.

Fast forward twelve months and my kids insist they’re in the next show. And if one member of the family is involved, everyone has to be involved. Remember my farmer neighbour? That’s the kind of village I live in.

Moving up.

Over the next few years, I bolster numbers in the chorus, struggle to remember dance routines and make countless costumes, until someone finds out I play the piano, which is more in my skill-set.

school play photo

Photo by jmerelo

My now teenage family join the Young Farmers Club and take part in the panto/entertainment competition. The club doesn’t get placed in the contest but it’s fun to watch.

“This year’s contest is an ‘entertainment’,” my daughter tells me the following year.  I’m picking her up from the first meet back since the Christmas break. “But the director’s AWOL. I told them you’d do it.”

“Do what?” I shriek.

“Oh, you know, write something, direct it.” She looks at me. “We’ll do the jokes though. Yours are rubbish.”

I ‘m too excited about the prospect of ‘writing something’ to protest her slur on my skill as a comedian.

Write something!!!???

panto winDespite wanting to be an author since I was in primary school, once I left education, real life got in the way. The last thing I penned was a psychology thesis. And there was nothing vaguely entertaining about that.

But the gauntlet was down. With the whole family suggesting the jokes, we start rehearsals before the script is finished. Our actors are hindered by snowy weather and ‘lambing time,’ but after several rewrites, the eventual show has a cast of characters including James Bond, David and Victoria Beckham, the Shania Twins and features a full club rendition of ‘Men of Harlech‘ with alternative words conducted by Geraint Pillock (Remember Barry Welsh?). The Club comes a very respectable 6th place.

The following year, we win.

And I’m into writing again… big time.

The pitch

Shortly after this, an ad appears in the local paper. It reads, “Original script required for community theatre group.”They’re putting on a panto in the beautiful theatre in town… and they are willing to pay! Undisclosed sources (farmers know everything) reveal the groups last script-writer got paid a pretty penny.

cow girl photo

Photo by Damian Gadal

My pitch is called Kelvin and the Toothfairy. It starts with a children’s tea-party, complete with food fight, visits the Wild West and even has an underwater scene. I price the job less than their last scriptwriter but more than I would have without my insider knowledge, and then, not thinking I stand a chance of getting the gig, I tell them hubby will write some songs.

That panto was my first, and still stands as my best-paid, writing job. For three months every waking minute involves corny jokes, running gags and trying to placate hubby for volunteering his services, but we make the deadline.

Why an Australian ballet dancer should never direct a panto.

I think that’s going to be the end of it. They have a director already; an Australian ballet dancer.

“Oh no, he wasn’t…”

“Oh yes, he was.”

I don’t know whether he’s a good dancer but he’s a really nice bloke. He comes to talk about the script complete with tiny sleeping son. (All say, “Awww”) However, I soon hear things are not going well.

orchestra pit photo

Photo by cowbite

Maybe Australian panto’s are different to British ones but he casts the Dame as a woman and the Principle Boy as… well, a boy. And that’s just wrong.

He’s also spent the first few rehearsals discussing how cast members should portray their characters and, whilst this strategy might work with trained actors, the amateur crew he’s working with worry they never practice their lines.

Next, the pianist decides he has to revise for exams so I find myself in a new role. Then, to top it all, the Principle Girl and Boy both resign four weeks before the show.

Their valiant replacements do their best but the Leading Lady gets drunk on opening night and I come away vowing never to get involved with panto again.

Now I needed to find something else to write.

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