Me cluck the chicken

Apparently, now that we’ve blackmailed our neighbours into giving us confectionery, burned a human effigy, and watched an airborne chemistry lesson, it’s officially Christmas. Well, I’ve got ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ stuck in my head, which means that they must have been sneakily playing it in M&S, which means it’s Christmas whether we like it or not. AndChristmas poses a scary question to actors: unemployment or panto?

Nothing happens in the industry in December. It’s like an exhausted parent who’s been playing hide and seek with its demanding child all year; December is when the industry finally collapses on the sofa, and panto is the Bob the Builder DVD that it sticks on to shut the kid up for an hour. So if you’re an actor and you’re not in a panto, December is just a long, lonely void in which you’re expected to buy presents for people but can’t earn any money to buy them with. And by the way, I’m not talking the pantos in the big venues with Dick and Dom in them, they’re cast incredibly exclusively in about September. Ain’t no dressing room where you’re going, sonny. You’re going on tour.

Which is what I did last year. I ummed and ahhed and flapped about my professional integrity (snort), then eventually got over myself and applied for one. I got an audition and was cast as Dick Whittington. It was a touring production, so the five of us in our cast would slouch into the van in the dark at 5.30 each morning and drive to a primary school somewhere in the Midlands, hope for free coffee from the staff room, put up our garish set, do a sound check, get into costume, and perform the show.

Some schools were in tiny, beautiful villages, and the kids were totally rapt, probably because the town had never got Channel 5. Inner city schools in Birmingham and Nottingham were less of a joy. In one school, the dame walked on and told them to call her ‘Pretty Sarah’, and from then on her every line was like a fart in a wind tunnel against the devastating roar of boos. For the whole show. They’d pitilessly taunt and expose us: “It’s Alice in the cat costume!” “You can’t sing!” “Punch him!” I learned quickly that I was usually able to neutralise a particularly disruptive toerag by delivering an entire speech directly at him without breaking eye contact. After the show we’d hurriedly change out of our ridiculous gear, hoping that the kids wouldn’t peep behind our precarious set at us in our pants on their way out, and drive to the next school to do it all again. We were told not to leave our costumes in the van overnight because the sweat that they were drenched in by the end of the day would freeze.

But don’t let that put you off if you’re an actor thinking of panto this year. When it’s bad it sucks, but when it’s good it’s great. Most kids will love it, unless they’re at the critical age between about ten and 13 when they’re too old to buy it, but too young not to try to destroy it. The show is your own, and you can invent whatever you like. You can overact until your face hurts. I got so into the part that I literally had a bruise on my thigh by Christmas Eve from all the thigh-slapping.

But let me give you one warning. That shmuck in the chicken suit up there? That’s me. And it could be you.