It seems an eternity ago that my agent told me that I had been offered the part of Abanazar in a production of Aladdin at the Grand Opera House in York. My immediate instinct was to turn it down. I can’t sing, I can’t dance and my acting experience had been limited to the occasional medical revue. The idea of spending Christmas away from the family when I have a young nephew and niece did not enthuse. “But just find out how much the money is, just in case”
Two days later “Bradley. Can I have a word? I have just been offered the part of Abanazar in panto. Do you realistically think I can do it?”
And the vastly talented king of light entertainment, a true panto A lister, listened to the question. His eyes lit up and he said “Do it. It will be the most fun that you have ever had”.
It has been well documented that December is not a fun time for comedians. This was my chance to do something different. This was an opportunity to step way, way outside my comfort zone. I had no relationship with panto. I had never seen one, and knew nothing of its traditions and tropes. All I knew of Aladdin was from having watched the Disney movie in 1993. Crucially, I had no idea that by me saying yes, they had just cast a man with no acting experience into a massively important role.
When I first met the cast for rehearsals, that is when I realised the scale of the task. They were all so effortlessly talented and experienced. In amongst this cast of showbiz veterans and natural movers, was me, a man who makes John Sergeant look like Gene Kelly. I cast my mind back to November 1995, one of my first comedy gigs, dying on my arse while Harry Hill looked on, trying his best to look sympathetic. Suddenly I was an open spot again.
The dress rehearsal was one of the most dispiriting days of my life. Nothing went right. I was nervy, fluffed lines, props and scenes. Nobody really came out of it with their dignity intact. And yet, one day later, on the afternoon of Friday 9th December, I had to walk on stage as Abanazar and get the ball rolling. I walked on. And 500 kids booed their hearts out. And it felt amazing. And then a few days later, the reviews came in. The panto was great. Apart from the guy who played Abanazar, who really wasn’t very good.
I was gutted. I’m used to getting bad reviews from witless strangers on twitter. This was different. This made me feel embarrassed. I felt like a contestant on Faking It who had really, really tried his best but hadn’t quite made it. The difference was, there were still 30+ shows to go. I had choices. Organise a longstanding personal vendetta against each of the reviewers, losing all dignity in the process. Start a hunger strike until the reviewers were forced to admit that they had unrealistic expectations of a man with no acting experience. Walk out of the production and flee to Belgium. The one option that sounded the best, though was….”You are having the time of your life. The good reviews for the show will guarantee audiences. You are working with people you utterly adore. Listen to their friendly advice, work harder and get better. Pantomime is a team game. So get over yourself.”
Team game. Stand up comedy is anything but. It is a lonely, neurotic, narcissistic journey. When Bradley had told me how much I would enjoy panto, he meant being part of a group who were all working for each other and not for themselves. If I had stopped enjoying being Abanazar because of what a critic had said, my unprofessionalism would have damaged the whole production. I desperately did not want to be that dick.
I’m back home now. I gave it everything I had for the remaining 30+ shows and I hope I improved. Pantomime, a genre I had always ignored, gave me the best month of my life. York, both the city and the Grand Opera House, was a magnificent host, and the cast, from the better known names to the stupendously talented but less heralded names made me feel humbled by how good they were. And the audiences, from people in the first year of life to people in their 90s, seemed to love the show. Pantomime appears to be based on bad puns, good puns, pop culture references and gay innuendo. Why wouldn’t I want to do it again?