A festive family favourite, the launch of Harrogate Theatre’s panto this week is a sure sign that we are officially entering the Christmas season.
Sold-out notices are already appearing already but how many people know Harrogate’s traditonal panto has been going for 116 years? And just how many fairy lights does the panto get through each time? The Harrogate Advertiser answers the questions you need to know.
Harrogate Theatre: What is this year’s panto?
This year’s pantomine Dick Whittington was launched on Wednesday, and runs until January 15, 2017.
As always, audiences are expected to travel from all across North Yorkshire to enjoy this hugely popular annual show, much as Dick and his magical cat journey on an enchanting adventure in the panto itself from the heart of Harrogate to London.
Written by Harrogate Theatre’s winning team of David Bown and Phil Lowe, the annual panto is usually paved with gold for the theatre itself; contributing massively to its financial well-being.
Bown, the theatre’s creatively-minded chief executive credits the panto with enabling the venue to engage in more diverse projects throughout the rest of the year.
Star power: Harrogate panto’s acting royalty
The most famous member of the cast Tim Stedman, is appearing in Harrogate Theatre panto for an incredible 17th time.
A master of slapstick humour and crowd interaction, such is this popular actor’s commitment to entertaining audiences, Tim calculates he loses three-quarters of a stone during the panto’s run each year.
Playing Idle Jack in Dick Whittington, the last time he appeared in this particular panto, he got laryngitis for two weeks.
Which is why most of the cast adopt a vigorous fitness regime, like Olympic atheletes.
Tim said: “It depends what time of the day each performance takes place on but most of the cast normally go to the gym each day. I’m usually out the door by 7.30am and enjoying a gym and swim by 8am at St George’s Hotel. Then I tend to have a sauna in the hotel’s steam room once a day, too.
“I’m lucky to perform in such a great pantomime and Harrogate’s a lucky town in having such a great source of entertainment for all the family.”
History: When was Harrogate Theatre’s first panto?
The theatre was virtually founded on panto. Known as The Grand Opera House when it first opened in 1900, Harrogate Theatre was launched on January 11 with a charity gala in aid of British soldiers fighting the Boer War in South Africa.
But its first ‘proper’ show just two days later was a pantomime - a version of Dick Whittington.
The first recorded pantomime version of the story was in 1814, inspired by tales of English folklore surrounding the real-life Richard Whittington (1354–1423), Lord Mayor of London.
The choice of panto was that of William Peacock, Harrogate Theatre’s first managing director who run it for three decades in an era of gilded plaster and lavish fixtures and fittings.
Family favourite - what makes Harrogate Theatre’s panto so special?
Among the audiences at the panto in recent years is none other than actor Sir Ian McKellen who visited Harrogate Theatre in 2010 to see a previous version of Dick Whittington and hailed it as one of the best pantomimes he’d ever seen.
What impressed him most was its traditional, family-friendly nature.
2016 marks Phil Lowe’s 10th year as director of panto and eighth year as co-writer with David Bown.
Once upon a time, the likes of Graham Norton and 1970s comic Charlie Williams did appear in Harrogate panto.
But Lowe and Bown are both firm believers in the pre-adult humour/celebrity-dominated era of panto, relying on a story-driven approach.
He said: “The first panto I ever saw was Dick Whittington starring Vince Hill at the Bradford Alhambra in 1969 with my grandma.
“We do include modern references for adults but we don’t go for a great deal of innuendo.
“I travel around the country a lot and there are some very innuendo-laden pantos out there. That isn’t us.”
Strange but true: Harrogate Theatre panto facts and figures
Each panto takes nearly 12 months and more than 15,000 working hours to get from planning to launch - page to stage.
The production itself gets through a total of 30 kilos of glitter and 2,200 fairy lights are used.
Back in the mid-Noughties Harrogate Theatre panto would sell around 24,000 tickets . By 2010 it was up to 30,000. Last year’s production hit new heights: 32,000!
Bumps and knocks: the perils of appearing in Harrogate panto
Panto legend Tim Stedman admits he usually ends up covered in bruises during each run.
And he found himself getting caught in a giant laundry tub when he was playing the character of Wishee Washee during the production of Aladdin.
He said: “There were rubber mats inside. It’s all stage-managed safely but my daughter, who was then four, did ring me up when I first did it to check if I was okay.”
How many panto plots are there?
Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty. . .the list goes on.
But opinions differ widely on how many different panto stories are legitimate.
Some say it’s eight, more modern adherents sometimes extend the canon to nearly 20.
Harrogate Theatre are purists in that regard. They believe there are actually fewer pantos than either of the above.
David Bown said: “The pantos are done in cycles of six. There are only that number of classic storylines.
“”Coming up with a two-and-a-half-hour show with action and gags and songs and sets from scratch is a huge commitment.”
Harrogate panto: who is in it this year?
As well as the ever-popular Tim Stedman, the cast list for Dick Whittington includes Katy Dean, who has performed in several Harrogate pantomimes over the years, including a stint as Belle in Beauty and the Beast five years ago. The twist is that Dean will play a baddie - the evil Queen Rat!
Howard Chadwick also returns as the extravagant Dame.
Newcomers Harriet Harper and Harriett Hare play the roles of Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren.
Homegrown talent: Harrogate Theatre panto is truly local
Not only do youngsters throughout North Yorkshire arrive regularly in their buses from school to enjoy Harrogate panto, they quite often appear on stage, especially when it comes to young dancers.
Dick Whittington this year features members of local organisations such as Chatsworth Dance Centre, Lynton Academy of Dance and Harrogate Youth Theatre.
Known for the stunning, spectacular but very classy stage sets, this year’s scenery has been created in Starbeck by Harrogate Scenic Services, Harrogate Theatre’s own team of carpenters, painters and prop makers whose skills are in demand nationwide.
The secret to Harrogate panto's success
Phil Lowe said: “People always ask how we make the pantomime so unique and memorable year-on-year.
“I believe it’s down to the passion from the whole team from deciding which panto is next to the closing performance in January.”
Are you going to see the panto? Is it the best one yet? Let us know what you think at the Harrogate Advertiser Facebook page, website, Twitter @HgateAdvertiser or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org