Behind the scenes with the king of Harrogate panto

NADV 1312168AM9 Phil Lowe. Picture : Adrian Murray. (1312168AM9)
NADV 1312168AM9 Phil Lowe. Picture : Adrian Murray. (1312168AM9)

Interview by Weekend Editor Graham Chalmers

The only thing as much fun as watching Harrogate Theatre’s current family pantomime is talking to its director about it.

It’s the seventh time Phil Lowe has helmed the Harrogate panto and this energetic and likable panto supremo is still bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement.

“I love doing panto. I love the challenge of doing it every day for months on end. As theatre, it has got everything in it and you can do anything you want with it. There are no limits - apart from time.”

Harrogate’s panto is highly regarded far beyond the town’s boundaries for being a truly family affair with a traditional approach.

But Phil himself, who once again co-wrote the current production of Sleeping Beauty with the theatre’s chief executive David Bown, is anything but old-fashioned - unless you classify liking Derby County and hard rock these days as oldfashioned.

He looks a little like comedian Bill Bailey (without the long streaks of dark hair on the side) and he seems to share some of the QI star’s musical tastes.

“I love music in general, it’s one of the few things people can still strongly disagree about in entertainment and the arts.

“I’m a big fan of Slipknot and Slayer. I’ve even used bits from Slayer songs as the intro to the arrival of the evil baddie in pantos we’ve done.”

It’s fair to say Phil, who moved to Harrogate seven years with his wife Caroline and family because of the panto, is a busy man, forever balancing and juggling and squeezing in.

It may be the peak of panto season the day I talk to him in the theatre’s circle bar but he’s just back from South Africa where he’s also been acting as the company manager for hit show Tap Dogs which became a worldwide phenomenon after it was performed at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

“Travelling is a normal part of my work which has taken me round the world. It’s great but it’s also tricky. When I’m on holiday, I don’t like to travel. We like going to Newquay as a family. I love Cornwall.”

In total, Phil has done 14 shows at Harrogate Theatre, and it’s not all been panto. There’s been straight drama and inventive productions such as Fagin’s Last Hour and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

He learnt his craft mainly in Derby, at what was then the Derby Playhouse, where he met his wife, and, later, Bolton with stints in Harrogate during the era of artistic director Hannah Chiswick as a stage manager and co-director at the time of shows like Teechers and Steaming.

He also still finds time to help out at Leeds Festival and Latitude music festival.

When the all-important panto call came, for the first time, however, it turns out he had left the world of theatre altogether.

“I felt a bit illusioned with the politics in the theatre, so I decided on a career change. I was working as an installation technician with Virgin when David Bown phoned me up from Harrogate and asked if I’d like to direct Snow White that year.

“I was in the middle of a job at the time and must have been on the phone for 45 minutes or so!

If I tell you Phil has already started work on Harrogate Theatre’s next panto for 2014-15, you’ll get a sense of the scale of the immense amount of effort involved each time.

Although Harrogate Theatre’s panto is enormously important to the theatre’s finanical wellbeing, it’s still something of a surprise to hear it’s the theatrical equivalent of painting the Forth Rail Bridge.

“It’s such a major production, it’s a year-long process. Panto has so many elements to put together. It’s several shows in one. By the time we get to launch night, my wife is sick of it. She’s heard all the jokes over and over again.”

As director and co-writer- and he has taken that role in 14 pantos in total - Phil has a hand in everything, from the costumes to the casting to the gags to the songs.

He admits to being a huge fan of Morecambe and Wise are and any influence audiences may detect on stage is strictly deliberate, he says.

“They were masters of the craft but they never swore once. I can’t think of any comedians today who never swear. There was always warmth between the two of them. You could relate to them as people.”

Although family-friendly, this year’s production of Sleeping Beauty is far from stuck in the past. To keep the kids happy, the show includes modern pop songs from the likes of One Direction - plus some classic Elton John to keep adults happy.

Gary Barlow’s current hit single would have featured, too, had it been released a week earlier, Phil says. The one thing that isn’t negotiable - and it’s, perhaps, the primary characteristic which separates Harrogate panto from so many others - is the importance of the story.

“I’m not against having ‘stars’. Our cast always has recognisably talented and experienced actors but what we say here is that the story is king.

“Panto is about pleasing the whole family, which is a real balancing act. And it’s the story which drives everything.”

But it’s time for Phil to shoot off. Amazingly, he is managing to get some time off during the festive period, partly because he turned down another work offer elsewhere over Christmas.

Still, it doesn’t sound like this hugely likable, all-round talent will be giving up on Harrogate panto anytime soon.

“To be honest, the prospect of putting pantomime together is massively scary as as professional. But it’s so exciting. I would be devastated if I ever had to stop.”

Sleeping Beauty runs at Harrogate Theatre until January 12.

For tickets, call the box office on 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk