Oh Yes It Is!
That’s right, the Pantomine season is officially approaching so we thought we’d kick off our seasonal feature offerings with a bang and get straight in there with an interview with a veteran.
Iain Lauchlan is no stranger to the entertainment industry with a career spanning over 40 years. Having played dame, writer and director at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre for over 20 years, he’s not short of an experience or two. Nicole Craft, with the help of some smaller panto fans who sent their own burning questions for their local hero(ine), caught up with him at the official launch of this year’s effort, Sleeping Beauty.
What’s it like dressing up as a woman?
Very strange actually. It’s funny because I’ve been doing the pantomime for quite a number of years now, and the first time I did dame was 1987 at the Belgrade. I’d never done dame before and it’s really up to the designer what the costumes look like (although now I get a little bit of input into it) and the first dames I did I was in very short mini skirts, fishnet tights and high heels! I was much younger at the time but I just didn’t feel comfortable with it at all. Then I went to see Jack Tripp, he played dame famously for many years. I went to see him in his last show in the Sadler’s Wells and I watched him – he was dressed as I am, a traditional dame with doc martens – and I thought I’d feel much more comfortable doing that. So from then on, that’s the kind of dame I played. It became much more enjoyable and I felt much more relaxed – I felt like a man in a frock rather than a female impersonator if you know what I mean? The designer this year is Terry Parsons, the guru of panto, I’ve been wanting to work with him for many years. He’s been 50 years in the business and his very first job was at the Belgrade Theatre. Luckily he said he’d do the panto this year and it’s lovely to work with him, but the walk down he did for me was very Danny La Rue, and I said to him… no. It’s not really the kind of dame I do.
As long as it’s fun and it’s a silly costume I’m much happier.
You don’t have a high-pitched voice naturally. Do you find it hard keeping the right pitch in your voice for the whole show?
On stage, not at all. I find it really hard doing it when not on stage. It’s really strange, if people ask me to do it I laugh as I can’t really do it. But when I’m actually on stage, not a problem. When I’m actually playing the character it seems to work, it comes naturally.
How do you manage the quick changes?
I have a dresser every year, someone who is helping me and has all of the costumes laid out – usually at the side of the stage as I very rarely get back to my dressing room – in a certain way, and we work it and rehearse it. Also when they design the costumes they think about it as well; they put zips in instead of poppers, and Velcro…thank goodness for Velcro! So it’s thought about well beforehand.
How do you plan the shows and how long does it take to get it how you want it to be?
Well, there are different stages. I have to have a synopsis for the show, quite a full synopsis, stating what’s in each scene by the end of March each year. So that goes in and the designer designs from that synopsis really, they get the design started, they know what each of the scenes are and what’s happening. I haven’t done any dialogue or any routines or anything like that. Then I audition for my cast usually about July so I have more idea of who I’ve got to work with. Then August/September time I write the script. In the script I have to write the songs if we’re going to have new songs, I have to put what routines are in, the comedy, I have to work all that out and the storyline of course. Then the last stage is when you get into rehearsals and you get everybody together with a working script. I always tell my cast I expect to bring about 70% of it and we expect to invent about 30% in rehearsals. It develops and evolves through the three-weeks rehearsals.
That was the next question – how long do you get for rehearsals?
Yeah, three weeks. I get two and a half weeks in the rehearsal room, and then we go into the theatre. During that time we have to record the children singing and all that sort of stuff, because they don’t have microphones, so we pre-record them. The songs have to be done, and the backing tracks – some of the music is on a backing track and some of it’s live, in the pit. The tech lasts three or four days. We’ll go right through every bit of it with the technical team and work out all of the positionings on stage – then we have dress rehearsals.
Have you ever been injured during the ‘slippy bit’ and do you help clear up afterwards?[laughs] I don’t help clear up! I’m usually too busy changing. I have hurt myself, it gets very slippery up there. You know, when I first did pantomime here, I wasn’t allowed to do a slosh scene. Health and safety and mess; they wouldn’t let me do it at all. So all the slapstick scenes were really dry and just physical scenes but I managed to wear them down as I always wanted to do it. It’s great, all the commercial pantos tend not to do it – but we always have a slosh scene and this year we are going to be icing Princess Belle’s birthday cake…
If you weren’t in the theatre what do you think you’d be doing?
That’s a good one. Well, before I went to drama school I went to Building College, I trained as a surveyor. I didn’t like it so I went to drama school – because my amateur dramatics was taking over life at that point… [and] I came out as an actor. I basically worked as an actor for many years and as a television presenter, for children’s television. I got the chance to be a producer for Playdays, so I ended up producing three of the Playdays shows for the week. From that, my writing partner at that time was Will Brenton, we created The Tweenies and we set up our production company. So I kinda stopped acting for a while and I became a producer, and I still do that. I’ve just set up a new internet TV channel, a preschool one for children called Cheeky Chimps. So If I wasn’t acting… I’d probably be a TV producer – but on the other hand, I am a carpenter! I still do a lot of carpentry for people.
Gosh, the Tweenies – I made a hand puppet of milo for my sister in my sewing class a secondary school!
I’ve got the original Tweenies at home, the ones we pitched to the BBC for the programme, we got little models made of the original tweenies we had in our pitch, they didn’t have any boots on, they had bare feet, and there was five of them. We pitched five Tweenies but the BBC decided they only wanted four so one of them had to go. There was Jake, and there was Fizz, then there was Milo then Bella age-wise, well in the middle there was Sid, and Sid went, he never ever made it.
I’ve promised my 9-year old boy I would ask you this. Do you have to wear a bra?
No, these are made for me. It’s like a bodice, built-in. So they always make them kinda the same really.
There was only one year [laughs], that the designer decided to do something different. She decided to make them but fill them with birdseed to make them more real, but that was just way too disturbing so I’ve never done that again. So they are always just padded like this.
A couple from me now, on a slightly more serious note. How do you keep it different every year?
It’s quite tricky. For a lot of performers when they do pantomime, they’ll go to a different theatre, or the shows will go to a different theatre every year, like Qdos or something like that, they’ll do exactly the same panto, but they’ll move it to another town, so they can do the same thing. But because we do different pantos in the same place every year, it’s much harder. I do write a new script for every time we do it, so this is the third or fourth Sleeping Beauty I’ve done. Although the story is the same, you can’t change the storyline, you have different routines, you try to put different characters in, you put different things together. This time I’ve put Baby Shark in, something that kids know, popular culture stuff. It’ll feel different because it’s got different routines and I’ve put emphasis on different characters. It will be different, but it’s always quite tricky to make sure you’re doing something fresh.
You mentioned the touring productions and the slightly ‘bigger’ pantomimes; they have a tendency to stunt cast. Is it a conscious decision that you don’t bring the celebrities in?
It is. One of the first pantomimes I did here as an actor, I wasn’t involved with the making of them or anything, Judy Carne, from an American program called Laugh-in that was very popular, she was in the panto; along with the dame who was a very well-known dame. So they’ve done various people in the past who have had a bit of a television name. They decided in the end, it was Bob Hamlin when he asked me to do it, he said to me, “I’m only giving you two years, everybody gets two years. If you come and do the panto for two years and write it and direct it, that’s all you’re getting and then I’m moving on to someone else”. I said that’s fine Bob, it’ll be lovely to do it. So I did that, but then he kept me on and he said actually, what I want to try and do is try and build up the relationship with the dame and the Coventry people; so they get to know you and the panto is a brand kind of thing, he had this vision for that. So he decided not to have any ‘stars’ in it but to try and build up that relationship between the people in the panto and Coventry to make it feel as if it’s their own. I think for Coventry it’s the perfect thing to do, rather than some new X-Factor person coming in every year. The problem with having names is that sometimes you have a name that can’t do the job, that’s one thing, but the story suffers because you have to give them the time and they become the important thing in the show rather than the story. So that’s one of the reasons they don’t do stars.
Sleeping Beauty runs at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from 21 November 2018 until 5 January 2019. For tickets and more info visit www.belgrade.co.uk.
Nicole Craft | Image: Joe Bailey