Anti-panto

The ethics of Christmas theatre programming

The publicity material for the Royal Court Liverpool's Christmas production, Merry Ding Dong, a new play by Fred Lawless, includes the following, telling disclaimer: "This play contains strong language and is not suitable for bleedin' kids who will spend the entire time running round the place, shouting, eating sweets and being sick. Merry Christmas." Quite.

There's nothing new about British theatres attempting to take the critical high ground in a season invariably defined by formulaic pantos and celebrity career-revival. In fact, theatrically-challenging, adult-pleasing and/or pantomime-inverting Christmas productions are now as common as the kind of traditional family entertainment that places like the Chipping Norton Theatre are famous for.

Consider the Times' "20 must-see Christmas shows": I count only five "traditional" pantos. Even some of the shows on the list with familiar-sounding premises -- Hansel and Gretel at the Bristol Old Vic, say, or Peter Pan at Newcastle's Northern Stage -- are self-consciously choosing to swerve away from pantomimic convention. The former, created by the very fashionable Kneehigh, describes itself as set in "a world that is sweet but never sugary". Peter Pan aims to "rediscover the charm of the original story that has enchanted children for nearly 100 years".

This is, of course, no bad thing. Viv Groskop potentially put it best in a piece she wrote for the New Statesman back in Christmas 2005: "I first saw Danny La Rue in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Bath when I was eight years old and I knew a travesty when I saw it," she shuddered. "Even at that age I was appalled that this passed for entertainment and that adults were encouraging us to laugh and enjoy it."

Her article was a bitter dissection of the way Ian McKellen and Simon Callow were post-ironically espousing panto as "the new cool". It's worth pointing this out, I think, because the Royal Court Liverpool would perhaps do well to bear in mind the example of Kevin Spacey's three mid-noughties pantomimes at the Old Vic (the first two starring Sir Ian, the third written by Stephen Fry), which received criticism from various quarters for being middle-aged, luvvie affairs that, by tacitly discouraging children from attending, rather missed the point.

The pantomime season is the only time of the year that children under the age of ten are encouraged (or allowed) to actually visit a theatre -- one thinks immediately of Brief Encounter, and the Jesson children's famous complaint that "there aren't any pantomimes in June". So it seems to me rather curmudgeonly to programme a Christmas production that constitutes just another child-unfriendly occasion. Far more admirable, I'd suggest, to make Christmas theatre about introducing pre-teens on mandatory school trips to proper theatre -- full of style, trickery and colour -- in a manner that, who knows, might just encourage them to explore a different theatre space in June, even though there aren't any pantomimes.

Happily, several Christmas 2009 productions are taking exactly this approach. The Edinburgh Fringe-conquering Fuel are behind The Forest at the Young Vic, a multimedia performance utilising 19 real trees that aims to take 5 to 7 year olds "somewhere unlike anywhere you've been". And an innovative take on Cinderella, which premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith last Christmas and is playing at Warwick Arts Centre this winter, represents a compelling marriage of the Christmassy and the credible.

Like Northern's Stage's Peter Pan, this is a faithfully literary Cinderella: it is, save for a few minor deviations, a judicious adaptation of the Grimm brothers' two-centuries-old tale, complete with heel amputation and Kill Bill-style eyeball plucking. This undoubtedly makes for some welcome relief in a children's entertainment world populated by chastity ring-wearing high school kids and Mormon vampires. It's elegantly written as well. "One . . . time," begins a narrator, sidestepping the age-old opening line. "Cinderella dear, you really are so ostentatiously humble," groans the wicked stepmother later on, drawing chuckles from the adults in the audience (and confused frowns from the little ones).

But the production is so particularly successful, I think, because of its theatrical sophistication. Performed by a cast of just six (and a musician), it tosses together dance, puppetry, live music, non-linear time structures and a relentlessly inventive approach to narrative in such a condensed way that it feels, at every turn, like a celebration of what theatre can do -- and what its rivals, television, cinema and video-games, just can't. Kids leave this Cinderella energised (yelling, indeed) about the theatre. That, I think, is what Christmas theatre-programming should be about.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Show Hide image

Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496