Although he was originally born in London and spends most of the year living near Oldham, Kenneth Alan Taylor is a true giant of Nottingham culture.
He ran the Nottingham Playhouse for a period during the 1980’s and has written and directed every one of their pantomimes for the last twenty-two years (as well as playing the Dame in most of them). We caught up with him during rehearsals for this year’s production Jack and The Beanstalk for a chat about writing, celebrities and dressing up as a woman....
How did the first of your pantomimes come about?
They’d never done traditional pantomime here and when I applied for the job as Artistic Director in 1984 I told them I would do traditional pantomime. They were very nervous about it. They said “We’ve never done panto, the Royal does panto,” and I said “this will be really traditional, no names, no stars, really family orientated.”
Strangely enough Jack and the Beanstalk was the first one I did here, we had a very small budget and we broke even. Gradually it’s built and built and it’s become like a Frankenstein’s Monster. When I left in 1990 that was the end of it as far as I was concerned, I was moving on to something else, but they kept asking me to stay on. In fact, they’ve just asked me to agree to another three years…
You say it’s a traditional panto. What is it about that approach that you like?
We have a full rehearsal period (most commercial pantomimes have perhaps one or two weeks) and I’ve got the most amazing back-up team. All the costumes, the sets, the props are all built here. So the production values are very important to this theatre, that’s part of its success. I also think it’s successful because it’s very family orientated. I’m absolutely adamant that it’s squeaky clean. There’s nothing that kids don’t understand, there’s nothing that will offend anybody. I always say it’s like an old friend coming back. The year before last I got letters of complaint saying that we’d taken out all the old gags. I said “you know all the old corny jokes“ but they said “that’s what we come for.” So last year I deliberately put tons of old jokes back in.
What is it about pantomime that makes you keep coming back?
You have freedom in panto that you don’t get in any other form of theatre. It stays fresh because it changes, it evolves. It’s anarchy, really. Which is what I love. Also, I’m a frustrated stand-up comic, I’ve never had the nerve to do it and probably wouldn’t be any good but panto gives you a chance to do all that. It’s a strange British thing that audiences love to be insulted, if you’re rude to somebody they love it. Barry Humphries as Edna Everage is horrible to people (and I’m rude, but I’m not horrible), but he said, “If you go to a theatre and there’s 800 people and you’re picked out, you’re special.” That’s why they like it.
Do you have a particular favourite pantomime?
Because I play the Dame, Mother Goose is my favourite. She is the Hamlet of panto, because the story is about her. She’s not just funny, she has pathos and turns nasty, she’s got everything. She’s a fully rounded character, whereas most Dames are literally just there for the comedy.
Who do you think is the best Dame in the business?
I don’t know about now, but for me the best Dame ever was Arthur Askey. I saw him when I was about six or seven doing Dame and that was what hooked me to pantomime. I didn’t like anything else because in those days you had Principal Boy and Principal Girl singing about six love songs and I hated that but I absolutely loved him.
In the time that you’ve been doing panto here, have you noticed Nottingham changing?
The thing that puzzles me about Nottingham is I’ve never seen any city with so many coffee bars. There’s two opened since last year. Every time I come I think “how much coffee can people consume?” It’s wonderful for men’s shops, though. It’s better than Manchester.
Something that’s been said about people from Nottingham is that they seem quite hard to impress…
I’ve not found that actually. They’re very warm and friendly audiences. They’re odd in Nottingham. They’re not midlanders, they’re not northerners, they’re very much ‘Nottingham’, aren’t they? But I’ve never found them a difficult crowd. I just love ‘em.
Pantomime’s a particularly English art form.
Absolutely. This tradition of cross-dressing is bizarre. It’s only English… nowhere else.
Do you think that’s just because the British love a man in a dress, or is there anything else?
We moan nowadays, or at least I do, about footballers or cricketers or people from Neighbours coming into panto who don’t know what they’re doing but I honestly think the Dame probably started as a commercial thing. They took a famous comic like Dan Leno and stuck him in for purely commercial reasons. Why they made the Dame a man no-one seems to know. Or why the Principal Boy is played by a girl. My theory is it’s just to keep the dads awake. With the dame, the other characters can be rude and get into much more physical slapstick with a man dressed as a woman than they could with a real woman. It wouldn’t seem right.
Do you have anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
What can I say to them?
What about ‘come and see the panto’?
I can’t be that blatantly commercial… Yes, come and see the pantomime. Actually we do have a lot of students in and they’re wonderful to play to. You can always tell when they’re in by the noise…
Jack and The Beanstalk is on at the Playhouse until 21 January. Kenneth then returns in April 2006, performing Krapp’s Last Tape at the Lakeside Theatre.