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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Kenneth Alan Taylor

19 December 13 interview: Ian Douglas
photos: Martyn Boston

Kenneth Alan Taylor has spent a lifetime playing panto dames but he’ll finally hang up his sequined frocks and beehive wigs after this Christmas. More than a man in a dress, he also writes and directs the Playhouse pantos he stars in. His career hasn’t been all fairy dust and glass slippers though, there’s been Coronation Street and ‘serious’ theatre too...

How are preparations going for this year’s panto?
Preparations started, believe it or not, last January, with building the sets and fitting the costumes. We began rehearsals at the end of October, that’s when the real work gets under way for the actors. This year it’s Jack and the Beanstalk, the very same fairy tale we opened with thirty years ago. I’m Dame Daisy, Jack’s mother. A rather old mother, but still...

So this is to be your last panto ever as a dame?
Nobody believes me because I’ve said it three times before. But this time it’s definitely my last.Thirty years is a good place to stop.

What’s your most enduring memory of your time at the Playhouse?
The very first production of Jack and the Beanstalk. In those days the props were very simple and it was literally a beanstalk on a wire. On the first night, when the enchantress made the beanstalk grow, it started to go up and the kids were going “oooh”, then suddenly it snapped and fell to the ground. The enchantress didn’t know what to do and just finished her scene. I went on and ad-libbed to give the crew time to fix it; we were on stage hoping something would happen but it didn’t. Finally, at the end of act one, the girl playing Jack grabbed the beanstalk, put it over her shoulder and ascended the ladder taking it with her. Everyone thought that was brilliant and asked if it was supposed to be like that. That’s what I love about panto, you can get more laughs when something goes wrong.

How did you become a pantomime dame?
I started an as an amateur actor, then I was asked in 1959 at the Oldham Coliseum to play Buttons. That led to me being asked to play the dame and I got hooked. I’d have loved to have been a stand up comedian, panto is close - you’re allowed to ad-lib and interact with the audience. You can’t do that if you’re playing Hamlet, you have to stick to the script. I love the anarchy of panto. And it’s got everything theatre should have; song, dance, drama, comedy, spectacle, everything. It appeals to all ages.

 

What sets the Playhouse panto apart from other productions?
Firstly, we have a group of actors who love it and can do it. Secondly, the production values. Everything you see on stage is built in the Playhouse and that’s down to the staff, the designers, the painters, and the carpenters. They make the panto work. Every year people come up to me and say this is the best ever. We’re always trying to top the previous year. Thirdly, we never offend anyone. Our pantos are absolutely for all the family. They’re squeaky clean and there are no blue jokes. I used to take my kids to pantos and get annoyed with the adults all laughing and the kids asking “what’s so funny?” There was too much innuendo.

I’ve been told the Playhouse panto’s family atmosphere is down to you. How to you go about directing a panto cast?
I just do what I do. I always have a nucleus of people that know how I work. This will be John Elkington’s sixteenth panto and Rebecca Little, who plays Jack, will be doing her twelfth. If it’s someone young, we nurture them. This year we’ve got Kelly Edwards in the play, who did five pantos with us in the chorus of children from dancing schools. She’s now grown up and a professional actress. There’s an art to panto, one of the big mistakes that many people make is to think you just come on and mess around. You have to have that solid foundation of acting before you can ad-lib. On the first day of rehearsals I always say to the cast, “you must tell the story.” A lot of the children are not only seeing their first panto, but it’s their first time in the theatre. If they’re put off, you’ll put them off theatre for life. They have to believe that the genie’s lamp is really magic.

I heard a local politician once told you to stop doing pantos?
The first ever panto at the Playhouse was reasonably successful. Not like today when you have to fight for tickets, but it broke even. A month later I got a phone call from a lovely lady, Betty Higgins, head of the local Labour Party and leader of the Council. I went along to the Council Offices with no idea what it was about. There was the manager of another well-known local theatre, who were also putting on pantomimes. Betty said, “Ken, we have a problem, Nottingham Council funds both theatres. Now you’ve started producing pantomimes too, there’s a conflict of interests. I’m sorry but I don’t think I can allow you to do anymore.” “That’s fine” I replied. “If you don’t want us to do pantomimes, we won’t do them.” Betty said to the other manager, “you see, I said he’d be reasonable.” “I haven’t finished,” I went on, “I’ll stop doing pantos if the other theatre stops doing plays. Because there are plays we’d like to do that go straight to them.” There was an enormous silence. Betty said, “I think Ken has a point.” And that was that.

You’ve worked on Coronation Street and other TV dramas. Outside of panto, what’s your favourite performance?
I was in a production of The Price by Arthur Miller at the Bolton Octagon. I’d been wanting to play the part for years. Two brothers are in contention and have to sell the furniture from their New York attic where their father recently died. I was the eighty-nine-year old antiques dealer, a Jewish man called Solomon. It’s the only comic part Arthur Miller ever wrote. It’s the most amazing role, full of comedy but very moving. The director David Tucker actually knew Arthur Miller, so I knew I was working with a master of the craft. We ended up touring it for three months.

Any tips for your successor on how to play a dame?
Be yourself. Be a man in a frock, don’t be a drag artist. If it’s a man dressed as a woman you can be rude to her, call her a daft old bat, throw a custard pie in her face. It wouldn’t be funny if you did it as a woman. The greatest dame I ever saw was Arthur Askey.

Do you have any advice for young people with aspirations to get into theatre?
Go for it, because there’s nothing worse than regrets. Don’t go into it for fame, do it because you love doing it. I love the audience. I love the people I work with. They’re not all a bunch of luvvies. On the whole they’re a very generous lot, and liberal-minded. I also get to work with young people. Well, everybody is younger than me these days...

So what does the future hold for Kenneth Alan Taylor?
I don’t know. I will continue writing and directing the Playhouse pantos, I just won’t star in them. I’ll probably do one other play a year. I’m not mad about television, you don’t get the feedback you do from theatre audiences. I always know at the end of the year the Nottingham Playhouse will be there and for that I’m eternally grateful.

Anything else you’d like to say to your audience?
I’d like to thank the people of Nottingham for supporting us all these years. That’s what makes the pantomime so magical.

Jack and the Beanstalk, Friday 29 November 2013 - Saturday 18 January 2014, £20 - £27.50, Nottingham Playhouse, Wellington Circus, NG1 5AF

Nottingham Playhouse website
 

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