Jeanie Finlay on Pantomime

18 December 14 words: Ali Emm
A rather excellent Nottingham-based filmmaker tells us about her latest project before it's aired on BBC Four this coming Monday
alt text

What initially gave you the idea to document a pantomime?
I went to see Aladdin at the Nottingham Arts Theatre in 2011 and saw an amazing range of people on stage; from people that you could imagine being in a West End theatre to people you could only imagine being on that stage at that time. It was absolutely joyful and I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. I was watching the panto and thinking, “I wonder what that man does for a living... I wonder what her story is.” Sometimes when I get an idea about what I want to make a film about, time slows down.

Is that why you picked the Nottingham Arts Theatre?
I can’t describe it really, I just fell in love. It offered everything: it was in my adopted home town, I could see the building from the edit suite where I was cutting The Great Hip Hop Hoax, it’s crumbling and tatty round the edges but that gives it absolute character and everyone is there for the love of it. We didn’t get the funding we’d hoped for, but I just thought, “I’m going to do it.” So we made it on next to nothing - being a filmmaker is about holding a camera and making films. I knew from experience that if I waited for the money I would fall out of love.

I also believe in micro-cosmic filmmaking: showing this theatre, hopefully it will have parallels up and down the country. I was in Moscow earlier this year with Nick Read, who was making a Storyville at the Bolshoi Theatre, so we went backstage at the Bolshoi and I stood in the wings of this new ballet. I was talking to him about what he’d been filming, and it was exactly the same stuff. So the Bolshoi or the Nottingham Arts Theatre, it’s all the same micro-dramas.

Do you remember your first panto?
My granddad in Scotland, Grandad Finlay, took me to see Mother Goose with Stanley Baxter when I was six. It was amazing. I did lots of research into it and the UK is in the top five of theatre attending nations in Europe. You assume it’s because we’re so cultural but, actually, if you took pantomime out of the equation we’d be in the late twenties. Pantomime is something that 90% of theatres here put on, it’s massively popular.

What’s it like picking a story out of that much footage?
I was there for three months and shot 130 hours of footage - that’s quite normal though. It’s really hard. In an edit, you need to have the auditions and the rehearsals - our narrative was shaped by the theatre’s financial pressures. The management restricted the theatre group to just two days to get in, rather than their usual five to seven days. So the dress rehearsal was a bit of a disaster and we see that in bright technicolour. The arc of the film is the runaway train of, “Are they going to put the show on? Is it going to be okay?” Then there’s getting to know the main players and why they do it.

alt text

There is a casting process in my head, which is completely personal – I have to relate to them. Robbie Robb, who plays the Chamberlain, is Scottish, he’s the same age as my dad and he had a stroke the same year as my dad did, so I absolutely related to him. He’s a retired tax inspector and, after he nearly died from the stroke, he decided that he was going to have more good things in his life and theatre was one of them. Of course the Dame is a big part of panto, and Rob’s a moody, broody guy who hates Christmas. I thought the idea of a Dame that hates Christmas – for reasons that you’ll find out in the film – is absolutely delicious.

I like the idea of making quietly political films too. Roy, who’s in the chorus and is Grog the Ogre, had lived in Bestwood for 51 years, since he was born, and he had to move out because of the bedroom tax. So it’s putting a personal face to the realities of this government. And at the time of making it the government were removing arts from the baccalaureate and this last week they’ve said that pursuing arts at school is time wasting and not good for a career. Absolutely infuriating. When you start valuing the bottom line above the heart and creative expression you’re in dangerous territory. I hope people come out of Panto! thinking, “Oh my God, the Nottingham Arts Theatre is an amazing place.” And the fact that you don’t have to pursue this as a career but it absolutely makes your life better. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing.

How did it feel being part of the audience watching the finished show?
I saw it six, seven times. While working it was really hard to relax and enjoy it because for the whole time I knew that in however many days time that it wouldn’t exist anymore. That’s the thing with theatre, it’s live; I couldn’t go back and get pick ups if we missed something. I came into town to do some shopping with my daughter, and the show was on and I couldn’t leave it. So I went and got my camera and watched it again. We shot it from the point of view of the audience, so you get the heads. I thought it was glorious. I’ve already bought tickets to see this year’s production.

How was the cast and crew screening with it being shot almost two years ago?
It was emotional. There were a lot of tears, and I’ve never heard laughter like that. There’s quite a lot of laughs in the film, but it’s also quite intimate and heartbreaking at times. There were just some lovely silences when people were really open about their lives. At the beginning it was like watching a home movie with them going, “Argh, there’s you. Ha ha, there you are.” Then they were a bit like, “Wow, it’s like a real film!”

What was it like fitting in the making of Orion, finishing The Great Hip Hop Hoax and doing Pantomime?
Totally crazy. I said at the beginning of the year that I was going to get two films finished. It is like doing a marathon, crossing the finishing line, getting your silver blanket and your medal and your Mars bar and thinking, “I’ve made it!” Then someone yanks the Mars bar out of your mouth and tells you to go back to mile fourteen. It’s been crazy but I really enjoy doing a small project and a big project at the same time. I love the freedom I’ve had with Panto! because BBC Storyville came on when we had a ninety minute cut in place, I was able to make the film that I wanted to make. Whereas with Orion I have crowdfunders and various other funders, and there’s an expectation that that film has to be big and do well.

How does it feel to be part of the BBC Christmas schedule?
I would just love to be  in the Radio Times at Christmas, that would be amazing. They’re going to show clips of Panto! when they launch the BBC Christmas schedule. I just love the idea of our donkey in an ill-fitting, 18 certificate costume being shown to the national press alongside the more plush, big budget Christmas shows.

What have you got coming up now that Orion is in the final edit stage and Panto! is ready for our tellies?
A couple of things… I’m also looking for another project, but it needs to catch my eye and I’ve got to fall in love. I get people pitching me films and ideas, but it’s a bit like Nanny McPhee: when you need me, I won’t be there.

Panto! is a co-production by Glimmer Films and Met Film Production for BBC Storyville. It will be shown on Monday 22 December, 9.25pm, BBC Four, and will be available on BBC iPlayer.

Nottingham Arts Theatre’s seats are reaching the grand age of sixty, and as such, have seen better days. You can visit their website to make a donation, no matter how small, to help refurbish them.

Jeanie Finlay website
Nottingham Arts Theatre website

Tell us what you think