It’s the panto season.. Oh no, it isn’t....!

editorial image

When Phoenix Nights and The Slammer star Ted Robbins needs inspiration to play a panto Dame, he thinks of the best there is - the late comedian Les Dawson.

Robbins appeared alongside Dawson in a production of Jack and the Beanstalk at the Sunderland Empire back in 1989, hours after his eldest son, coincidentally also called Jack, was born.

He says: “My son was born on the 15th and I was late getting up to Sunderland because I had to go into Burnley Hospital to have the baby - although my wife had something to do with it!

“And I saw Jack overnight, saw him born and then I legged it off to Sunderland and Les was lovely and his wife Tracey and they made a big fuss of us.

“We have a picture somewhere of Les with his wig off, holding Jack as a month old baby in the dressing room at the Sunderland Empire.”

He learned invaluable comedy lessons from Dawson. He says now: “I still say a mental thank you and a hello to Les every time I put the frock on because he was the ultimate for me as a Dame.

“He didn’t say, Come here, son, I’ll teach you how to be a Dame. I just watched him and you can’t learn comedy, you’ve either got it or you haven’t - and Les had it.

“He wasn’t effeminate. Les was just a man in a dress. He’d put a little red cheek and perhaps a red nose and he’d stand there and look at the audience, like that, world weary. And people laughed.”

The experience will come in handy as Ted is now writing, directing and starring as the flamboyant Dame Trott in his own version of Jack and the Beanstalk, which opens at Preston’s Charter Theatre this Tuesday.

Alongside him are new faces for this year, Emmerdale’s former vet Zoe, AKA actress Leah Bracknell, as Fairy Peapod, ex-Waterloo Road star Tom Milner and Children in Need’s Pudsey Bear.

And returning to the cast are comedy duo The Harper Brothers, the sons of veteran comic Bobby Ball, Shameless star Jodie Hamblett as Jack’s love interest, Jill, and resident baddie Warren Donnelly as the Giant’s sidekick, Fleshcreep.

For Bracknell, the part of Peapod is bringing back some particular memories - the first time she played the fairy, she starred alongside her youngest daughter.

She laughs: “She was the front end of Daisy the cow - because they were short of a child.

“Obviously, her mum was going to be in the theatre every year so it was an easy option. But she said to me, ‘Shall I be the front end or the back end?’ And I said, ‘Always be the front end!’”

However, there is no chance of a repeat performance. Bracknell grins: “God, no, she’s 17 now. And my other one says she’d rather have needles stuck in her eyes than come to panto! They get past the age for it, don’t they?”

The actress herself says the part will be a challenge. She says: “I’ve spent the last few years doing evil characters so I don’t know if I can awaken my inner good fairy!”

In the central role of Jack is another new face - former Waterloo Road star Tom Milner. He says: “It was two years ago now so I’ve grown up - although I still look like a 12 year old, haha. But I do still get recognised from the show.

“Here, I’m the new one - the newbie. But I’ve never had such a lovely welcome. I’ve done one pantomime before and that was in my home town of Halifax. But to this day, it is probably the best job I have ever done. It was tremendous fun.”

Providing the comic interludes are comic duo The Harper Brothers, Rob and Darren - and you might just spot their famous dad in the audience too.

Darren says: “He’s very supportive. He came last year to watch us and he loved it. Then we went up to Blackpool to watch him - it wasn’t as good as this!”

The Harper Brothers obviously impressed Robbins in their roles of policemen Ping and Pong last year as he wasted no time booking them again.

Rob says: “We loved it really and then they said, ‘Would you like to come back?’ And we said, ‘Absolutely!2

“We got the offer in January so it’s great to know that your Christmas is taken. We really enjoyed it to be honest.”

And Jodie Hamblett, who starred last year as Snow White, is back as Jill and can’t wait to work with her old friends again. She says: “Every Christmas, I don’t go to parties - I just do pantomime!

“But it’s great though, it’s so much fun and it makes it more Christmassy. When you see all the little kids turning up, it’s such fun.

“Ted’s a great director and he’s a great writer as well and, because he knows me, he knows what I like to do. It’s the same with The Harper Brothers and Warren. We’re a team.

This is the fourth year that Robbins has masterminded the Charter Theatre’s seasonal treat and it has become a labour of love for him.

He can’t believe his luck that the job is his. He laughs: “I can’t berlieve they keep asking us back. No, it’s wonderful, I’m absolutely thrilled. Jack and the Beanstalk has always been a favourite of mine. Jack’s such a dimwit and it’s a chance to keep the dresses on as Dame Trott as well so I’m looking forward to that.”

He makes an effort to make his new stars feel at home and says: “There’s nothing worse, is there, that turning up on a new job and everyone going, “Oh, how are you, Harry, ahhh, we had a great time last year....Oh, you’re the new one, are you? Hmmm, we’ll see...”

“So it’s a fresh challenge, new audience and some old friends coming back.”

And he also takes the responsibility of the show very seriously, saying: “I have a little speech - and I’ll give it again this year and I really mean it.

“I just say to everybody: ‘Times are hard and tickets for a pantomime are a lovely treat that Grannies and Grandads and godparents and mums and dads like to save up and treat the kids and it’s going to be a family day out.

“It’s a real treat and it’s part of Christmas.”

For Ted, the panto has become a big part of the festivities - his whole extended family tend to turn up to enjoy the show. And it always reminds him of his late father, also a showbusiness legend. He says: “Just before I came to Preston, I was in a production of Cinderella at Liverpool Empire with Cilla Black as the fairy.

“That was lovely - and it was the last show my dad saw me in. But he’d have been very proud of these, I think. He was a real old showman, me dad.”

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Charter Theatre from Tuesday December 4 to Friday December 31. Tickets are available from the Guild Hall box office on 0845 344 2012.