John Barrowman gives a lesson in what makes a star: professionalism, talent and old school decency. All from a wee stage door, after a visit to a Pantomime. In Birmingham. Sitting Comfortably? Good. I shall begin our story..
Once Upon a Time..
Hello, Boys and Girls, Mums and Dads! ARE WE HAVING A GOOD TIME? Wot? Come on shout louder. OH YES YOU ARE! And so on. For those unfamiliar with British traditions, Pantomime is an annual pre/post Christmas treat for families. Picture a Disney musical cartoon on stage, with jokes for everyone of all ages.
These are legends like Robin Hood, Cinderella, Aladdin and Dick Whittington, all woven into a feast of musical numbers, naughty jokes, poems, morality lessons, fantastical escapism and good old fashioned family fun. It is a great way to get kids introduced to Theatre as a medium, and is frequently their first encounter with the Stage.
‘Panto’ is also a great outlet for actors across the spectrum of A List onwards and a soap star can net a handsome fee for playing a BOO HISS baddie or cross-dressing ‘Dame’ (usually the mother of the play’s hero in the script).
As a child of at least 37 years, I really should have outgrown the Panto. So I had not been to one in a while. But when you get a really great cast, one simply cannot resist. Back in 1995, I met the lovely Kimberley Davies. Not on some sun-kissed beach in Oz but in..wait for it..Wolverhampton! After a Panto. Fast forward to 2011 and I saw Joan Collins in..no, not the Savoy or some high class soap opera set but..yes, in Panto.
Joan looked about 25 on stage and I also glimpsed Kylie Minogue in the audience (she was in the stalls, too and I was not hallucinating: the papers confirmed sightings next day). Maybe Kylie is playing Alexis Junior in a Dynasty revival? Drat..must not pitch in public (you will see why..later in the article).
This year, I decided to go again to Panto-land. The BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME hosted DICK WHITTINGTON. I have never laughed so much. To the extent that I cried a bit. This was first rate entertainment. Features included stunning costume and effects design; up to the minute cover versions of chart topping songs; carefully choreographed dance numbers and a 3-D effects spectacular for an under the sea segment.
Matt Slack gave it his all in what amounted to a self contained stand up show (sadly he is an actor for hire so can only do this sort of thing in annual Pantomimes but he’s very good indeed). Steve ‘Phil Mitchell’ McFadden was playing the baddie, King Rat. One could tell he was in his element (little known fact: Steve was Gold Medal winner at RADA, thereby explaining his excellent range over 25 years in BBC soap, EastEnders).
The Krankies were a great asset and as funny and vital as they were 30 years previously. For the uninitiated: the Krankies are a husband and wife double act and the diminutive Janette plays ‘Jimmy Krankie‘: a naughty schoolboy. Don’t ask. It’s hilarious and fun and clever and you ‘get’ it once you see it! If you are ever feeling a bit down or cannie sleep or have a worry you need to escape, even briefly? A few blasts of the Krankies’ old sketches on YouTube will do you a world of good. Trust me.
The Krankies’ genius is in managing to somehow imply pure filth at speed, and yet thereby also somehow appealing, naturally, and suitably, to the whole family. Timeless stuff, as kids of six plus today laugh at the same act who made kids’ tv such fun back in the 1980s. It’s innocence and adulthood at once and therein lies the appeal of Panto in a nutshell. One line I cannot seem to quite shake from my head was wee Jimmy saying to Dick: ‘AND TAKE YER WEE PUSSY WITH YA‘.
This was an ensemble piece and everyone gave their all. But the ‘top billing’, deservedly so, went to JOHN BARROWMAN. Barrowman has been a professional actor for thirty years, his first role having been a blink and you’ll miss it shot from 1987’s THE UNTOUCHABLES. Whilst he specialised in Theatre and mostly musicals (including PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), he remained a fixture on British television.
Barrowman struck gold, finally, when he was cast as Captain Jack Harkness in the revived DOCTOR WHO (2005 -). This was a truly breakthrough performance, in that the character’s sexuality was there and yet incidental to his heroism, charm and sheer joy in and lust for life. It was the BEST way to defeat homophobia and engender a love for equality among the viewers, young and old. A spin-off (TORCHWOOD) followed, with Barrowman’s Jack in the lead. Then he graduated to high profile guest spots in the likes of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, ARROW and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW.
Now: Hollywood know who Barrowman is and he can command any role he wishes for some major television and feature film work. He looks the part, too. The guy should play a LOT more action hero roles, because he is in frankly awesome shape, with a boundless energy. I saw my picture next to his and..well..let’s say my vanity just took a (brief) knock
Quite why Mr Barrowman has kept up an association with Britain at all, let alone ended up doing a Panto in Birmingham is..well..frankly, a minor miracle. I use that term fairly literally. We are lucky to have an actor this hard working and high in profile, somehow retaining his links to the small screen and stage in the UK.
Yes, he has Scots heritage and is technically a British fixture, anyway. But he does not NEED to be. The fact that he chooses to perform, in Panto, to very accessible and everyday crowds, is indicative of his sheer joy in the work and his love of those admiring it. That’s inspirational. Patriotic Professionalism.
I had the privilege of meeting Barrowman backstage tonight. He took a few selfies and answered my questions about TORCHWOOD. Is it returning? He simply cannot say. I tried to prize some more information. He did not budge. The measure of the man however is HOW he did so.
Very few, if any actors, would be quite so open about the difficulties and dangers inherent in discussing a television or other production that might or might not be in even embryonic or advanced development. As Sylvester McCoy once said (yes at another Panto, years ago, when I enquired about his Doctor Who’s return) : ‘We’re just actors, they just hire and fire us!’.
(picture note 1: 27 years between these pics and..my hair /love for all things Doctor Who has not changed)
(Picture Note 2: Barrowman is the one on the left. I’m the one who needs to hit the Gym. Fast).
Barrowman took quite a school-master / professorly/forensic legal approach in his explanation. He’d make a great law lecturer should he ever tire of acting! He put things in clear and accessible yet firm terms. The TORCHWOOD decision is simply not up to him. Consequently, he must protect his own interests and that of the brand by not revealing or being seen to reveal anything. Especially to writers who might be in a pitching mood! I should have just said ‘great show: you must be exhausted and thanks for the laughs!’.
Now, to be fair, I did say ‘Look: now is surely the time to bring it back? Trump! Brexit! Captain Jack to the rescue..it’s an alien conspiracy, obviously? Think Parallax View..with sci-fi and you can be the Warren Beatty‘. I honestly was not pitching. In retrospect, Mr Barrowman was right to jump into defence mode and he did so via a swift change in body language that got his message across far better than any ‘thanks but..’.
(Picture note 3: the man above is not John Barrowman. It’s Warren Beatty).
I thanked Mr Barrowman for the Panto, told him how much I admired his work ethic and assured him I was NOT pitching (but that he should talk to Russell T Davies again and make it happen and that if the BBC do not facilitate that, they are mad!). That raised his million dollar smile. At last!
Phew. No damage done. Just to be on the safe side, I also threw in an apology for comparing him to Warren Beatty. But they do look a bit alike and have a similarly supernatural ability to look better than men fifteen to twenty years their junior! Also both men are astute and clearly make a system work for them rather than vice versa; commercial hits enabling their own pursuit of pet projects. Trust me, it’s a compliment. To Beatty
The real measure of a star as opposed to a celeb or just a performer, is how they treat people. I can honestly say I have never seen a more professional, inclusive and well organised back-stage operation than that orchestrated by Mr. Barrowman and his team. The co-ordinator (a lovely lady with curly hair whose name remains anonymous) was a perfect guide. There was a measured, calm and orderly queuing system, to which all adhered with little if any fuss. EVERYONE met their hero and took the selfies / got the autographs etc. EVERYBODY.
Priority was given to those who were needy and vulnerable and disabled. Whilst it could have been a raindrop that dropped on my cheek as I watched the smiles of the wheelchair bound fans at meeting Barrowman..it might well have been a tear of emotion. This was Capraesque stuff. A cinematic moment. Quite disparate peoples. Brought together in a civil appreciation of the stage, of Pantomime and the work of one of its brightest stars. A big thank you to ‘Team-Barrowman‘ and the man himself.
Confession: this was in fact my second viewing of the Pantomime in question. Sadly it was also the last night and the awesome efforts involved have now been packed up as the next production enters the spotlight of the theatrical merry-go-round. But that is what makes Theatre such a wonderful place.
The Stage offers constant change, but a recurring sequence of types of entertainment. Above all, you will always have a home within a play and an escape to another place of words and lights and imagination and shared experience. That journey, that lifelong love affair, begins when a child watches a Pantomime.
So it’s no harm in seeing one as an adult. Especially when you witness the joy that can be generated in such a paradoxical parcel of simple motifs, delivered through complex craftsmanship. A timeless art-form, untouched by specific shifts in taste or political climates, whilst reminding us of an eternal need to poke fun at whichever dark challenges must be confronted as we leave the Theatre for an uncertain world. That, to me, makes Panto the perfect form of entertainment. And it has a worthy champion and ambassador in the consummate professional that is John Barrowman.
It’s all good..or..to quote the brilliant wee Jimmy Krankie: ‘fandabidozi’
What do you mean you won’t go and see next year’s Pantomime? OH YES YOU WILL!
Thank you to Mr Barrowman and his team; Matt Slack Fans; cast and crew of DICK WHITTINGTON and ALL who make the HIPPODROME THEATRE one of the many great flagships for Theatre in the UK.