COMIC John Bishop and actress Sheridan Smith tell James Rampton how to serve up perfect Christmas fare from the wings of Dick Whittington
SHERIDAN Smith has had a busy year, starring in ITV dramas Mrs Biggs (as the wife of train robber Ronnie Biggs) and The Scapegoat (an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel), and on stage in productions of Hedda Gabler and Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. But she says she couldn’t turn down ITV’s new one-off comedy drama, Panto! Pantomime runs in her family, after all.
“My agent said, ‘Don’t you want a holiday?’ ” she tells me. “But to me this is like a jolly. I get to slap my thigh, dress up and have a laugh with a great bunch of people. What could be better than that?”
We’re in the splendidly atmospheric Grand Theatre in Lancaster, where Panto! is being filmed, and the 31-year-old actress is explaining her family connection. “As a kid I was a dancer in Dick Whittington, Snow White and Cinderella. When I was 14, I played Baby Bear. I had a big head on, and you couldn’t see my face. My mum was very disappointed.”
But the Smith family link with panto goes back another generation. Smith – who, when we meet, is dressed in her panto outfit of brown suede jerkin, thigh high boots and lashings of fake tan – continues: “My mum and dad met doing summer season and went on to do a couple of pantos together. My mum was Princess Jasmine and my dad was the Chinese policeman in Aladdin.
“He proposed to her on stage during the matinee. He got down on one knee, and she thought he’d fallen over. When she accepted, the audience cheered. I suppose my dad thought there would be safety in numbers, and that if he proposed in front of an audience it would put her under such pressure she couldn’t say no. So when I was offered this, my mum said, ‘You must do it. Your dad proposed to me in a panto!’ ”
Panto! was written by stand-up comedian John Bishop and Coronation Street scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, and covers the chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans during a production of Dick Whittington. Various disasters occur – mainly involving the accident-prone 1990s pop idol Chesney Hawkes (being a very good sport playing a clumsy version of himself).
Against this shambolic backdrop, the panto’s two stars, Lewis Loud (Bishop), a local DJ, and Tamsin (Smith), an ex-soap star, begin a backstage romance. It is, in short, perfect camp Christmas fare.
Bishop, 46, says the drama was inspired by his own experiences in panto. “In 2006, I left my job in sales and marketing to go full-time as a comedian, and I started off doing panto at the Lowry in Manchester. It was a fantastic production of Dick Whittington. It was great on stage, but there were so many stories going on backstage.
“Often you’d find yourself exhausted backstage during a matinee with glitter on your face, asking a colleague, ‘Who’s your gas supplier?’ At the time, I thought, ‘This would make a brilliant TV comedy drama.’ This completes the circle.”
The Liverpudlian comedian – who made his straight drama debut earlier this year opposite Smith in an episode of Accused – explains: “The reason the panto producer recruited me in 2006 was because I was a DJ at Radio City in Liverpool. They wanted someone off the radio to give them loads of free advertising. Panto! is basically my life. It’s not a comedy drama; it’s a documentary. I was going to write an autobiography, but I thought I’d write this instead.”
Smith thinks the pantomime setting is ideal for a comedy drama. “I love the panto world. It’s absolutely bonkers backstage. The cast are always eccentric and brilliantly mad. John has captured the camp humour and the silliness of it all very well. I’m very surprised that it hasn’t been done before.”
Smith made her name in Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps, Benidorm and Gavin And Stacey, and is relishing her return to comedy. “It’d been a while since I’ve done a comedy. This came on the back of doing Hedda Gabler. That was quite heavy, having to kill myself every night – spoiler alert!
“After that, I needed to let off steam and just be daft, so this is perfect. I finished that on the Saturday, travelled up to Lancaster on the Sunday, and on the Monday I put on fake tan, hair extensions, fake breasts and these incredible nails – the look is so Essex! It was a great tonic to come up here and have a complete giggle.”
Variety, though, is what she craves. “Anything that is thrown at me, I just say, ‘Yes, please!’ I love playing different characters with different accents and hair. Losing yourself in different characters is like escapism. It’s therapeutic.”
Bishop, who is also sporting an exotic panto costume of a multi-coloured waistcoat, red harem pants and shiny brown boots, has been married to his wife Melanie for 19 years. They have three sons, one of whom, Daniel, makes his professional acting debut as Lewis’s son in Panto!
“He’s never even been in a school play before, but it works very well,” says Bishop. “It’s nice to have the family around, as I have been on tour for a while. There are a lot of moments where you feel more comfortable because it’s your own son.”
The production was welcomed at the Grand Theatre – with just one problem. “The Grand is genuinely doing Dick Whittington this Christmas,” says Bishop, “so when the locals heard that Sheridan Smith, Chesney Hawkes and I were in a production of that, the theatre website started getting battered. We had to put a poster of our panto outside the theatre to get an establishing shot. Then quickly afterwards we covered it up with a banner saying, ‘This is NOT a real panto!’”
Smith’s favourite moment in Panto!, she says, is that “I get to sing Nine To Five, which is my karaoke number. After appearing in panto, my parents formed a country and western duo, and I’ve always adored Dolly Parton. She came from nothing and worked her way up. She is a great businesswoman. I really love her. These fake breasts are my nod to Dolly.”
I suggest that perhaps she could get married at Parton’s celebrated theme park, Dollywood. “I need to find a boyfriend first!” she laughs. “But if I do get married, I’d certainly have my hen party at Dollywood. And then I’d be married by Dolly!” «
• Panto! is on STV, Thursday, 9pm