Interview: Panto star Johnny McKnight

Pantomime is one of those art forms that is always thought to be on the point of death, or at least not what it used to be. Whatever happens on the contemporary panto stage '“ and plenty does, with well over 30 professional Christmas shows about to burst on the Scottish scene over the next month '“ the current generation of adults always feels that it's 'not the same' as in the golden days of their childhood, when giants like Stanley Baxter, Ricky Fulton, Johnny Beattie and Una McLean walked the panto stage.

Detail of a poster for The Snaw Queen

Yet if the world survives for another 50 years, then I’d be prepared to bet that the next generation of middle-aged theatregoers will be saying exactly the same thing; that people today were living in a golden age of Scottish pantomime, full of shining stars who built up an extraordinary relationship with their audiences. And when they look back, one of the people who is unlikely to be forgotten is the astonishing Johnny McKnight, who emerged from the Contemporary Performance course at the RSAMD a dozen years ago knowing that he could both act and write, but had no idea that he would find his greatest professional fulfilment as the youngest and most hilarious of Scotland’s new panto dames, writing, directing and starring in Christmas shows across Scotland – although mainly at the MacRobert in Stirling and the Tron in Glasgow.

This year, McKnight has written a new version of Babes In The Wood – The Weans In The Wood – for the MacRobert, and is writing, directing and starring in The Snaw Queen at the Tron; his association with the Macrobert panto already goes back ten years, and his relationship with the Tron reaches back at least as far as his 2012 satirical masterpiece Agniezska Scrooge, a no-holds-barred modern version of the Dickens classic.

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And although the demands involved in creating at least two new pantomimes a year take up a large chunk of McKnight’s working time, it’s worth noting that like most Scottish panto stars, he also has many other theatrical strings to his bow. Together with former college classmate Julie Brown, he runs Random Accomplice theatre company; and in the last couple of years alone, he has written award-nominated Play, Pie And Pint play A Perfect Stroke, and has turned in a powerful acting performance in the Tron production of Mike Bartlett’s controversial play Cock.

“I really don’t think I did go to the pantomime as a child,” says McKnight, reflecting on how he came to specialise in this unique branch of theatre. “I only remember going once, when I was in Primary six – I grew up in Ardrossan, and we went to the Ayr Gaiety. Johnny Beattie was the dame, and when he came into the audience, I remember being absolutely terrified. Although now, going into the audience is what I love best about the whole thing!

“With hindsight, though, I think I started to think seriously about panto in my final year at college, around 2002, when I was writing a dissertation about the theory of camp in performance, looking at things like Rocky Horror Show, but also at the pantomime dame tradition. Then I went to see a couple of my friends in the Dunfermline panto in 2003, when Tony Roper was directing it, and the next year he cast me as the daft laddie.”

Tony Roper is the author of The Steamie, a star of Rab C. Nesbitt, and a hugely experienced comic performer, and McKnight says that working with him was a key experience. “He just gave me the crash course in panto. I could already see that the contemporary performance course had actually prepared me for this kind of theatre, with no fourth wall, a huge amount of audience participation and a fluid line between performing and writing – Tony would tell me to go away overnight and come back with better, funnier stuff for my own comedy scenes. And so eventually – very gradually – I began to think of myself as a writer, as well as a performer.”

McKnight’s pantomimes are often fiercely inventive, taking a traditional story and reshaping it around a torrent of contemporary references, from X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing to the A-list social life of David and Victoria Beckham. There are many traditional aspects of the art form, though, that McKnight fiercely defends. One is the audience participation, and another is the role of the dame, to which McKnight brings an outrageous camp style quite different, say, from the approach of Allan Stewart at the King’s in Edinburgh, another contemporary dame he greatly admires.

McKnight also loves the fact that pantomime is a popular art form that puts up no barriers to any audience; as a working-clas lad who sticks firmly to his full-on Ayrshire accent, he fears that theatre is gradually becoming a profession, and an art form, for the privileged. And as a hard-working writer who tends to study all the available versions of a traditional tale before creating his own, he finds himself becoming ever more passionate about the role of story in pantomime.

“I think there was a moment,” he says, “when I got a bit too ‘meta’ – too interested in pantomime that sends up pantomime. But I’m beginning to feel that in these times, that’s too cynical. The story doesn’t have to be a traditional fairy tale – I loved doing Scrooge, for example. But good has to triumph, and so far as that aspect of the story is concerned, you have to mean it. And this Christmas, we’re all going to need shows where we can see good triumphing over evil, aren’t we? We are; maybe more this year than ever before.”

*Weans In The Wood is at the Macrobert, Stirling, from 23 November until 31 December. The Snaw Queen is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 29 November until 7 January.