They’re behind you: A behind-the-scenes look at the unsung heroes of the panto

They are the secret stars of panto…the behind-the-scenes people who make it happen. Chitra Ramaswamy talks to five unsung heroes


“PANTO is in my blood. Nothing compares to the buzz of it. I work in make-up and costume and teach at Queen Margaret’s University the rest of the year. The first two weeks of coming to the King’s is always frantic when we’re fitting every member of the cast and sorting out alterations. This year it’s Cinderella, and during the run I dress Allan (Stewart) and do laundry and repairs.

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“On the night, I pop in to see Allan then pre-set certain costumes so they’re ready for actors. Then I go back to Allan to dress him, and he’s never got his tights on. I put on his mic and bodystocking, which has got his false boobies and padded bum in it. Then I get him into his opening costume, shoes, and wig. Normally Grant (Stott) has come down by this time. I help him into his opening costume, too, which is this huge crinoline that looks like something out of The King and I. It’s kept up in the top of the theatre so we get the guys to drop it down. Backstage it’s dark, so we wear head torches to see all the poppers and buttons. I’ve been dressing Allan for ten years. You really get to know someone when you’re dressing them. After the interval, Alan always brushes his teeth or does a mouthwash and we have to communicate with his mouth full of foam. Somehow I always know what he’s saying.

“My history with panto goes back to the early 1980s when it was Stanley Baxter, Una McLean, and Walter Carr… all the old Scottish stars. I used to dress Jimmy Logan and prepare all their wigs and costumes. And I remember my first experience of coming to the panto at the King’s because I saw Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Corbett come flying on to the stage in a basket. I must have been about seven years old. I thought it was the most fantastic thing.”


“I FLY in all the scenery, all the stuff on flying bars, and do the scene changes. This year it’s Peter Pan so it’s me who gets Peter and Wendy up into the air. I’ve been doing panto at the Pavilion 21 years now. I still love hearing all the kids shout ‘ahhhh’ at the scenery when the curtain goes up. It makes my job worthwhile.

“When we did Peter Pan a few years ago Derek Lord from Take The High Road was Captain Hook. He came down to do the finale and forgot to put his hook on. That was funny… Captain Hook with a transplant. Another time, we were doing the flys during Aladdin and the rock was supposed to come away from the front of the cave but instead we pulled the cave out and left the rock there. It was very funny. Chris McClure dealt with it brilliantly and shouted ‘the powers!’

“Once you’ve done it for a while, it’s no bother. I started out making the scenery and sort of ended up coming into the theatre. Over the years I’ve been roped into all sorts. I don’t need to be coaxed to go on stage. I’ve had parts in all of them. I’ve been typecast as a drunk and a tramp, and I’ve got the drunk down to a fine art now. I’ve played a priest and a pizza delivery boy, an undertaker’s assistant, a hairdresser’s assistant and the front end of a zebra in Pinocchio. I’ve never been the back end of anything. I draw the line at that.”


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“I WOULDN’T know what Christmas was without pantomime. I started dancing in panto at HMT Aberdeen in 1985. It was Dick Whittington, I was eight, and I played half a gingerbread boy. Captain Birdseye was one of the stars.

“I also played a mermaid. I had to be carried on to the stage and put in position because the costume was fitted around the ankles and I couldn’t move. What I really remember is the dry ice. I was so little it came straight into my face instead of round my ankles.

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“As a child it was so exciting to get on stage, stay up late, and work with famous people like Wayne Sleep, the Royal Ballet principal dancer, Rolf Harris, and Matthew Kelly. In 1994 I left school and started chaperoning at the Aberdeen Academy of Dance, helping the children backstage. I did that until 2007 when I took over the dance school. I have always loved the magic of panto.

“You only need to watch the way children respond to it to feel it. Often when they get too tall for panto, because there is a height restriction for juveniles, there are tears.

“I’ve probably worked with 300 children who have done panto in Aberdeen. Most do about five years, depending on how tall they get. There are occasionally mishaps.

“The one that sticks out for me was ten years ago, when the children were waiting in the wings and soot got blown on to their faces from something above. There was no time to do anything about it. We just had to send them on stage with dirty faces.”


“I WAS 14 when I did my first panto at my high school in Livingston. It was Aladdin and I played one of the town children. I was an amateur performer for years. But seven years ago I lost my nerve and got into backstage dressing instead.

“As an amateur performer I played Widow Twankey, a robot in a futuristic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Grumpy with a Scottish accent. I don’t know why I lost my nerve but one night, I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more.’ Someone had to take my place. Then I became a dresser and now I get that same buzz out of standing on the side of the stage. If only I’d known 20 years ago. Panto is so unpredictable. Sometimes I end up dressing a dame while they’re trying to go on stage. You’re running after them, practically on stage with them doing their buttons. I was once doing a dame’s bra, this big padded thing, when he started to walk on stage. I couldn’t tell him to come back because the mic was on.

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“The whole of the back of his dress was open and you could see everything – his back, bra, big frilly bloomers, and the mic pack with all these wires. He just kept playing on it and the audience were laughing their heads off. It was hilarious.

I have my own cleaning and ironing business on the side. When you have a principal like Jasmine in Aladdin or Snow White and they’re standing centre stage in the spotlight in a beautiful costume singing an amazing song, it gives me goose pimples. I always think I just put that dress on them. And I washed and ironed it. It makes me so proud to see the princess in a dress without a crease in it.“

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“I started in panto in 1986. My first was Aladdin with Stanley Baxter as the dame. I was an 18-year-old casual spotter (operating the follow spotlights). I remember being called into Stanley Baxter’s dressing room at the end of the very first show. My job was to pick up each main character as they came to take their bow at the end and then move the follow spot to sweep the pit. Then finally you put the spot on the MD (music director).

“In Mr Baxter’s dressing room, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I had spent far too long on the MD and needed to hurry up and get my follow spot back on him. So I learnt early where the priorities lay regarding the grande dame. It was quite amusing. Mr Baxter could be very formidable.

“Panto is different to any other time of year. It’s in-house and a long run, so you really get to know everybody. You’re living in each other’s shoes. I’m doing all the audiovisual stuff this year, operating the pyrotechnics and the smoke cues.

“One of my favourite memories was seeing Stanley Baxter doing Cinderella. It was around the early 1990s and he did this sensational strip down to a costume made up of road signs covering different parts of his body. It was hysterical. Every single night the audience was in an absolute riot. It was one of those shows where you are watching from the wings thinking, ‘This is why I’m in theatre.’ Magical.

“This is the first year my son, Harvey, is going to be in the panto. He is one of the juveniles and will be part of the ensemble. He’s only 11 and is getting very excited. And, of course, this is the second year in a row that we don’t have Gerard Kelly (who died last November at the age of 51).

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“I did about 20 pantos with him and he’s sorely missed. You can’t fill shoes like his. Gerard had his own way of doing things. He was a pantomime legend.”