Is this the fairest panto of all?

This year's pantomime at The Hexagon sees sit-com legend Su Pollard starring as the Wicked Queen in a fun-filled production of Snow White. Paul Kirkley says hi-de-hi to a national institution.

Ah, the smell of greasepaint hangs heavy in the air, which can only mean one thing - pantomime has returned to Reading once more to delight us all with what is surely the camp high point of the Christmas holidays.

And this year is a special one in the town's panto history, because for the first time The Hexagon is to stage a pantomime written specifically for the venue -- in this case by none other than veteran children's entertainer Christopher Lillicrap. Ta daaa!

Ok, so you have to be a child of the 70s and early 80s to really know what we're talking about here, but Mr Lillicrap is a man of prodigious talent, who wrote, presented and sang amusingly on many a children's TV show for the best part of a decade - including We'll Tell You A Story and Flicks.

In recent years, he has found new success with his Proper Pantomime Company, which has produced a number of acclaimed seasonal spectaculars for The Anvil in Basingstoke.

Not only has he penned this year's dazzling version of Snow White, but he stars in it too - as (what else) the show's outrageous dame Nurse Nora.

Joining him on stage will be fellow light entertainment legend Su Pollard as the Wicked Queen, and experienced panto actress Debbie Chapman as Snow White - not forgetting the many local kiddies from the area's theatre and dance schools, including Starmaker Theatre Company and South Lake County Junior School, whose contribution should really make this a family affair.

And in case you're feeling bewildered by how quickly panto season comes around, spare a thought for The Hexagon team - plans for next year's production, Mother Goose, are already underway!

Meanwhile, here's what Su Pollard had to say when Weekender caught up with her at The Hexagon recently...

This is the second year you've played a wicked queen in pantomime, isn't it?

Yes that's right - and I'm quite looking forward to it because I had such a great experience last year, in Lincoln. I'm normally principal boy so even though I knew the story and everything, obviously, I really had to work out how I would play her. And because I'm mostly known for comedy, I wanted to be evil - to really be horrible to Snow White, and just generally awful. But then I like to have a henchman I can have a bit of fun with as well; I like to have quite a bit of comedy, but be evil when required.

So do you want the kids to hate you?

Oh yes, absolutely! I shall feel I've not done my job otherwise! It was so funny last year, I had a little boy at the stage door with one of those swords that light up, and he went to me 'you see this sword, I'm going to chop your neck off - you're the most horriblist woman I've ever met'. And I went 'yay, success!'.

That's quite a compliment, really, isn't it?

Yes! [BIG CACKLE] Well, I thought at least I must have come across OK because he was quite, you know... [WAGGLES EYEBROWS LIKE AN AFFRONTED FIVE-YEAR-OLD]

You measure it by boos and hisses, then?

Very much so, yes. And my criteria, darling, is always to give VFM - which is value for money. Because a lot of children have never been to the theatre before, and panto is probably their first foray, if you like, into a cultural world. So I think you owe it to everybody to have colour and movement and to make sure you speed the story on - lots of songs and everything - you know? And [S-Club's] Reach For The Stars, of course, is obligatory because everybody knows it and they love it - it's the most marvellous song, it really is.

So is it true that playing villains is more fun than playing the goodies?

Oh I think so - absolutely more fun. I mean, it's nice being the goody as well because everybody's on your side, and they go 'don't you be horrible to him' or to her or whoever, but you can get much more done with a baddie.

Something to get your teeth into...

Ooh yes! And if they don't boo me, I sneer and say 'is that the best you can do?'. Oh I love it - I like them to go home needing a throat pastille, to absolutely scream their heads off.

Are kids a harder audience or an easier audience than adults?

I think if you get the right ingredients, they are an easier audience. If the script is true, with some topical references to things they can relate to (like Playstations and stuff) - because children are very quick to pick up on something and say 'oh that's not real' or 'that's not right' - then they are very easy to please.

Quite an instant, warm reaction...

Yes, definitely. I get them to blow raspberries, and I say 'you can do everything in here, now, that you can't do at home - so come on'. I love all that, it's fabulous.

Why do Brits love panto, but no-one else gets it?

Well, you see, apart from in Germany, in Bavaria and places like that, where you've got vampires and that kind of mythology, a lot of countries don't have that kind of subculture that harks back to ogres and dragons and the like. I think it's because we've been steeped in that kind of mythology that we're able to accept stories about things like a giant and a beanstalk - probably more so than many other country. And because it's become a great tradition for getting on for a thousand years, everybody's psyched up for it.

Australians, although a lot of them come over to do it - you know, from the soaps - they haven't got a clue, half of them, bless 'em. I mean I did Jack and the Beanstalk with Ray Meagher, who plays Alf Stewart in Home and Away, and Ray was like 'bloody hell --what am I supposed to do with this?'. So I explained that a lot of it was tongue in cheek, and old stories based on real legends. I said 'you really have got to believe that there's a giant coming to kill you'.

I can imagine it's not easy trying to explain to an Australian that the principal boy is a girl and the dame is a man.

Yes. 'I'm totally lost,' he said. But once they've done it, a lot of the Australian guys I've worked with say they can't wait to come back because once they've overcome their bemusement with it all, they just love it. Funnily enough, though, one of our big panto producers took a show over to Australia and it died a death because the Aussies hadn't got a clue. The ones in the show had, but the audience were so confused.

A bit of a culture shock...

Yes, and of course they just don't understand. It's the first kind of theatre where an audience and cast can be interactive - normally there's the fourth wall, which you can't go beyond. But of course you're actively inviting your paying audience to join in and I think that's why people love it the most And once they're encouraged to last year, bloody sods, they never stopped! When I came out I had to keep saying 'shut up now, thank you, that's enough'.

Well it shows you're doing a good job doesn't it?

Yes, I think so, exactly. And they go home thinking 'I really enjoyed that show tonight'. And of course word of mouth sells the rest of the tickets. And panto, let's face it, for every theatre, is their bread and butter for the rest of the year. It's when they take all the money that pays for future productions.

Is it hard work? Quite gruelling over those few weeks?

Darling, it is the hardest thing in the entire theatrical world! Make no mistake - it's very, very tiring. Tell you why: it's because you've got to have absolute discipline; absolute energy and stamina; you've got to have total commitment, because those people who haven't seen it before, they don't want you to be tired on a Thursday afternoon - tough, you know, you can't be tired.

It's physically and mentally draining, which is why I won't do three shows on a Saturday ever again - you don't know where you are. I put my fluffy slippers on once in the forest! I put my finale shoes on! Anybody who thinks panto is just a little bit of endless fun has got a rude awakening. We want it to be fun for the audience, but I very rarely make any social commitments when I'm doing panto because you just can't.

Your roots are really on the stage, aren't they?

Hmm, very much so. I started when I was six, at school, and loved it. Then when I was 11 I joined the local amateur company because there were no really fulfilling things that I wanted to do at school. So I learned a lot of good things from that local group and I was there for about 12 years. When I was about 16 I started to do working men's clubs - you know, they were all the rage then, you don't get so many now.

But it was good grounding for me. My first professional stage job was in the chorus of The Desert Song, which I remember clearly from the poster in Cardiff, which featured John Hanson - the Michael Crawford of his day, a top man in musicals - was billed as The Dessert Song. And I remember thinking 'is this what showbiz is going to be all about, getting it all wrong!'.

That's a good start...?

But I love theatre better than anything.

Did you not also lose out to a Jack Russell on your first TV appearance?

Yes I lost to a Jack Russell dog on Opportunity Knocks - I was mortified! I thought my career had come to a full stop before I'd even started. But it's a good talking point.

On your website, you say that a whole new generation of kids are coming up to you now and saying 'Hi-De-Hi!' after watching the show on UK Gold. Would you expect that at a panto like this, the kids will know who you are as well as the mums and dads?

Oh yes, I do now. I think a lot of them sometimes as young as four and five catch Hi-De-Hi!, but also I'm known to quite a few youngsters for Penny Crayon, and I'm also one of the voices for Little Robots which is on the BBC.

A lot of people say 'oh dear, you can't keep being reminded for the work you've done in the past', but everybody is. You can't escape that and why should you? It proves the things I've done in the past, along with a lot of other actors, if it's good quality and it is shown then it's timeless. Why should the younger ones be denied a good laugh just because something is 20 years old.

I'm a big believer that if a thing is good, and appeals, then keep showing it.

So many sit-coms just die or fall, why would one like that just strike a chord? 

Because, as I said, it's the content that matters really; if the idea is good, and people can identify with it - which they could with the holiday camp, because it was something they were familiar with. And the two writers themselves were actually Red Coats, so all those characters were real.

I mean take Peggy - everybody knows somebody like her who's desperate to better herself but keeps falling at the final hurdle. And somebody like poor old Ted Bovis, who probably knows he's never going to go on to anything else but he's a big wheel in small machine...

That became quite a little sitcom rep company that you formed there, didn't it?

Yes it did, especially to David [Croft], who was also the executive producer, director and co-writer - it was his baby. David was a big believer in using talent, even if you'd used them for years, because he said you know you're going to get reliability and that the public have grown to know and enjoy them.

So what is it about you that's made you successful? What is your unique selling point?

I think it's my voice. I mean, once I was in the remote little Greek village buying some olives or something, and this fella says to me 'ah, Hi De Hi! - me know you, my brother has chip shop in Birmingham - ha ha!'. So that's probably it. And also because I talk to anybody and everybody!

A life in -

After an apprenticeship at the Arts Theatre in her home town of Nottingham, Su Pollard made her television debut on Opportunity Knocks, where she came second to a singing Jack Russell dog. Undeterred, she toured extensively in drama and musicals. She first appeared on the BBC playing hippy Flo in Two Up, Two Down, with Paul Nicholas, but is best known for playing Peggy Ollerenshaw, the downtrodden maid in nine series of Hi-De-Hi!.

The series was so successful that it won a Bafta award and resulted in a sell-out musical stage show, which played seasons in Bournemouth, Blackpool and at the Victoria Palace in the West End. The writers of Hi-De-Hi! - Jimmy Perry and David Croft - then wrote You Rang M'Lord?, in which Su played domestic servant Ivy for four series. She was later reunited with her friends Paul Shane and Jeffrey Holland once again in David Croft's railway comedy Oh Doctor Beeching!, playing station busybody Ethel.

In addition, she has toured nationally with The Su Pollard Show, which was followed by a season in the Donmar Warehouse in her one-woman show A Song, A Frock And A Tinkle. Recently, she has also starred as Mrs Hannigan in several successful tours of Annie.

Su has written a book, Hearts and Showers, a light-hearted look at romance, and made a keep-fit video called Sensible Slimming (though she says it's hard practising what she preaches!).

She has also made her mark on the pop charts, reaching number two in 1986 with Starting Together, the theme from the BBC series The Marriage, and recording a number of other singles and albums, including the silver-selling Su. She has also recorded cast albums of Big Sin City, Carousel, Hi De Hi! and Little Shop Of Horrors.

For more information, visit

By Paul Kirkley.

IC Berkshire
4th December 2003