Now First Family Entertainment has shut up shop, where have all the US panto stars gone?
Earlier this year, the panto war ended when Qdos took over long-time competitor First Family Entertainment. Paul Vale looks at the unforeseen consequences of the ending of the companies’ festive rivalry
Shockwaves were sent through Pantoland this year. Pantomime powerhouse First Family Entertainment made the surprise announcement in January that it was to shut up shop. It marked the end of the ‘panto war’ and it is clear from this year’s line-up of shows that high-profile victims include the novelty guest stars from the other side of the Atlantic.
For 12 years, FFE – owned and operated by Ambassador Theatre Group – had been producing high-quality pantomimes, which appeared exclusively at ATG venues. Before 2005, most of the major ATG houses featured pantomimes created by Qdos Entertainment, the standard-bearer of the traditional British pantomime.
Qdos, now the biggest pantomime group in the world, brought high production values with dazzling designs and featuring big names from British light entertainment. Despite the stiff competition, Qdos continued to thrive and now has its fairytale ending following the deal to bring its shows back to ATG venues.
This year, Qdos Entertainment is producing 35 pantomimes throughout the UK including at ATG theatres the New Victoria in Woking, the New Wimbledon and Richmond.
It has largely been a smooth transition and the public is unlikely to notice the difference, especially as Qdos has adopted FFE’s complete stock of sets and costumes as part of the deal.
The most notable shift is the disappearance of the US star turn, one of the signature features of FFE pantomimes. Performers have included Henry Winkler, Verne Troyer, Steve Guttenberg, as well as Mickey Rooney, Priscilla Presley and Pamela Anderson.
“There was never a conscious decision not to hire American movie stars to feature in our pantomimes,” Qdos managing director Michael Harrison says. “I think FFE had to book that calibre of star simply because Qdos had booked so many of the popular British stars.”
Harrison, who is producing and directing several high-profile pantomimes this year including Dick Whittington at the Palladium, continues: “We were all past the stage of hiring an Australian soap-star or a Gladiator and it seemed like a natural progression for FFE.”
The panto impresario would not rule out Qdos bringing in US performers but adds: “When it comes to star casting, we have found that the most successful pantomimes we produce – with the longest runs and most performances – don’t rely on celebrity.”
He pointed to father and son team Clive Webb and Danny Adams who may be unknown in the rest of the country “but in Newcastle they are superstars and have been the main draw in the Theatre Royal for 13 years”.
Simon Sladen, a panto pundit and founder of National Panto Day, points out that the influx of American stars had knock-on effects in how pantomimes were promoted.
“First Family needed a unique selling point but what is interesting is that they chose to put them at the top of the bill, and then a couple of years later redesigned their posters to echo film posters,” he says.
“So you have what I’ve termed the ‘bullseye bill’, in which your star is slap bang in the middle and everything else is arranged around them like a bullseye. You could plough all your money into a big name. Suddenly one person was enough and it wasn’t long before others followed suit.”
Nowhere will the lack of film stars be more keenly felt than in the New Wimbledon Theatre, where the likes of Winkler, Anderson and Linda Gray have trodden the boards.
This year they have Al Murray starring in Jack and the Beanstalk. Murray is a popular character comedian on the circuit but will he be able to fill the void left by the Fonz playing Captain Hook?
For panto aficionados, it is more interesting to see how Clive Rowe is received as the dame. Rowe may not be as widely known as Murray, but for several years he was the biggest draw at the Hackney Empire, earning an Olivier nomination for his performance in Mother Goose in 2008.
The industry will carefully watch the impact of this shift away from US actors on panto audiences. But even without the pulling power of the US stars, the appetite remains strong for panto and traditional British performers.
Last year, Qdos Entertainment scored a coup, triumphantly bringing pantomime back to the London Palladium after 30 years. The tickets may have cost upwards of £95 but the audience was treated to £1 million worth of sets and costumes, as well as special effects. It firmly established panto back at the Palladium. This can be put down to Harrison’s nous, and his influence echoes through all Qdos’ work.
The key to success in producing panto, he says, is to recognise and celebrate the differences in cities around the country. “What makes people laugh in Newcastle might not make people laugh in Cardiff. Each city can be defined by its own sense of humour.”
For example, the panto Qdos stages in Aberdeen is structured completely differently from any other panto in the UK, even Edinburgh. Harrison says: “It caters to a Doric dialect and is narrative-driven, featuring actors who are great at comedy, rather than comedians. Newcastle is very much circus and variety-based. Of course the story is important, it’s just that variety has such deep roots in the city’s culture. This is why circus and variety artists work so well in those pantomimes.”
Yet panto aficionado Sladen fears the end of the panto war will bring problems to the industry. “When FFE was established in 2005, it meant there was suddenly competition. I think it is very unlikely we will see another company come in that can actually challenge Qdos in the way it did,” he says.
“My big fear is that things may get a bit stale. Competition breeds energy, invigoration, and new ways of thinking. When FFE was established, it ordered a whole new fleet of amazing costumes and sets designed by Terry Parsons so Qdos had to step up its game. The sort of competition that FFE provided is unlikely to happen again.”
Other issues need addressing. The decision to have a predominantly white cast in Cinderella at the Palladium last year drew criticism but has been addressed for the latest production. But now it seems that, in general, women are disappearing from the panto line-up.
Considering its renown for gender fluidity, pantomime has become an increasing male-dominated affair. Sladen has been observing this trend and points to the demise of the principal boy character – traditionally played by a woman – and the rise of the ‘male immortal’ character in its place.
“Men are now playing the mirror, the fairy godfather, the spirit of the bells and the spirit of the beans, which is great but it could mean that your only female lead might be the principal girl,” Sladen says.
“Female visibility is a much-debated thing in the industry and some of the biggest venues have little diverse representation. The Wicked Queen is being played as a drag villain and the fairy godmother is being played by a dame.”
This trend is reflected in the posters too, with productions around the country of Aladdin, Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and Cinderella often featuring no women in the publicity material. Even at the Palladium, aside from Elaine Paige front-and-centre, there is no other woman in the principal line-up – not even four-time Olivier nominee Emma Williams, who is playing Alice.
This may all be addressed in the post-FFE, brave new world of pantomime. Smaller venues on the circuit could breed new producers, directors, writers and performers who can sow new ideas in the bigger houses like magic beans.
After all, what pantomime has proved over the decades is that it always has the power to adapt and keep audiences coming back.