Panto legend Kenneth Alan Taylor: ‘I get very cross about the pantomimes that are filthy’
Kenneth Alan Taylor has worked in the theatre for more than 60 years in a career that has included being artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse. Alongside his drama work he is one of the UK’s foremost pantomime writers, directors and, until recently, dames. He talks to Nick Clark about still loving panto in his 80s
What was your first experience with panto?
I was taken to a matinee when I was six or seven and I really didn’t enjoy it. There were two girls singing love songs. I was bored to tears. But I was taken to another pantomime later that day. It was Aladdin with Arthur Askey as Widow Twankey and I was won over.
Did you see other shows?
My mother took me to the East Ham Palace every week. I saw everything from variety to ballet, opera and plays.
How did you end up performing?
I started doing amateur work at 14. Four years later I was working in the City in an import/export coffee firm and decided I wanted a change. I looked in The Stage and answered a job advert for a company called the Kinloch Players. They would perform in village halls, with a different play every night. I did that for six months and then went on to various reps.
How did the panto start?
I got a job as an actor in the Oldham Coliseum in 1959. I did everything from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, but my first production was a pantomime. The ones at that time were rather twee and the director told us to make our characters funny. After arguing with the director about it one year, he said: “If you can do any better, you write one.” I spent a month writing my first pantomime, Cinderella. I took it to the director and he put it on.
How did you find writing it?
I find pantomimes quite easy. This year we’re doing Cinderella. It’s my 34th panto at Nottingham. We have a cycle of about seven traditional pantos but I change them every year. I want to bring them up to date and make them sharper. Some are very traditional, like Cinderella, and difficult to rewrite; others can go all over the place. We put topical references in but I don’t put in politics or jokes only adults will understand. I want everybody to enjoy it.
What are the crucial ingredients for a panto?
The story first and foremost, and a good mixture of seriousness and comedy. It needs good production values – everything is brand new here every single year. And keep it clean; I get very cross about the pantomimes that are filthy. Ours are squeaky clean.
What is your process?
I don’t make notes, I just sit down at the computer and type it in. It comes to me as I go along. There are certain gags we put in every year because the audience expects them and complains if they don’t get them.
How long does it take?
I’m in the middle of rewriting Robin Hood, which we’re doing next year. It has to be ready for January. It’s virtually a year’s work, with the design, and creating costumes and scenery.
How has it changed in the five decades you’ve been working in pantomime?
The attention span of the children in the audience is much shorter now. They’re used to quick, sharp stuff on television. When I look at older scripts the scenes went on for ages. Now I try to make them shorter.
How do you keep things topical?
I’m working with young people who feed into the scripts, I’m 80 so I need their help. I always ask for ideas on the first day. They help with the music. We have standard tunes and some pop. I’m not that fond of pop but the children like it. We had Gangnam Style a few years ago – dear me, I didn’t like that.
Do you look at your panto and straight drama career in different terms?
I don’t think there is a difference. The mistake people often make with panto is thinking it’s just silly. I’m very strong on story, and always go on to the actors about keeping it true. You can’t just chuck slapstick in, for example, there has to be a reason. We never think, ‘Oh this is just panto, we’ll chuck it on.’ There’s the same amount of rehearsals as drama. Playing in panto is as important to me as if I were playing Hamlet. Not that I ever would.
Your Hamlet is, of course, playing the dame, which you have done for decades. What is it about the role?
What I love about panto and about playing the dame, though my last time was four or five years ago, is the anarchy. I love the freedom a dame has. You can relate to the audience more, and ad lib a lot.
Should panto be given more respect?
For many years it’s been looked down upon, even in the profession, but it’s fashionable again now the London Palladium is doing it. Children see pantomime and it’s often their first experience of theatre. If they don’t understand what’s going on, you won’t get them.
You also brought panto to the Nottingham Playhouse when you became artistic director in 1984.
They had never done pantomime and when I interviewed for the job, I pitched one. My wife said the theatre was too posh, but we got it on.
Is the new artistic director a fan?
Adam [Penford] is from Nottingham and saw my pantomimes when he was about five. He also appeared in one of mine in Oldham, as Wishee Washee about 12 years ago.
And how about your own performances?
My favourite panto, it isn’t done much, is Mother Goose, it’s the best part for a dame. It’s got everything, and is the most moral one, but it’s never done now. I’ve asked companies why they don’t put it on, and they say there are no big star names of that ilk any more. There used to be dozens of dames and I don’t know what happened to them. Apart from Christopher Biggins I can’t name anyone. It’s the best part in the pantomime as far as I’m concerned.
Do you miss it?
When I look at the schedule – there are 84 performances this year – I don’t miss playing the dame. If I could do a short week then yes, but otherwise it’s a killer. But working on the panto is still the highlight of the year.
CV: Kenneth Alan Taylor
Born: Canning Town, London, 1937
Landmark productions: The Father, Oldham Coliseum (2017), The Price, Octagon Bolton (2011), Twinkle Little Star, Lakeside Nottingham and tour, including Luxembourg (2008)
Awards: Manchester Evening News best supporting actor for The Price, MEN best production, A Different Way Home, Oldham Coliseum (1998), Horniman award for outstanding achievement in theatre (1997), Nottingham University honorary doctor of letters (2011)
Cinderella runs at Nottingham Playhouse from December 1 until January 20