Writer and actor Alan McHugh: ‘I never take a pantomime audience for granted – I try to top last year’s show’
In January most people are trying to forget Christmas – with the extra weight, debt and broken toys – but it’s at this time that Alan McHugh starts writing next year’s pantos. Nick Smurthwaite meets Aberdeen’s favourite dame
Glasgow-based actor Alan McHugh has been writing and performing pantomime since 1991. On screen, he was a policeman in the Scottish television soap Take the High Road for five years, and a regular in Taggart. He also co-wrote the Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed a Dream. He describes himself as “an actor who does a bit of typing”.
When do you start working on your panto scripts?
I usually start writing in the second week in January and it goes right through to October. I’ve done 31 pantos for Qdos this year, but a lot of it is recycling existing shows, updating, keeping them fresh, writing new routines. So my Cinderella for Bristol last year is playing Belfast this year. That’s the only way it is possible to do so many. That and not sleeping very much.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the workload?
Strangely I don’t, although it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. I’m quite well organised and I have a strict timetable. I give myself deadlines right through the year.
What are the narrative ingredients?
I try my best to keep all the traditional elements, because people come with expectations, but I see it as my job to keep it fresh and give certain elements a new twist, tapping into what’s topical as well as localising the gags. Politicians are the best targets, so a lot of jokes are about Trump and Brexit.
There’s a fine line between the child-friendly panto elements and the adult humour. Is that ever a problem for you?
I’m quite a traditionalist. I don’t like anything blue in panto. I don’t want the parents to feel embarrassed in front of their kids. A bit of vulgarity or innuendo is okay but I don’t do smut.
Do you make changes to the script while the show is in rehearsal?
Absolutely, yes. I’m not precious about my scripts. The stuff you write in May might be out of date by the time you get into the rehearsal room in November. I’m up for anything that improves the show. If someone has a better gag than the one I’ve written I’m happy to go with that.
Who are you playing this year?
I’m playing Nellie MacDuff, Snow White’s nurse, at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen. I’ve been playing the dame in Aberdeen for the last 15 years so I try to make it different. It’s an exaggerated version of me in a silly costume, which goes for most panto dames. So she is loud, brash, clumsy but with a heart of gold.
‘A bit of vulgarity or innuendo is okay, but I don’t do smut’
Who were your panto role models?
I grew up in Glasgow so my childhood dames were Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, and Francie and Josie. Stanley always looked sensational in a succession of frocks, whereas Jimmy, Francie and Josie were very evidently blokes in dresses. I stole from all of them although I think I veer more towards a bloke in a dress.
What do you most enjoy about panto?
The relationship with the audience. You never get that rapport with the audience doing a straight play. They become like another character in the show. You really want to give them a good night out. In Aberdeen they’re quite vocal and I always get a great welcome. I never take their affection for granted. I try to top what I’ve done the year before.
What about the English ones? Isn’t that a stretch for you, writing for audiences in, say, Plymouth and Southampton?
The internet is a wonderful thing. I look at a lot of blogs to find local information. And to be honest, most panto jokes work as well in Southampton as they do in Glasgow. I have five or six jokes that refer to the rough area of any city. The only place I’ve written panto for that doesn’t appear to have a rough area is Llandudno.
You’re writing 31 pantos for Qdos – have you drawn a line? Presumably it prevents you from doing other writing projects?
I’d probably take on more if they wanted me to because I find it difficult to turn down work. However it does prevent me from doing other writing. I’ve been approached to write other stuff and it can be hard to find the time to do it. I have a non-panto commission I need to get on with, so maybe when the Aberdeen panto is up and running I will have some time.
Snow White runs at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen from December 1, 2018 to January 6, 2019