This year, Paul Holman Associates is staging shows across the UK. Its founder tells Nick Smurthwaite how the circus acts who stayed in his childhood backyard instilled a love of showbusiness that became a career
Given that panto season is only a couple of weeks away when we meet, producer Paul Holman looks surprisingly relaxed in his spacious offices in South Ruislip.
But this is a man who put on his first pantomime at 15 in a church hall in his home town of Lowestoft – his Cinderella was none other than Rosemary Ashe, who was later the original Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera – and went on to produce more than 400 all over the country. He knows all there is to know about panto.
“I was always mad about showbusiness from a very early age,” he says. “I grew up in a pub run by my parents and my grandmother, who was the licensee. She used to let the variety artists appearing at the old Hippodrome Circus in Lowestoft park their trailers in our backyard. We had a lion in the back yard once, but I was only a baby so I don’t remember much about it except that my sister says its roaring kept me awake.”
His most cherished memory of childhood panto is seeing the great dames Norman Evans, George Lacy and Jack Tripp at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, in the 1960s and 1970s. Every Saturday night during the season, the young Holman would go to the summer show at the Sparrow’s Nest Theatre, Lowestoft – which was demolished in 1993 – and revel in the glamour and excitement of variety in its heyday.
Not content with being a spectator, the teenage Holman put together a variety show of his own – Tonight’s the Night – and toured it around village halls in north Suffolk and Norfolk. He also took on the role of musical director of The Dixie Minstrel Show on the South Pier, Lowestoft for 10 weeks while studying music at the Colchester Institute.
The turning point for Holman was meeting the variety double-act of Burden and Moran, who were famous for playing the Ugly Sisters from the 1970s to the 1990s as well as being pantomime and summer season producers. A review from The Stage in 1993 described their shows as “modestly budgeted, but colourful short-run pantomimes”.
Holman went into partnership with the pair in the 1980s, co-producing shows and acting as their musical director. He also directed many of their pantomimes, including Peter Pan, with 14-year-old Denise van Outen playing Wendy. After Maurice Moran died in 1994, Holman formed Paul Holman Associates and began to build his panto-producing base.
Today he is surrounded by a loyal and long-serving team that includes artistic director and scriptwriter Nick George, production secretary Matthew Hough, and company secretary John Ogle. Their creative workforce of actors and production people, across 12 shows across the UK, numbers 220 this year.
Without losing the traditional flavour of panto, Holman prides himself on moving with the times. He says: “Panto must evolve. You can’t be a dinosaur. You can’t stand still. You can do a traditional kitchen scene but give it a modern twist. Every panto in the country has to spend more on visual effects now. It’s a different world in terms of people’s expectations. You must be up-to-date visually and musically.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working at the newsagent in Lowestoft.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Musical director of Let’s Go Gay at the Dunes Theatre, Mablethorpe.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Alan Gale, who presented the Lowestoft summer season, Len Howe and Audrey Maye, who headlined the summer season in Lowestoft, and Barrie Stacey who, at 93, is always helpful.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Select musical items that reflect what you are auditioning for.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
A journalist, reviewing my own shows.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Never say the last line of the production until the first perform.
He brings up a review in The Stage that criticised one of his shows for eschewing the tradition of a female principal boy. He says: “One of the reasons we cast a male as principal boy is that it is more in tune with popular styles of today.”
A fan of classical music – he was trained by Marcus Dodds and Alan Hacker among others and once ran the music education department at Harrow Council – Holman relies on the younger members of his team to bring him up to speed on the latest hits.
When casting his shows, like all panto producers Holman mixes young actors with people he has worked with for years. How concerned is he with diversity and equality in his casting? “I’m very conscious of equality and diversity when I’m casting. I was one of the first producers to have a black Cinderella in Weston-super-Mare,” he says.
Producing pantomime is an all-year-round job and Holman says he spends a lot of time working on tenders to local authorities, because most of the venues he plays are council-run. “The procurement procedure has become a lot more stringent in recent years,” he says. “Now there are questions about community involvement and reaching out to people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre. We’re already doing signed performances and relaxed performances at all our shows.”
PHA doesn’t seek to compete with Qdos and LHK Productions in terms of star casting, although this year he can boast some Strictly stars, US actor Didi Conn, who played Frenchie in the film Grease, and members of the Britain’s Got Talent-winning group Collabro.
Holman’s view on star casting is that “the kids aren’t that bothered about who is top of the bill”. For him, it’s all about the quality of the material and the cohesion of the company. “I make sure we give the same care and input whether it’s a smaller show or a large one.”
One of his regular directors, Di Cooke, who is doing Jack and the Beanstalk at the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, says: “Whenever I’ve worked for Paul, I feel there is a very personal touch. He has a genuine interest in the people who work for him. He cares about their well-being – professionally and personally. He is very down to earth. You can talk to him about anything, he doesn’t put up any barriers. “
Even before the panto season finishes in January, Holman and his associates will begin planning the schedules for the 2020 season, including his 26th consecutive panto for Bridlington Spa.
He is happy to describe himself as a workaholic. “I haven’t had a holiday abroad for seven years,” he says. “This is what I do and, even though box office habits are changing, I hope I can carry on doing it. I want people seeing my pantos to experience what I call the tingle factor.”
Born: Lowestoft, date undisclosed
Training: Music diploma at Colchester Institute
Career: Head of Harrow Music Service, 1980s; Founder and director of Paul Holman Associates, 1995
For more details of this season’s pantomimes visit: paulholmanassociates.co.uk