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The 1992 Christmas PantomimeThe Village Hall looked unusually tidy. The curtains were closed across the stage and there was an empty space just to one side, with a pile of tree decorations in a box waiting to be used.
The booming voice of Mayor Vick could be heard coming from the office. He was obviously a little annoyed and speaking loudly and clearly into the telephone.
"No Gloom, NOT palm trees, CHRISTMAS trees. You did say you'd get one put on Bert's float to be delivered this morning. You know we've got the pantomime tonight and it'll take hours to get FlippeR installed on the top of the tree."
Vick had started in September as the assistant stage manager, but had rapidly had to take on numerous additional roles.
Now he was producer, director, stage manager and would probably end up as the rear end of the pantomime horse.
This year, the production was to be another epic from the mighty pen of Justin the Optimist, with the rather unusual title of "Cinderella and the Forty Thieving Beanstalks". It was going to be seven thieving dwarves but Tim had refused to play all seven parts at once.
Vick strode out of the office muttering something about the second half needing a few more jokes. He then paused for a moment, turned and walked back in to write a couple of one-liners.
The previous night's dress rehearsal had been a total catastrophe. Nick Harvey and Bert being cast as the ugly sisters had been a bad idea since the start.
Every time Bert forgot his lines he just ad-libbed by saying "Key 5 for details", which got everyone totally confused. Nick, on the other hand, kept ignoring the script and trying to chat up Cinderella in thinly disguised stage whispers.
By the end of the evening Zarabeth was heartily fed up with the part of Cinders and wanted to pack in role playing for the rest of her life.
The Reverend Stu, who had a vested interest in the panto, walked into the hall to ask how the ticket sales were going. Nobody seemed to know for certain, but Paulo produced this huge ledger and proceeded to start totting up columns of figures.
"A lot more than last year" said Paulo after a few minutes, "but I'm not sure whether I've counted the people who booked on Sunday".
It was Stu's Church roof which was going to be the main recipient from any profit they made so he wanted to be certain they packed in as many people as possible.
"What time's Fraser putting the chairs out?" asked Stu. Vick popped his head out of the office and quickly retorted "He said soon when we asked him a month ago, why not ask Ashley to do it?"
It was now mid afternoon, with the performance due to start at seven thirty. Val staggered in at the back of the hall, labouring under the dead weight of Aunt Maud who'd gone through Crispin's entire stock of Vodka and Horlicks in one lunch hour.
"We'll never get her into a fit state to play the Fairy Godmother in time" said Val.
From high up on the lighting gantry came Brian Winter's voice asking if the assembled crowd thought purple was a suitable colour for lighting the stage for the finale. Brian had only been given the job because of John Murrell's insistence that all the lights had to flash all the time, something which tended to put the actors off just a little. John had now been put in charge of the beanstalks.
Vick had decided that it was most appropriate for John to take on that job as it meant he was in a little tunnel under the stage all the evening, pushing up the beanstalks at the right moments in the plot.
Quite how Bert managed to drive the milk float straight in through the doors of the hall is still a mystery, but it was at this point that the Christmas tree arrived.
It was tied on the back of the float, together with Gloom and a rather moth-eaten sheep. All hell broke loose as the sheep ran around the hall trying to keep away from Gloom's advances, but eventually a sort-of pen was manufactured out of the folding chairs which Fraser still hadn't put out. Flossy was then consigned to the pen and the serious work of erecting the tree could commence.
By the time Richard Imlach arrived from the garage to tow the milk float back out again, the tree was satisfactorily installed in its place, Flossy had dozed off and Gloom was at the back of the stage taking an interest in the huge wooden camel which was ready for the desert scene in part two.
"Why don't we decorate the stage with a palm tree?" he asked.
"No!" came the gruff reply from the office. "I think it's time we all took a break and got something to eat".
As the little group walked around the Village looking for a restaurant which was open, but didn't sell pizza, their minds kept drifting onto the subject of Saturday afternoons in Solihull and the joys of playing follow the leader.
When they got back to the hall somebody had put the chairs out and the place looked quite organised. "We couldn't wait any longer" said Tim, "so I put them out".
John Cull had also just arrived. He was to be the Front-of-House Manager and was in charge of the seating plan. He had a huge diagram with all the seat numbers and who was to sit where on it.
Val came rushing out of the dressing rooms slapping her thighs, and just about everything else. She was to be principal boy, Cinderella's Chinese boyfriend, A Lad In.
"Maud's on the vodka again" she cried in desperation, "was that your bottle that's now empty Vick?" Vick rushed off to the dressing rooms to try to bring some sort of sense to the paralytic Maud.
Clive then appeared, ready in his costume as the front end of the pantomime horse. "Is there any chance that the other half of this horse is ever going to turn up?" he asked. The assembled populace muttered in general agreement that the answer was probably no, however, they could always hope.
"Simon's split his costume" came a cry from outside.
Now, some would say that it had been a foolishness in the first place to cast Simon as Wee Willy Winky, especially as this particular Willy was supposed to only be seven stone, but he'd always wanted the part, so somewhere back in the mists of time it had been agreed.
"Colin the RoadRunner will have a needle and thread" said Tim, "he's always got things like that".
Colin was out the back, negotiating with Gloom over a job lot of twenty five palm trees which he reckoned would go like hot cakes round Manchester. It also got them well away from Cornwall which Gloom agreed was a very good idea indeed.
Colin sold Simon a needle and thread and Val then proceeded to sew him back into his costume as best she could in the circumstances.
A bit of an altercation was going on out in the hall between Shona and DGM. According to the script, Shona was supposed to haunt and DGM was supposed to exorcise, but due to a small misprint, the exercise DGM had in mind wasn't quite to Shona's liking.
Justin settled it quickly by patching the script at that point with one of Vick's one-liners.
With less than an hour to go to the performance, the mighty figure of the evil landlord, Lord Coldsteel of Avatar marched in carrying his meat cleaver.
"I can't help thinking he's taking this far too seriously" said Harry from The Den. "Won't he scare the children if he waves that thing around like that?" "Oh no he won't" shouted the assembled company.
"Oh yes I will" shouted Coldy, and a full scale rehearsal for the third scene of the first half ensued.
"He's behind you" shouted the crowd, but it was too late, as Mercury had crept up behind Coldy and skilfully and strategically stolen the meat cleaver. "I hope he doesn't miss" said Coldy, "Long John Silver's already got woodworm in the other leg".
The first few Villagers were now beginning to arrive and John Cull's diagram was starting to look an awful mess. "They've all booked the cheap seats, but want to exchange them for the posh ones up the front" he complained.
Then Paul John Murphy rolled into the back of the hall and wanted to keep his three crates of whisky with him, next to his seat.
As the drunken Mr Murphy was getting settled in his place, out the back Aunt Maud was starting to come round again. It wouldn't have been so bad if the words of the songs of the north-west frontier that she was starting to sing had been just a tiny bit more suitable for a family panto.
"I've only got cold coffee" said Vick, "that'll have to do".
They poured about a gallon of the cold coffee into Maud and at least she stopped singing for a while.
"Is the back end of this horse ever going to turn up" asked Clive, "or am I going to have to go on just as a front half?" "Well I can't take the part" said Vick. "John's reserved me a Mayoral seat in the front row of the audience, so I'll have to sit there".
On the front of the stage the warm-up men had started to get the crowd into the right frame of mind. Tony (call me Tone) Goodman and Lawrence (call me Fred) Kirby were in the middle of a complex comedy routine involving a banana and two pickled eggs.
Whilst this was in progress, Mayor Vick and Reverend Stu were taking their places in the front row.
Part way through Tone and Fred's routine, down went the lights to a spotlight on the two of them and the assembled cast behind the curtain took a deep breath, ready to give it their all.
As the duo finished, Keith Otter struck up the opening number on his organ and slowly but surely Fraser, who'd just arrived, pulled back the curtains. The show had begun.
Apart from the odd gaff from Brian, it all seemed to go quite well. The crowd loved the front end of the pantomime horse dragging its rear around like the bride's train at a wedding.
Scene two in the first half got a bit embarrassing when Maud's Fairy Godmother started singing something about the Good Ship Venus, instead of the Good Ship Lollipop.
Vick nearly had a heart attack when the curtains opened for the second half desert scene only to reveal the pyramid, played by Laurence Taylor, on the wrong side of the stage and Gloom still sitting astride the wooden camel at the back.
Still, when the chorus marched on led by Maud singing The Road to Mandalay, what was going on at the back was politely obscured.
The ugly sisters were little better than they'd been in rehearsal, but at least Bert managed to come up with a milk bottle for A Lad In to rub when the magic lamp mysteriously disappeared, probably sold to a passing gypsy by the RoadRunner.
Zarabeth was magnificent as Cinders and the scene where she applied the finger of god to Lord Coldsteel went down a storm.
FlippeR's portrayal of Baron Hardup was a joy to behold and even some of his ooohs and aaahs seemed to be more lifelike than the script had originally intended. Whether that had anything to do with John Murrell's mistimed pushing up of the beanstalks will never be known.
It must have been good because Vick was actually seen to relax for about two minutes in the second half.
Brian Winter's lighting turned out to be superb, especially when Wee Willy Winky repeated his costume ripping performance as he reached up to try to touch the ghostly Shona. The spotlight was immediately moved away from the near naked Willy so he could compose himself.
Not even rubbing the magic milk bottle could get Simon back into the costume this time.
As the curtain came down on the end of a successful performance, the Reverend Stu got up on the stage to make the thank-you speech.
He thanked the tea ladies for their sterling work in the interval, John Cull and his team for front-of-house, the trustees of the Village Hall for allowing the performance, and, after a loud prompt from behind the curtain, the performers.
As the audience slowly wended their way out and across the road to the Dog & Bone, in bowled Crispin with a crate of drinks for the actors and actresses. He'd decided this would be a good ploy in order not to have to serve behind the bar of the pub during the only rush of the year.
They all sat down on the stage and discussed the wonderful evening of entertainment.
Even Clive, who'd spent the evening playing both halves of the horse agreed that it had been a very good night.
Vick asked Tim to prod Maud again so she could hear him thank everyone present for their efforts, but her snoring still drowned everything he had to say. "I suppose I'll have to carry her home over my shoulder again" said Val.
It had been a great day, everyone agreed on that, as they tentatively made plans for next year. It was all over and now they could unwind and start to think about heading home.
Just at that moment they heard the screech of tyres as a car pulled up outside the hall. The car door slammed and footsteps rushed towards the door.
In through the door came the rear end of a pantomime horse.
"Good evening Ben" they all said in unison.
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