Pantomimes have been at the heart of His Majesty’s Theatre since the day it opened… literally.
The very first show to take the stage of the iconic theatre on its glittering unveiling on December 3 1906 was Sweet Red Riding Hood, billed as a “grand operatic pantomime”.
It proved to be so popular police were called in for crowd control, said Alan Rennie, archivist for Aberdeen Performing Arts.
“Rosemount Viaduct outside the theatre was actually mobbed with people… I think they had underestimated the number of people who wanted to come and have a look at the attention HMT and the pantomime was going to get. The police had to come along and control the crowds.”
Hollywood icon on stage
Sweet Red Riding Hood set in train a tradition for pantomime and Christmas shows at His Majesty’s which remained unbroken, even during two world wars, until this year when Beauty And The Beast was postponed to 2021 because of coronavirus.
“This really is the first year since we opened in 1906 that we’ve not had anything on over the Christmas period,” said Alan. “It’s very sad. I think the audiences particularly look forward to it, it’s become part of a tradition.”
For 114 years, some of the biggest names of the day took to the Yuletide stage at HMT, from Will Fyffe to Dick Emery, Andy Stewart to Leslie Crowther – and even a Hollywood icon in Honor Blackman.
Back then they would be full of variety acts and last for hours – Sweet Red Riding Hood ran for more than three hours to the point audience members were worrying about how to get home as the “subbie trains” out to the sticks had stopped running. Also, pantos weren’t necessarily associated with Christmas, sometimes being staged in January or even early spring.
Flags of all nations
“They mainly starred people from the music hall who would all come along and do their bit. The story was a bit inconsequential, there was dancing and ballets and all sorts of things in it,” said Alan. “They usually ended up with a big triumphal thing with flags of all nations, bearing in mind we had an empire in those days.”
Between 1906 and 1920, some of the most famous variety artists of the day pulled in the crowds for a bit of “oh no you won’t-ing” and thigh slapping. While standards like Cinderella and Aladdin were favourites then, too, some other lesser-known pantos came and went, such as Little Boy Blue and Old King Cole.
“You have ones like Goody Two Shoes as well,” said Alan. “But they were very much a case of pull together all the artists and put on a good show. Quite a lot of them were written in rhyme all the way through, not just the fairy or the wizard as it is now. That was quite a feat of memory for the actors.”
During the 20s, esteemed Aberdeen entertainer Harry Gordon was king of the Christmas show at His Majesty’s, with a run of pantos including Humpty Dumpty and Rip Van Winkle.
Drawing in the crowds
“He did pantos from 1924 through to 1928, he had three or four in a row then occasional ones. He was mega in his day and drawing in the crowds like nothing on earth,” said Alan.
But in the 30s, the popularity of the panto at Christmas waned, to be replaced with circuses, ballets, musicals and plays. For example, in 1933, Aberdeen’s Jeannie Henry Dance School staged Out Of The Lucky Bag. It must have been a great show as it pushed then megastar of stage and screen Will Fyffe back to January with his panto, Jack In The Beanstalk.
“Back then most of the big shows were produced by big production companies, either coming from Drury Lane or Edinburgh or Glasgow. I suspect it might have been because the product wasn’t available or up to the standard HMT would have liked,” said Alan.
Post-war, however, panto reclaimed its rightful place as HMT’s Christmas treat for all the family.
“I think that was primarily because in the wartime period, most of the male actors were abroad. Sometimes in programmes there was a little bit at the bottom saying the men who appeared in this production have done their bit at the front,” said Alan.
From 1949 to 1959 it was the decade of like Dave Willis, Jack Anthony and Andy Stewart, who Alan says were Scottish variety superstars.
Top of the league
“They really were at the top of the league – you couldn’t get better than Dave Willis or Jack Anthony.”
Also on the bill for Dick Whittington in 1950 was one Dick Emery, at that time a little-known comedian.
But 1950 was the year Emery made his television debut, followed by a string of roles that saw him secure his own series. He went on to become one of Britain’s best-loved TV comedians from the 1960s through to the 80s.
However, HMT’s pantos hit another lull in the 60s, with Aberdeen audiences preferring HMT-staged variety shows like Jimmy Logan in Swing O’ The Kilt. In 1962, they were treated to a familiar face, television’s Billy Bunter Gerard Campion in not one, but two shows.
“In the afternoons he did Billy Bunter and in the evenings he dressed up as Charley’s Aunt. It was a busy day for the man. Two for the price of one.”
But at the start of the 70s, pantos roused from their slumber, like Snow White waking after the Prince’s kiss. The magic spark came from television. This was the start of the TV-star led pantomimes, with famous faces from the box in the corner of your living room appearing live on His Majesty’s stage.
Dusty Bin took a turn
The likes of Windsor Davies from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, turned up in Dick Whittington in 1978, while Leslie Crowther graced the stage alongside Russell Hunter in 1984. This was the start of production companies, like Qdos, specialising in pantos, working with theatres across the country.
One of the most memorable years was 1986 when Ted Rodgers, at the height of his 3-2-1 fame, narrated Snow White, while Honor Blackman – who was the iconic Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger – was the Wicked Witch.
“Honor was lovely to work with, very pleasant and professional… and she was as gorgeous in real life as she was on the screen,” said Alan, who in those years was working with His Majesty’s electrics department.
Alan said it was a thrill to meet the definitive Bond girl, and her appearance in the panto created quite a buzz around the city.
“Ted Rodgers was very nice as well,” he said. “I think Dusty Bin also appeared in the show as a gimmick.”
In rapid succession, the following years saw a litany of household names from the worlds of television, pop and entertainment, such as Scots stalwarts Allan Stewart, Andy Gray, TV presenter and actor Matthew Kelly, dancer Wayne Sleep, singer Marti Webb, acclaimed Scots actor David Rintoul, comedian Max Boyce, swimmer Duncan Goodhew, pop star Sonia and sitcom icon Eric Sykes. Big Brother winner Cameron Stout also starred in a string of successful shows.
Era of spectacular effects
Another new era for His Majesty’s pantos started in 2004 with the arrival of Alan McHugh as the dame. He has filled those more and more elaborate and hilarious costumes ever since, as well as taking on the role of writing the pantos and last year, even directing it.
Stars such as Stefan Dennis and Alan Fletcher from Neighbours as well as Jimmy Osmond took to the stage with him. But most memorable has been his pairing with River City and Scot Squad star Jordan Young for 12 years, with Elaine C Smith joining to create a formidable trio for eight years.
“Elaine was very nice and very professional. Alan and Jordan were lovely too… you couldn’t meet a nicer bunch,” said Alan.
In recent years, special effects have been as much the stars of the panto as the actors on stage.
Alan said: “We have seen really spectacular special effects, like flying coaches and 3D genies, that take people’s breath away – especially when Jordan gets in a red sports car and drives out into the audience and it turns upside down. People talk about that.
“People always ask ‘how did they do that’… What they don’t realise is there are eight to 10 men around them, all dressed in black like ninjas, absolutely sweating, but out front you don’t see the people hauling away.”
Something for everybody
Of course, this year His Majesty’s is dark. But Alan is confident the chain of festive treats at His Majesty’s will start again next year with the postponed Beauty And the Beast and more memories will be made.
“Panto is a Christmas tradition, people know they are going to be entertained, they know it’s going to be spectacular and hopefully see some big stars. There is something for everybody.”