On the 12th day....

I thought I'd highlight a few of my favourite shots (some not included in the blog) and give you a bit of an insight into what was going on when I took them.  First up is this shot of Kenneth Alan Taylor waiting in the wings, partly dressed for his entrance minus wig.

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Kenneth seems to cut a rather lonely figure here, waiting in the wings for his entrance but in reality it's the opposite. He doesn't have to go on for the first 15 minutes of the show and rather than sit it out in his dressing room, he comes down to watch the performance from this vantage point. As director and writer, he's checking out what goes down well with the audience, chatting to the actors and crew and sharing in their laughter if the performers ad lib. He looks like he belongs to this space - fitting for a man who has written, directed and acted in the pantomime in this space for over 25 years. 

Technical lowdown. All shot on Nikon D3s.  Here I used a 35mm lens, ISO 2500, F1.6 at 1/25 sec. I didn't use a tripod but instead, found a handy piece of scenery which was just the right height to get the shot.

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When I shoot backstage, I work with the available light. Bringing additional light in adds an extra layer of artifice which isn't 'true' to the scenario and also is distracting for the performer. It does make it a lot harder and means you have to wait for the moment when the performer happens to stand in the light. On this project, many of the dames had separate quick change areas which were all lit to different degrees. Here, Nigel Ellacott's change area is really close to the stage so it's pretty dark,  apart from one light near a long mirror.  My only choice in order to get something was to borrow a head torch from the stage manager so I could illuminate a bit from the front. I saw this moment happening with Nigel's dresser using her head torch to light up his buttons and I switched on my head torch on which cast just enough light on his face, I quickly took the shot and then switched off again. The ambient light behind is coming from the stage. 

Technical lowdown: Shot on a 50mm lens, at ISO4000, f.2, 1/200sec.

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After a really successful shoot with Graham Hoadly during his matinee at Richmond, I was just about to pack away my camera when I found him waiting near the fire escape for his final curtain call. He gets so hot during the performance and this is his only chance to get a breath of fresh air in between the frantic changes. The sides of the costume open up into a fan onstage, so he has the additional difficulty of having to navigate his way through the doors. 

Technical lowdown: This was shot on a 24-70mm lens. Not ideal given the appalling lighting conditions, so I had to pump ISO up to 8000, take it at the widest aperture of 2.8 and then risked shutter speed at 1/100 so I was lucky to get a steady shot. 

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I couldn't' believe my luck when I saw Donovan's gorgeous Irish Wolfhound in the dressing room with him.  It made for such a wonderful scenario. He seemed very curious about the whole process of Donovan getting ready and was trying to get in on the act, as you can see from the other photos in the series.

Technical lowdown: 24-70mm lens, ISP 3200, f2.8, 200 sec.

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I was shooting in Christoper Biggins quick change area and he put on this wonderful Carmen Miranda headdress. I had a 50mm lens on at the time so in order to get it all in, I jumped up on a chair. He turned round, looked up and me gave me this wry smile. The shot, as a result looks almost set up, but it's captured in seconds before his next entrance. 

Technical lowdown: 50mm lens, ISO 2000, f2.5, 1/200 sec.

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Happy Christmas to you all

On Christmas Eve I leave the world of fake boobs and falsh eyelashes with the sound of 12 different versions of Gangnam style ringing in my ears. I am sorry to have only scratched the surface in terms of dames I have covered but I feel honoured to have enjoyed the company of those I did. It’s not easy to feel relaxed in the presence of a photographer when you’re standing in a Spanx suit which leaves nothing to the imagination, but my dames have all welcomed me warmly into their backstage worlds. 

It may look like fun but with a 30 minute make up routine for each show, 8-10 costume changes, 2 or more shows a day for several weeks and a requirement to deliver each performance as your first, it is not a job for the faint-hearted and illness is not an option.

To my gorgeous dames: Leon, Kenneth, Phylip, Steve, Nigel, Iain, Chris, Allan, Graham, Andrew, Donovan, Christopher. You have made this project so enjoyable. I wish you all the best with your respective shows and careers and hope you’ve enjoyed being a part of it.

Thank you so much to those of you who have followed the project. Come back to visit again as I’ll be putting a section in on the ‘story behind the shot’ in a few days.

You can follow more of my work and future projects via my Facebook page.  I am currently putting together an exhibition of all my backstage work for the spring, called ‘Beginners’.

Happy Christmas and thank you for following.

With huge thanks to:

Chris Rickwood at Tank Top PR for all his amazing work and constant support. Adrian Lesurf at Qdos, David Brown at Nottingham Playhouse, Ewan Thomson PR and Susie McKenna for Hackney Empire, Madeleine Woolgar at Oxford Playhouse, Cara at Princes Hall, Aldershot Becky Batten at Richmond Theatre, Simon Sladen panto guru and to company managers Helen Drew, Matt Byham, Nicola Candlish, Michael Broughton, Chris Hewitt, Guy Parry and Steve Cressey.

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Dame Twelve - Christopher Biggins, Dick Whittington, Theatre Royal, Plymouth

And so we end with the inimitable Christopher Biggins. 

As I make my way to Plymouth, there is a ‘wave’ warning on the train. Having never travelled to this part of the country on the train before, I am utterly bemused as to how a wave is going to come into contact with the carriage but, as locals barely glance up from their papers and guards rushing around closing up the windows in the passageways, there is suddenly a loud crash as sea water hits the window opposite me. It is squallish in Dawlish.

Thankfully we are not derailed or delayed and so I arrive at the Theatre Royal. As befitting for a King of the Jungle, ‘Biggins’ as he seems to be affectionately known by everyone, is already inundated with press. He’s been in and out of costume and had his make up process documented by one photographer and is now ready for me.

So, unlike my other dames, I don’t have time to chat as he prepares but I feel privileged to be the only person to have backstage access. True to ‘delightful’ form (everyone I speak to who knows him attests to his status as a National Treasure) he greets me with a beaming smile as I explain I’ll be hovering in his quick-change area for the duration.

Whilst he probably rather just get on with the job in hand without another photographer documenting his every move, he patiently tells me when his next change is and, as we approach the end of the first half says “ you may as well have a little break now as I don’t have any more changes until after the interval”. He initiates a group shot with cast members in the wings, giggles with Donna his dresser as he changes, introduces me to other cast members and inquires as to whether I’ve got enough light.  A true panto pro.

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Dame Eleven - Donovan Christian Cary, Beauty and the Beast, Princes Hall, Aldershot

A larger than life character, Donovan Christian Cary shares his dressing room, not only with 3 other cast members, but his equally larger than life dog, an eight-month old Irish wolfhound. “I don’t do small things’, he explains.

I wonder if accommodating the dog is part of the deal in his eighth year at the Princes Hall in Aldershot. He and his cohorts chuckle as they recall Danny La Rue’s canine requirements. “No dog. No Danny!” they chorus.

With bright red talons, he sets to applying the glitter.  The nails look like a permanent fixture. ‘Yes, I find it easier to explain to people why I have them, than cope with the fuss of putting them on before each performance”

His dressing table is, in ‘creative disarray’, as he calls it, covered with liberal dustings of powder and glitter in addition to the lotions and potions required to transform him into dame. “Everything can be made better with glitter”, he affirms as he applies a golden glittery outline to his lips. The dog can attest to this. After swallowing half a bottle of the stuff there were, “very glittery poos for a week!”

With balloons for boobs (I think you can guess what happens for comic effect during the show) and an interesting self-crafted buttock shelf, Donovan's colourful dame with a West Indian lilt is just as extrovert as Donovan himself (with the exception of the accent which in reality is quite plummy). Clothes and wigs perched atop an old ironing board in the green room, this is far removed from Chris Hayward’s (Dame Seven) Aladdin’s cave of damery.  No matter, the audience love it and Donovan may yet get that dog clause in his contract......

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Dame Ten - Andrew Pollard, Robin Hood, Greenwich Theatre

“This is probably the least glamorous backstage area you’ve photographed”, Andrew Pollard quips as he grapples with a tree costume in the quick change area.

With a tight budget and barely room to swing a cat backstage, Andrew has built up a loyal following and a critically acclaimed panto in Greenwich over the last eight years.  The panto is the only show in the year that is home grown and takes a third of the theatre’s revenue.  As writer, director and dame, like several of the dames I’ve met on my travels, he’s had a busy few weeks. This is the first time he’s directed the show. “It’s been harder than I thought, especially during the tech”, (when all the technical elements of the show come together for the first time) “I was back and forth from the stage watching, then getting back onstage to do my entrances.”

The inspiration for his dame comes from old movies and music hall. “‘I think I’m a clown more than anything else. That’s how I see it. If you take away the red lips, it’s a very similar make up”. Having learnt a lot from Eric Potts, a celebrated writer/dame who, in turn learnt a lot from Kenneth Alan Taylor (Dame Two) it is wonderful to see that a legacy is being passed down the line amongst the dames I visit. 

Over time, he’s seen the audiences swell and he’s done the rare thing of creating a panto with a community feel in the heart of London. “If you’ve got the luxury of being in one place you start to develop what you like and you find out what the audience seems to like. When we first started they’d never done panto here before so the audience was a bit thin on the ground but thankfully they stuck with it and now it’s built and built and we’ve become a part of everyone’s Christmas”.

Despite his London residency, he lives up in the Pennines. “I’ve got a thing about baubles - I’ve built up quite a collection over the years and I’ve never had a chance to get them onto a tree at home”. That may not happen for a while yet. His one day off so far was going to see two other pantos he’s written for Salisbury and Watford. He’s also penned two other Christmas shows for theatres in Scarborough and Bath “It’s become quite a cottage industry!” he laughs. 

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Dame Nine - Graham Hoadly, Aladdin, Richmond Theatre

I think Graham Hoadly is turning into my muse! I photographed Graham last year when he was playing an ugly sister in Cinderella. He has such a wonderful, characterful face and when he’s made up looks almost from another era, reminiscent of vaudeville that comes across so well in the photographs. This year I'm here to document his Widow Twankey in Aladdin. 

We chat as he applies his make up. “I always remember what Arthur Askey said about playing dame. ‘You must show the trousers'.  As far as I’m concerned she’s a real person and a real woman but then because she’s a panto character, you can step out of it and remind everyone that you’re a fella every so often”.

He recalls a brilliant quote from an old stage make up book . “If you suspect your character of comedy, a touch of carmine on the tip of the nose would not seem inappropriate”.  He dabs his nose with crimson. “I think I may have rather too much!” He uses a old-fashioned technique of putting red dots in the sides of his eyes which makes the eyes stand out a bit more to the audience (you can see them in the shot below).  “It really does work”.

Although a very experienced performer, Graham is still relatively new to the dame role with a few pantos under his belt. He is already well respected by other performers in the role.  “I’ve tried to make her movement quite stylised with certain poses and stances. There’s a bit of Hilda Baker (an old music hall star) incorporated in there as well as Mae West.”

As I’ve travelled around the country I’ve noticed that although life and soul of the action on stage, the dame is quite a solitary role. Graham concurs. “It takes me a long time to get ready because of the make up, which I quite enjoy because the process does relax me. Then, I’m either on stage or doing a quick change. I don’t speak to anyone much offstage and then, by the time I’ve taken all my make up off, everyone else has gone home!”

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Dame Eight - Allan Stewart, Mother Goose, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Allan differs slightly from other dames in that his dame, Auntie May is an established persona. “She’s a character that I developed for a television series that I had back in the 70s. Auntie May was one of several characters in the show and she’s the one that stuck for all these years.” With a simple wig and slightly more old fashioned character dresses rather than the usual excess associate with the dame costumes, Aunty May as Mother Goose brings a warmth to the dame role which lets Allan get away with murder. At one point a step ladder is brought onstage so that Mother Goose can climb up it to chat to audience members in the box (see below). “I bet you're wishing you wore nicer clothes”. The 'victims' roll about laughing.

Allan has performed at the King's together with Andy Gray and Grant Stott for many years. Each panto is rewritten to incorporate the trio and there’s an almost old fashioned variety feel to this show with routines between the central characters. There's a loyal audience here that expect some of the usual 'shtick' but Allan who writes it together with Paul Elliott, knows it's important to keep it fresh. "Finding new material is hard, particularly for audiences who keep coming back".  They're doing something right though, as even in these times, the box office is doing a roaring trade. 

Mother Goose is the tour de force for dames. Allan’s already lost pounds in the role. “The character of Mother Goose is supposed to be fat so they made me this rubber fat suit and I just couldn't work in it - I was drenched in sweat".  Maggie Kennedy, head of wardrobe and her team came to the rescue by sewing padding into his costumes instead. "Maggie's sensational. She knows all my little quirks and she makes me laugh. She even knows what I’m saying when I’ve got mouthwash in my mouth. It’s a running joke now that I have a gargle at the interval and our conversation continues as normal”. 

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Dame Seven - Chris Hayward, Aladdin, Newcastle Theatre Royal

Chris Hayward has been dame in residence at the Newcastle Theatre Royal for several years. With a wardrobe that would rival Victoria Beckham’s, Chris is known in the business, not only a highly glamorous dame but also as a dame with the most amazing costumes.

His quick change area is an Aladdin’s cave of extraordinary fabrics, and intricate design with shoes and accessories to match. His mentor John Inman left all his dame costumes to Chris but, although treasured, he would never wear them onstage. “I’m a fanny for me own costumes” he says in his Geordie lilt.

Glamour comes at a price and even for the stage, Chris’s meticulous attention to detail ensures his dame has only the best, befitting for her character. “She’s common but she thinks she better than she is – she has aspirations”.  He shows me one of his first costumes – an extraordinary coat covered in ostrich feathers which cost £2000. He spends a lot of time finding suppliers for his fabrics “but I never reveal my sources”, he says with a wry smile.

Due to his skill as both a performer and a costumier, he is inundated with emails from young people asking how to get into playing dame. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted though. With 2 shows a day for 6 weeks and half an hour needed each show to apply the make up, then costumes to think about for next year’s panto, it’s a lot of hard graft for a glamour puss.

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Dame Six - Iain Lauchlan, Sleeping Beauty, Belgrade Coventry

I like to think of Iain as my personal dame. This is because I too, dear reader, once graced the panto stage as principal boy alongside Iain's dame, in my former life as an actor.  It's with fond memories that I return to Coventry to see Iain again and document Sleeping Beauty - the same panto that I was in. I was an utter panto novice when I worked with Iain and he was the perfect person to guide me through the experience. As a thigh-slapping principal boy, I experienced being the 'straight guy' with the unenviable task of pushing on through with the story whilst Iain and a young Justin Fletcher had all the crazy fun. 

Iain co-writes, directs and acts in the show and favours a traditional panto - no 'names', original songs and even continuing the tradition of the principal boy played by a girl - now Iain's daughter Morna very capably playing 'my' part.  

I question him on the dame/director/writer role which so many dames favour. Is it just megalomania? "Yes, absolutely", he chortles. "I couldn't imagine being directed by any one else - that sounds awful doesn't it!" This does, however, mean a heavy schedule of shows and then directing understudy rehearsals in between performances. 

Iain's had an extraordinary career which includes television presenting, acting, writing and TV production, having co-created and co-produced The Tweenies, which anyone with a child of nursery school age will be only too familiar with.

He identifies the key ingredients to a good dame. "Warmth. Getting the audience to trust you and feel totally comfortable with you " Warmth as a dame is what Iain has in spades, in addition to a great knack of always sharing the joke with the audience.  With the usual friendly welcome from everyone at the Belgrade, it was a delight to revisit my panto home.  

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Dame Five - Nigel Ellacott, Jack and the Beanstalk, Wolverhampton Grand

Nigel is famed not only as a great panto performer but also as a go-to panto expert. His site its-behind-you.com is a comprehensive online compendium to the panto world and his ongoing blog features panto news and his own onstage experiences. He also visits schools all year round with his panto workshop, which introduces the idea of panto to children who may not have experienced it before. "It's wonderful to visit more diverse areas - we've done a lot in Asian communities where  the parents wouldn't necessarily think of taking the kids to a panto because it's not a part of their culture. Suddenly the kids are saying 'can I go and see a panto?'"

Paired with Peter Robbins for years, as Ugly Sisters, he has continued alone as dame after Peter's sad and sudden death in 2009.  We talk about the difference in playing dame and ugly sister.   "As an 'ugly' you're positively encouraging booing whereas the audience have got to be on the dame's side all the time - you can't go too far".

So what does an experienced panto pro have to say to aspiring dames? "Don't shriek and be yourself. There's a tendency with younger, inexperienced dames to do a lot of shrieking. Just be yourself and remember... it's a bloke in a dress". 

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Dame Four - Steve Elias, Dick Whittington and his Cat, Hackney Empire

First time dame, Steve Elias realises he's got his work cut out for him as a newbie to Hackney Empire. "It's the legacy". By that, he means the amazing reputation of the Hackney pantos, directed by Susie McKenna, in addition to Clive Rowe's popular appearances as dame. "Having said that, everyone here has been so supportive and I haven't felt pressure from them". Also a dancer and choreographer, Steve has made his life just a little bit harder, by also choreographing the show and making a rather nerve-wracking first entrance which I won't spoil for you. Despite his nerves as a first timer and his reluctance to read reviews until the end of the show, his dame has already had a glowing reception. 

Inspired by Tudor Davies' dame having worked with him in panto, Steve has gone on to create a his own unique take on the role. The daffodil flower pot headgear and Welsh flag firmly establish this dame's roots. "She's a mix of Terry Scott and Joan Sims with the silhouette of a Beryl Cook character".  Supported by Lotte Collett's wonderful costume design,  he has a marvellous array of frocks and headgear, including a shimmering 'Shirley SeaBassy' outfit - part mermaid part Shirley circa 1960, with a beehive to die for. 

As with all dames, it's the costume changes that are the most tiring. Steve has nine throughout the show and the speed of them is already down to a fine art, with the help of dresser Ruth. "The PVC one is the worst - it's so hot. That costume is going to be walking out of here by the time we've finished". For that extra ample bosom uplift, Steve is strapped into corsets but there's a modicum of comfort thanks to a pair of beautiful hand made boots, perfect for a dancing dame.  

With two shows a day, the key is staying well and not losing your voice. He has a vast supply of throat sweets to hand and herbal tea on the go mixed with manuka honey, a superfood staple to ward off germs. " I think they saw me coming, have you seen how much this stuff costs?!"

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Dame Three - Phylip Harries, Dick Whittington, Theatr Clwyd, Mold

From Nottingham to Theatr Clywd to spend some time with Phylip Harries. Phylip is a dame with a difference, as this is the rock and roll version of Dick Whittington, featuring multi-talented actor musicians. When he isn't in a scene, Phyl's in the onstage band on either the flute, sax, bass, piccolo to name but a few. The backstage team hover, waiting to hand him an instrument or help with his quick changes. He'd already done a morning show by the time I got there for the matinee. So what's Christmas like for a panto dame when most of it is spent entertaining other people? 

"All our children have grown up now and we have seven lovely grandchildren. They come to see the panto at some point but usually on Christmas Day my wife Mags and I chill out with good food, fine wine and sleep. This year we have Sunday free, one show on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day off and back for Boxing Day."

Has he ever had a Christmas off? "There haven't been many times when I haven't been involved in panto or a show over the Christmas period since 1984 and I do miss it if I don't do one". 

I ask him about any strange experiences when he's been on stage as dame. "One of the best and most unexpected thing to happen to me on stage was when, one year during "Beauty and the Beast", one of the stage crew, Paul, opened a little trap door at the front of the stage, and poked his head out. I got down on my knees and started talking to this head, protruding from the stage. I looked at him and ad libbed a bit, asking him what exactly he thought he was doing, and what did he want. He then shouted to his girlfriend Caryl, who was in the audience, and asked her if she'd marry him. Luckily, she said yes and they've been together ever since. Lovely bit of panto magic."

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Dame Two - Kenneth Alan Taylor, Robin Hood and Babes in the Wood, Nottingham Playhouse

I was thrilled when Kenneth Alan Taylor agreed to be photographed. The grand dame of the panto world, at 75 years young he still writes, directs and acts in the Nottingham Playhouse panto and has done for years. 

He supposedly hung up the frock for good back in 2001 only to be persuaded to return for his 25th anniversary,  then because he thought his grandchildren ought to see him as dame. ‘He’s had more comebacks than Sinatra’, quips John Elkington, the Sheriff of Nottingham as they chat over a cup a tea in the Green Room. ‘Well why not? I might drop dead doing it, but I may as well be doing something I love”, retorts Kenneth.

Grand dame he may be but there are no airs and graces here. Wearing a onesie given to him by the company, with 'Sexy and I know it' emblazoned on the back, he introduces me to everyone, offers to make me tea, chats about photography and what other dames I'm covering and has no problems being photographed ‘warts and all’.  After taking some shots in his dressing room, I offer to leave him in peace before the show starts. I am politely rebuffed.  ‘No really I don’t mind. I don’t need to 'get into character' or anything like that!

Inspired by Arthur Askey's dame as a child, he loves the anarchy of being dame and the licence it gives him to stray from the plot and tease the audience. "And they love it when you're rude to them". To illustrate the point, he tells a great story about a little girl who came up on stage to sing the song sheet. As dame, Kenneth asked her what she got for Christmas. "A cardigan from my gran", she replied.  The gran was in the audience and Kenneth went on to joke about how tight the gran was, not buying her grand daughter a 'proper present'.  

"The gran loved it. She was rolling about laughing. Afterwards I got a letter from her saying they love the show and the whole family had laughed about the cardigan joke all Christmas. I also got a letter from someone saying how awful it was that I had picked on this poor woman. I thought 'what do I do now?' So I sent the letter of complaint to the gran and the gran's letter to the person who complained. I didn't hear anything from the man who complained and the gran wrote back to say, 'well... he was either a Tory, or a vicar!'"

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Dame One - Leon Craig, Dick Whittington, Oxford Playhouse

It's National Panto Day and the 12 Dames of Christmas is off to a snowy start as I leave London at 6am in a blizzard of sleet. I'm off to Oxford Playhouse to meet Leon Craig who, at 28, is still one of the youngest dames in the UK, despite the fact that he's already clocked up 11 years in panto. Leon's dame is the perfect mix of cheeky northern brass, fluttering eyelashes and a good line in ad libs.  Despite the early 10am performance, Leon is a ball of energy onstage, belting out an insanely fast and furious version of the 12 Days of Christmas whilst squirting the squealing school parties with a water pistol.

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