Don’t laugh — panto is a serious business. And before you shout back “oh no it isn’t”, this slapstick form of musical comedy, so often associated with D-list celebrities, cross-dressing and innuendo, is the biggest money-spinner for most theatres across the UK.
According to Michael Ockwell, chief executive of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which will be running Snow White And The Seven Dwarves this festive season, the stars of panto can earn four-figure salaries for a few weeks’ worth of work.
Michael believes that the snobbery in certain theatrical circles towards panto is on the way out and that it is now recognised as a hugely popular art form — as long as it’s done right.
At the Grand Opera House, which has a long-running tradition of sell-out shows every Christmas, panto brings in 20% of its margin for the whole year.
Michael said: “Without a doubt the panto is our cash cow.
“Most theatres run their pantos for about four or five weeks each year. Ours run for seven weeks.
“Last year we had 89% capacity, which is around 80,000 at the shows, and the gross box office figure was £1.2m.
“The Grand Opera House prides itself on quality panto, that appeals to all ages. There is a lot of money invested in the productions, the sets are great, we get big names and the fact that they are here for up to seven weeks means they create a company feel within the theatre, which is artistically beneficial too.”
Michael said there were several reasons why panto was particularly popular in Northern Ireland.
“Every year we give the audiences quality panto and quite often we get the same people coming back to the same seat, irrespective of who’s on the stage,” he said.
“We have a great cast, too, and May McFettridge is a wonderful panto performer.
“Thankfully perceptions are changing. That snobbery is disappearing. There’s little chance of getting some Big Brother finalist starring in some of the main pantos now.
“Joan Collins is doing panto in Dick Whittington in Birmingham and Nigel Havers is playing King Rat alongside her. That’s the type of celebrity panto can attract.
“Many of these big name stars can earn pretty good salaries for a few weeks’ run.”
Belfast’s own Great Dame, May McFettridge (John Linehan), will be back on the stage this Christmas for her 21st appearance in panto. Joining May in Snow White And The Seven Dwarves will be Aidan O’Neill, Paddy Jenkins, Mark Adamson and Sarah O’Connor, as well as Birds Of A Feather star Lesley Joseph as the Wicked Witch.
John said: “At the height of the Troubles I was playing to about 300 or 400 people, now we’re getting crowds of 80,000 throughout the run.
“Panto is available to everybody. It’s a great family experience and a real treat for the kids.
“There’s a real buzz to doing it too and it’s great for me that it’s in my home town.
“I agree that perceptions are changing.
“You get big names like Henry Winkler, Mickey Rooney and Pamela Anderson doing panto now. Maybe they’ve heard how many people May McFettridge is pulling in.”
Snow White And The Seven Dwarves runs from Saturday, December to Saturday, January 22.