Stage and panto veteran Paul Elliott talks to Terry Grimley about this season’s Robin Hood.
There can’t be many people who would wander into a shop in France during a summer holiday, spot a joined pair of woven baskets and think they were just the thing to make Don Maclean a pair of false boobs.
Welcome to the world of pantomime king Paul Elliott, veteran of around 350 pantos, who once again is taking charge of Christmas festivities at Birmingham Hippodrome as writer, producer and director of Robin Hood.
We met a week ago at the end of his first day at rehearsals. He was directing a scene in which Maclean, playing Friar Tuck, inveigles his way into the household of the Sheriff of Nottingham disguised as a female cook. Meanwhile, cast-members were trying out a portable ice-rink in the rehearsal room next door.
This is already Elliott’s third panto of the season, having already got Cinderella in Nottingham and Aladdin in Edinburgh up and running. I’m trying to imagine how this works: is it like getting plates spinning on sticks, with frequent return journeys needed to give an extra push?
“No, I don’t do that,” he says.
“Last week I was in Nottingham and two weeks before that I was in Edinburgh. I couldn’t get my head around plate-spinning by doing two days here and there. I like to work solidly, so I can be completely in charge. There are certain things you can only change if you’re there with the cast.
“My assistant director did the first week of this one and now I’m doing the last two weeks of rehearsals. The intensity of it is tremendous. We’re finishing early tonight, but when you’re lighting and doing techs you’re here until midnight or two in the morning.”
On the eve of his 67th birthday, Elliott doesn’t need to be working this hard. But having given up directing some years ago he found himself missing the rehearsal room and went back to it. He leaves you in no doubt about why the Hippodrome has such a special place in his affections, and for any of us who may be tempted to take our local theatre for granted his enthusiasm is quite an eye-opener.
“It’s the greatest pantomime venue in the world,” he says simply. “We have an audience and an auditorium that’s perfect for panto. I don’t think there’s anywhere with a stage this big, and there’s an atmosphere about Birmingham, there’s a tradition.
“I find it in Edinburgh, there’s a wonderful family atmosphere about that building, the King’s Theatre, and the Nottingham Theatre Royal. But the Hippodrome has the greatest facilities in the country. Just look at this – three rehearsal rooms, one full of ice. There’s nowhere in the country like it.”
While Nottingham’s Cinderella, with Brian Conley, is a show he’s done before, this Robin Hood is a completely new show. The original connection between Britain’s famous medieval outlaw and the pantomime tradition started with his introduction into the story of Babes in the Wood in 1867.
“We’ve done Babes in the Wood in the past, but it’s politically incorrect these days. It always was a bit nasty, I thought, and now it’s not on. There’s a huge story of Robin Hood which has been done very well on film, where you can have horses and bows and arrows by way of visual things which you can’t do on stage.
“We’ve had to make a story which has a beginning, a middle and an end with Robin Hood, Little John, Alan a Dale, Maid Marion and the Sheriff of Nottingham. You have the characters, and you have to make a story about what happens between them.
“I’ve introduced two elements to it which are different to before. I’ve added this sorceress called Cassandra who the Sheriff gets to make Maid Marion disappear, and Cassandra conjures up this 8ft 6in robot, so we’re bringing it into the 21st Century.
“The robot ends up being evil at the start and good at the end.
“We’ve put a lot of spectacular illusions into the show. Maid Marion disappears, and then there’s the Table of Death we do with John Barrowman when the Sheriff of Nottingham finally captures him. It’s an immense prop with 25 huge spikes that go through him.
“Then we have more visual elements in it, like the ice and the five-times Ukrainian champion figure skater. They are going to do two-and-a-half minutes of speciality skating and we do a complete skating end of Act One. Plus, of course, we have the comedy element of Paul Zerdin and his little friend Sam.”
Is this what Elliott would call a typical panto mix?
“No – it’s an astonishing pantomime! It can’t be typical when we have an 8ft 6in robot in it. Last year we had a 3D genie and this year we’re giving them something different.
“If you give them the same every year it becomes like wallpaper. Every year we try to vary it and have something that’s better than last year.”
But an important rule, he insists, is the diverse mixture has to be held in place by some kind of dramatic logic.
“There’s no padding in pantomimes any more. In the late 60s and 70s panto was full of speciality acts, but now it’s all about the story that has to be told. You don’t send a juggler on in the middle of the show because he’s a juggler, you have to find a reason for it. I was saying to one of the guys today, it’s like making a cake: you have to make a solid and tasty cake, and then on top of that you put the icing.”
Although he is a prolific producer of pantomimes, that’s far from all Paul Elliott does. With Duncan Weldon he co-produced the tour of Macbeth which helped bring about Patrick Stewart’s repatriation from Hollywood, and he currently has The Witches of Eastwick with Marti Pellow out on tour (it will follow Robin Hood into the Hippodrome in the New Year).
Another big show he had on the road this year was the Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, but that was one of his less commercially successful ventures.
“It was jolly good, but people didn’t want to see six-and-a-half hours of theatre in one week,” he says ruefully. “I thought they would. London was okay because there was eight weeks of it, so they could see it on one day or split days over several weeks. Canada was good, but in weekly touring in this country it died.”
As well as The Witches of Eastwick, post-panto plans for 2009 include tours of Hot Flush with Lesley Joseph, Jolson and Co and another revival of one of his biggest successes, Stones in His Pockets, now going out for what he calls its “scout hut” tour. Stones in His Pockets is a good example of how some of the best things come about when you are persuaded to drag yourself out to see something on a rainy Friday night.
“I’ve done everything I want to do in this business. I’ve had a great, great career. There are a couple of things I’d change if I had my life over again, because hindsight is 20-20 vision, isn’t it?
“I’ve been 50 years in the business – I started on June 8, 1958, in rep in Bournemouth. I had a massive party on June 8 with a galaxy of stars I’ve worked with, and there were people there who were in that company in 1958.”
At the moment, though, he is still not thinking about retirement.
“The trouble is a lot of my friends seem to die prematurely. I think it would be fun to have a sabbatical in a few years’ time, to travel. When you travel in this business you never actually see the country. I’ve been to Australia 31 times but all you see is the hotel, the theatre and the road between them. I would like to go to Ayers Rock.
“I’ve done so many shows in North America. I’ve done 41 shows in Toronto but all I’ve seen is the airport, hotel and theatre. Or there’s South America – I’ve never been there. I’d like to take my wife and be able to do that, and then come back again.”
* Robin Hood is at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday until February 1 (Box office: 0844 338 5000).