Midlands entertainer Malcolm Stent tells Graham Young the secrets of his success.
Born three months apart in the first half of 1945, they are two stars from inner city Birmingham cut from the same working class cloth.
And they both made their names via Jasper Carrott’s own Boggery Folk Club in Solihull.
In January, 2004, nationally renowned comedian Jasper played 14 consecutive shows to 70,000 people at the NIA in Birmingham.
Tomorrow (Friday), the Midlands’ own local treasure Malcolm Stent will launch Robin Hood, his 21st consecutive pantomime as writer, director and star at Solihull Arts Complex.
In terms of endurance, both stars have gone the full 12 rounds in their own way.
But just because Jasper is the household name with an OBE and more than 1,700 words of reference on Wikipedia, do not underestimate Malcolm’s own scale of achievement that makes just 49 words on the website.
As an only child from Saltley, his father Bert was a labourer in heat treatment centre of Nuffield Tractor and Transmissions, later part of BMC.
Mother Mary was a housewife who sewed flotation bags used by D-Day landing tanks and who later worked in a material shop in Birmingham city centre.
His parents, then, didn’t have any material riches.
But they enriched the young Malcolm by taking him to the theatre and letting him see stars like Arthur Askey.
“We used to end up in the gods of the old Theatre Royal on New Street, up on the left hand side,” recalls Malc, as he’s known to friends.
“I’ve never been good with heights and I used to sit there gripping the (chair) arms looking down.
“When that closed, we’d go to the Alex where I saw The Bachelors, Frankie Vaughan, Arthur Askey and Morecambe & Wise.
“They were tremendous. I can remember coming out of their show and feeling sick from laughing.
“As the Palace Guards in Babes in the Wood, they were doing the drills, one-two-one-two-one-two when Eric would suddenly shout ‘Three!’
“He’d then be told: ‘No... he’s one and he’s one...’.
“To which Eric would reply: ‘I’ve always thought that.’
“They were so funny and the difference between them and The Two Ronnies is that Eric and Ernie were stand-up comedians and The Two Ronnies were comedy actors.
“Tony Hancock was a comedy actor – and a good one – who started to believe his own publicity that he was a comedian. But he couldn’t do it.”
To have survived for so long as the master and star of his own panto, Malc has become a truly rare beast – the jack of all trades who’s mastered them all, including radio.
“In this day and age, anybody who is in our business cannot say they are just ‘A...’,” he reasons.
“The beauty of panto is that you have a mixture of actors, comedians, dancers and singers and they all have to do their bit.”
Given that Malc has had to do all of that as well as casting (in March), writing (in May) and directing the whole production from rehearsals onwards, what does he like best?
Almost with relish, he says: “Standing in front of the audience and giving it like it is.
“And, in panto, I also like the fact I can nip backstage for five minutes for a cup of tea while the show is going on and the audience is still being entertained.
“But my favourite bit is just to stand in front of an audience talking to people and this year I’ve even got the right build and the right haircut to play Friar Tuck.
“The only difference between me and Jasper is that he’s got money and I haven’t.
“Although it’s not fair to say that because he’s earned it and deserved his success, he really does, and I wouldn’t want to take that from him.
“What it means is that when I go to somewhere where people don’t know me, the first five minutes is crucial. You live or die in that first five minutes.
“Any audience seeing Jasper will know exactly who he is and what they expect from him.”
Apart from hosting his Rock With Laughter shows and making business or charity appearances, Jasper has not toured since that heady NIA spell.
Yet here is modest Malc, still out there – running panto after panto, playing gigs, starring in shows like It’s Not a Proper Job and staging plays like Go And Play...
All on his very own Midlands’ patch.
“When I was ill five or six years ago and had an operation, I realised I’d learned two things,” says Malc, a father of two and now with a 20-month-old granddaughter, Lillie.
“There was nothing in life that I wanted that I hadn’t already got – I had a nice house, lovely family and good friends and, although I hadn’t got a plane or a boat, I didn’t want those.
“The other was that I enjoyed what I do, that I could think and choose what I do. I was good at doing what I wanted and enjoyed doing what I did.
“There’s an old saying, that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
“Maybe Jasper doesn’t tour any more because he’s arrived, thinks he’s done it all and wonders what’s left.
“But I’m still travelling hopefully. Maybe that’s the difference.
“Being ill made me think ‘It’s great to be alive, to be here and I’m very, very grateful for the fact that I am.”
Having travelled so far, Malc is treating his 21st show as an excuse to be more confident, to step over that invisible line beyond which so many fear to tread.
Two years ago, he told me with only a slight hint of resignation that ‘there are only five pantos... Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty’.
With old-fashioned shows like Goody Two Shoes and Robinson Crusoe having long been confined to history and eras of different taste, all theatre seems to recycle the five classics at will.
Announcing at the end of each show last year that his 2011 panto would be Robin Hood was, judging by the audience’s reaction, like Malc’s Epiphany.
“I’m using the traditional story about Richard The Lionheart and Robin of Loxley and I’ve ‘pantofied’ it – if there is such a word,” says Malc.
“In the past, I’ve followed the recognised route of a story and put different situations in from my own imagination.
“But this is all of my own work and I’m sure it is going to work with the really good people I’ve got alongside me.
“I cast them first and I’ve written a brand new panto to play to their strengths.
“It’s the kind of thing I want to do next year, too.”
* Robin Hood is at Solihull Arts Complex from Friday, December 9 to Sunday, January 8, 2012. Tickets from £13.50–£17. Box office: 0121 704 6962.