The enduring appeal of panto and the stars who make theatre simply magical
My birthday treat as a kid was a trip to the panto.
There was always something magical about stepping through the big wooden and glass doors into the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh.
The colour and spectacle lit up the darkest of January nights.
Outside, the noise of the traffic on Leven Street evaporated the moment you stepped into this incredible place.
There was just so much to see, and to take in.
My memories are always of sitting in the stalls looking up and hoping one year we’d get seats in one of the boxes. Almost 50 years on, I’ve still never sat in one!
Panto was the first time I experienced the buzz that is generated as an audience fills each row, seat by seat, and saw how the atmosphere built up as the clock ticked towards curtain up, and, backstage, everyone moved seamlessly into place.
I still savour those moments at each and every live gig or theatre show.As a kid, my mate Youngie and I did the same going to Tynecastle every other Saturday.We’d be through the turnstiles early to pick our spot in The Shed and watch the old terraces fill with familiar faces all wrapped in maroon and white scarves, and the choir gradually form before bursting into that familiar Saturday songbook.
In both instances, everything was geared towards the stars entering the stage when the curtain finally rose.
The thrill of showtime hasn’t diminished at all across the decades.
I was fortunate to grow up in the era when Stanley Baxter was the undisputed king of panto in Edinburgh and, indeed, Scotland.
The budget for his outfits would dwarf the production costs of some shows now, but the spectacle they helped to create was priceless.
Fragments of memories remain as he conducted a masterclass in Parliamo Glasgow, and then brought down the big board for the traditional sing-a-long before leading the entire chorus into a lavish showstopper of a number.
If Baxter defined one panto era, Gerard Kelly created another, and the baton then passed to Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and the much missed, much loved Andy Gray, true masters of their craft.
And now, Fife’s very own Jordan Young is laying the foundations for the next generation with his brilliant role in this year’s fabulous Kings’ show.
Panto is an incredible Scottish tradition - the festive shows elsewhere which parachute in celebs and current big names don’t always quite get what makes it special.
The names help sell tickets, but, in pantoland you have to work incredibly hard to bring the magic alive.
You can’t dial in the slapstick routines or pad things out with easy choices of chart songs.
Good pantos are also packed full of local references which can only work on one stage in one town or city - and they instantly make the show ours on so may levels.
When Fife Council set about creating a four-way traffic system outside the Adam Smith Theatre, it sparked chaos , and the curtain had to be held every single night as folk raced to their seats.
They wrote a gag into the script. It got the biggest laugh every single night - much to the irritation of the bosses at the helm of the scheme.
They should have worn it as a badge of honour because the best panto jokes work when everyone in the theatre gets them.
This year’s Kings panto is a glorious homage to pantoland - a celebration of an art form that has entertained audiences for over a century.
It is a bona fide five-star show that sets a bar very few will match, thanks largely to the brilliance of the cast led by the Stewart and Stott, true masters of their craft.
For me, the magic of a panto hasn’t diminished one bit over five decades. I doubt it ever will.And one day, before I’m too old to climb the stairs, I’ll take my seat in one of those boxes…