Mark Llewellin's pantomime success

PUBLISHED: 11:36 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Mark Llewellin is made up with the success of his pantos, says Peter riley.

Having one new pantomime script published in these days of hard-nosed publishers is a minor miracle - but to have 10 accepted in one go is a major event.

"Oh, no it isn't!" you cry.

"Oh, yes it is!" answers former Wotton-under-Edge actor Mark Llewellin, who has more than once donned the funny costume and make up.

Mark, who started his career in the Cotswolds, where he was a member of the Wotton-under-Edge amateur dramatic society, but now lives in Lancashire where he was Marketing Director of Oldham Coliseum Theatre until recently, was invited to write the brand new pantomime scripts by the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) which is the main representative body for amateur theatre in Britain.

With more than 2,500 theatre groups and individual enthusiasts staging various pantomimes in everything from major theatres to church halls, publication of the scripts is an important milestone for any writer, but Mark sees it as the icing on the cake not least because he has written three of the ten in league with former Coronation Street star Roy Barraclough, who played seedy landlord Alec Gilroy, and John Jardine, also a former Corrie performer who is currently appearing periodically in Hollyoaks.

"It's wonderful having the panto scripts published and especially working with Roy and John on three of them. It was hard work but also good fun for we had to act them out at home to make sure the words and the jokes came across ok," Mark said.

The scripts are based on traditional pantomimes and include Aladdin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mother Goose, Babes in the Wood and Dick Whittington solely from Mark's pen along with an original story titled Father Christmas - the Pantomime. The three co-written with Roy and John include new versions of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Robinson Crusoe.

"Pantomime looks deceptively easy; many in an audience would assume that all it requires is some glittery sets, a bucket or two of slop and a sense of fun. No! Pantomime is hard, but worthwhile work. There's nothing like having the audience with you, joining in, laughing at your routines, cheering the happy couple at the end. But in order for it to work you need to treat it seriously," Mark added.

Pantomime is a very British thing.

"Oh, no it isn't," we cry.

Oh, yes, it is, except it is based on the blending of Music Hall tradition with the Italian Commedia dell Arte or comedy of humours, a popular form of improvisational theatre dating back many centuries.

But pantomime in the Aladdin, Cinderella, et al, collection are certainly British in their type of humour and this is what makes it unique. They are mainly aimed at children but adults love them just as much even if they don't always admit it, though Mark, Roy and John are in total agreement that in the first rule of comedy if it is too daft the audience won't laugh at it.

Roy Barraclough who, ironically, played his first Dame in panto at Oldham Coliseum with John Jardine directing, later teamed up with the late comic Les Dawson to write and produce the hilarious 'Cissie and Ada' double act, the act being a form of double pantomime dames in their own right!

He later took on the role of playing infamous Rovers Return landlord Alec Gilroy in Coronation Street that gained him worldwide fame, though he continued his appearances with Les Dawson until the comic's untimely death in 1993.

Roy said: "My very first panto dame role was at Oldham with John directing. It was a natural progression from the Cissie and Ada routines which I was by then doing on TV with Les Dawson. Of course, I'd appeared many times in pantomime, but in other roles. I think my first appearance was in Blackburn alongside comedian Albert Modley and over the years I've had the pleasure of appearing with all kinds of people from Rod Hull and Emu to Barbara Windsor. When done well, panto can be a magical experience."

And John Jardine, who started life in Harrow before emigrating to Lancashire where he later ran Oldham Coliseum and appeared in many Tv productions added: "I've appeared in 50 pantomimes in Oldham and Rochdale, as well as up and down the country. My first one was in Leeds. Panto has so many theatrical traditions tied up in it that it requires great skill. The performance schedules are certainly hard going but it's well worth it - there's nothing quite like panto."

With the vast experience of two stalwarts alongside him, was writing the pantomime scrips easy?

"No," Mark said. "The stage is a working environment and as most actors will tell you it only works best when everyone knows what they're doing, what's about to happen and all the risks have been considered. The audience, for example, knows Cinderella is going to find a pumpkin and get her man, most of the audience know that Widow Twankey is a man in a frock and that Abanazar is a potential murderer, but the actors are playing the characters with a straight face. They believe in what they are doing, and they know that as soon as they laugh at themselves, the audience don't. They may give a knowing wink to the audience, they may make a witty aside but then it's back into the part. That's one of the biggest secrets. No messing about! They are there to entertain the audience not each other.

"Some people will recall professional pantos where the dame's wig has come off, where the baron has fallen over, a prop has broken or someone has messed up a line. Now that can be very funny but, as some will know, by and large it's all been carefully worked out and rehearsed. The same 'mistakes' happen night after night. Panto is a serious business!

Mark, 40, who now runs his own PR company, admits he was "brought up with panto" in Wotton-under-Edge and he wrote and played dame in three pantomimes at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London. He was also the 'dame' in Oldham's Christmas shopping TV commercials for three years.

"Last year I submitted several new pantomime ideas and was shocked but pleasantly surprised when I was asked to write ten scripts for NODA, who will publish them and act as agent making them available across the UK. It is highly unusual that NODA should publish such a large number by one author at the same time.

"Pantomimes are wonderful things; they introduce thousands of children to theatre for a start. I can still remember going to see my first pantomime. It was Aladdin and starred Danny La Rue, and I can still recall some of the routines," he said.

"Oh, no, you can't!" I interjected on cue.

"Oh, yes I can," Mark replied. "I can still name some of the cast and for many years I kept the programme. It's a big responsibility making a pantomime a success but when it's done well it can be fabulous for cast, crew and audience alike."

I couldn't argue with that!

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