The pantomime principal boy is doomed…oh yes, she is!

Billingham forum panto
The cast of the Billingham Forum panto

The pantomime principal boy is doomed…oh yes, she is! But there’s still nothing like a Dame…as long as it’s a man.

That’s the opinion of Northern Life’s entertainment correspondent and professional producer Duggie Chapman, having just completed a sell-out season of Goldilocks and the Three Amazing Bears, and as he makes his plans for another busy year in the ever-changing world of entertainment in 2016.

The ‘principal boy’ phenomenon was for many decades a gender-swap staple of pantomime, both professional and amateur. A good-looking young lady with nice long legs shown off in tights and boots would tuck her hair inside a jaunty hat and pretend to be a young man; probably Dick Whittington or Prince Charming. She would then woo the principal girl – often the Princess or the Mayor’s daughter – with a blend of song and thigh-slapping derring-do in the face of evil doings from the nasty baddie.

These days, though, the kiddies who largely make up the audience are somewhat perplexed by this pretend boy-girl relationship on stage.

Billingham forum panto
The cast of the Billingham Forum panto

“I used to have traditional principal boys in my pantos, but I don’t any more,” Duggie says. “The kids are puzzled by two girls singing together, one of them acting like a boy. With a real boy and a girl in the roles, it’s easier for them to understand.”

(So that’s bad news for the kiddies’ dads who quite enjoy the thigh-slapping bit.)

True to his word, Duggie cast a young man, John Dillon Brown, as Prince Paul in his panto at the Billingham Forum, Stockton-on-Tees, opposite the effervescent X-Factor finalist Amelia Lily, appearing on her North-Eastern home ground in the title role. The Dame was still traditional, Craig Ansell playing Dame Tilly, the would-be circus promoter who runs up against greedy Mayor Ringer.

There’s a great comic tradition of men dressing as women, whether it’s the old-time entertainers such as Arthur Lucan and Norman Evans, TV favourites such as Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, the Monty Python crew or today’s David Walliams.

“I really don’t think there are many girls that can play the Dame,” Duggie says.

“Men put in some great performances, and people of all ages find them funny. It has to be fun, or you’re going nowhere.”

Duggie’s panto formula certainly works, as Goldilocks and the Three Amazing Bears – also featuring Bobby Ball’s comedian sons Robert and Darren Harper and spectacular aerial circus duo Nico and Angie – sold out all of 30 performances.

Pantomime, says Duggie, is more popular than ever. It’s usually the first experience of live entertainment that most children get when they are very young, often aged just four or five, and it can spark a passion that lasts through life. It also provides a springboard for young performers aiming to build a career in showbusiness.

Duggie himself was just a youngster when he began his showbiz career 50 years ago at the age of 15 when he left Rosegrove School at Burnley. He joined the radio and TV talent-spotter Carroll Levis’s touring show, appeared with a comedy singing group Dudley Dale and His Gang, then bravely struck out as a solo comedian aged just 18.

He was talent-spotted for the BBC’s Saturday Night Playhouse and appeared regularly on the BBC Light Programme’s Workers’ Playtime, a variety show that toured the nation’s big factories. Duggie was just 25 when he ventured into producing, starting with music hall shows in Jersey then summer shows in Skegness and playing panto dames over Christmas for 10 years or so.

At the age of 65, Duggie isn’t slowing down – “I’m trying to, but I can’t” – and is currently preparing his wartime matinee show We’ll Meet Again for a national tour that starts in Scotland, covers the south of England extensively, and includes Leeds City Varieties on 6 April and Burnley Mechanics on 10 April. He will also be preparing for next year’s panto at Billingham, and hopes to return to Bolton Public Halls after the major renovation project there.

Looking back on 2015 in showbiz, Duggie is particularly proud of his ‘Rat of the Year’ title from the Grand Order of Water Rats, the showbusiness charity organisation. It recognised his fund-raising shows at the Winter Gardens Opera House in his adopted hometown Blackpool, where he runs Duggie Chapman Associates from his home at South Shore.

But the year was strongly tinged with sadness by the death of star ventriloquist Keith Harris. “He was a very good pal of mine and he’d appeared in my pantomimes at Billingham and Bolton. He’d been suffering from cancer for a long time – it was very sad. The showbusiness people who attended his funeral showed how well respected he was.”

Looking forward, Duggie is confident that live entertainment will thrive, but he has serious misgivings about the offerings on television and about superstar comedians.

“It looks like television is trying to kill off variety,” he says. “There’s Sunday Night at the Palladium but it’s not very good, is it?

“The stand-up comedy shows on TV are very samey, and the young people are going out to watch comedians like Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre at huge venues where they have to be shown on big screens. I could never go to a show like that. I don’t think comedy will ever get back to what it was…but there’s always Ken Dodd!”

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