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Animals In Panto!

November 19, 2013

Here at IBY we have a gallery of photographs of Pantomime Animals. I won’t illustrate this article- take a browse through and applaud those unseen stars of Pantoland- The Animal Impersonators!

Throughout the history of Pantomime the “Skin Artiste” has been much sought after!  During the height of the Edwardian Era, Actors who specialised in animal roles could always find work in pantomime- often seasons running for three months ending in March.

Animal impersonators were required for many pantomimes right through to the 1950’s. Not just “Daisy The Cow” in “Jack & The Beanstalk” or “Tommy The Cat” in Dick Whittington. There were often other animal roles in the popular pantos of the day. Often Cinderella would have a canine companion to keep her company by the fireside, and the panto dog was seen more often than a cat in the Golden Age of Panto. Every Robinson Crusoe would strive to have a live parrot perching on the (female) Principal Boy’s shoulder. Some, like the one at Wolverhampton in the 1970’s would be dismissed for impolite interruptions- not for the kiddie’s ears that one!

The major roles of Pantomime Cats- both in “Dick Whittington” and “Puss In Boots” were played by specialists. Artistes like Johhny Fuller, Fred Whittaker and Harry Gilmore strutted their feline paws on stage. A few would run around the edge of the dress circle being petted by the audience- not likely today in the age of “Health & Safety!”

Fred Conquest, like many others made his full time living appearing as animal characters. He specialised in Goose and Dogs and Cats, but would also appear in “a skin” as a one person Donkey or cow! Harry Rignold made a very life like creation of a Bulldog in many a pantomime- Albert Felino, despite his stage name played not only Puss but also Geese in “Mother Goose”, and Laurie Mellin almost exclusively played “Tommy” the Cat in “Dick Whittington”, as did Terry Doogan.

In more recent times two ladies became famous as “Geese Ladies”, and appeared as “Priscilla The Goose” in pantomimes with legends like Stanley Baxter and John Inman. Kay Lyell and Barbara Newman specialised and taught the art of “Panto Goose”. Kay would spend most of the show encased in her wicker and feather costume in the wings and, legend has it, created a periscope like cigarette holder for the odd puff in the wings! Those were the days!

Cows are the most identified Panto creation- only to be found in “Jack & The Beanstalk” and traditionally named “Daisy”. A veteran panto Dame recalled a pair who argued incessantly inside the costume, and often missed entrances rowing! Not an easy life in the udder world of Panto!

One of the long serving Bovine specialists were Mother and son Paul & June Kidd. They also appeared as Stilt Walking Giants in the second half of “Jack”. The Chuckle Brothers, now the longest running childrens comedy series, owe their names and fame to animals- they were introduced to our screens as “The Chuckle Hounds” in 1985 and soon lost the costume and adapted the name to achieve fame. Barry and Paul played Panto Cow at the Grand Swansea long before then!

The Palladium Pantomime saw top comedian Dick Emery as “Puss” in “Puss In Boots” in 1962, appearing opposite Joan Reagan. “Puss” is the only one that gets to talk  in Panto- the Cat’s Whiskers of “Skin Parts”. Recent Cat Specialists include Derek Holt.

Strange but true- everyone associates a Panto Horse when they think of Pantomime. In fact the creature is almost mythical. Hardly any pantomimes had a horse- in fact you’d probably find more camels than horses in an old panto store. This hasn’t stopped the cartoonists joy in illustrating the creation though, usually with large sewn on patches and the head off!

London once boasted an entire shop dedicated to the Pantomime animal. “Theatre Zoo” it was called, in New Row Covent Garden. There you could hire any creature you wanted for your production, and had to book early for Christmas. I once manhandled a panto Goose all the way from Chelmsford to Ilford on public transport and hardly got a glance. Well.. until I got it trapped in the train door. It never quite waddled the same after that.

I’ve had my fair share of animal roles. I was fortunate enough to start in the Panto Business with an agent who knew Pantomime inside out- Keith Salberg. The Salberg dynasty of Pantomimes is legendary. Keith informed me that the best way to ensure pantomime work on a regular basis was to specialise. as a young actor my chances of playing Buttons or Wishee Washee were not likely, and not being a singer I wouldn’t be Prince- Charming or otherwise. He persuaded me the way to get “an in” to the panto world might be as an animal!

By this time I was already familiar with the animal world of children’s theatre and musicals. In “Toad Of Toad Hall” at Cardiff New I had been cross cast as Chief Ferret, and a Turkey.. In “Plotters Of Cabbage Patch Corner” I had given my Maggot. My Uncle Slug being my friend Desmond Barritt- his costume was even less attractive than mine!. For a Welsh Theatre Company I had played a Puffin..a Ukelele playing Puffin (please don’t ask!) and I was later to enjoy the role of Edward The Horse (with Peter Robbins Front end) , Otter, later Mole – all in “Wind In The Willows” on tour. I played Priscilla The Goose in the Kenneth More Theatre Pantomime, and Keith Salberg came to see it.

Keith got me my first major pantomime. I played Goose at The Belgrade Coventry with Veteran Comic Reg Dixon as Mother Goose. The sets were by Terry Parsons, and all that glittered was as gold as my eggs! The following year I played Goose again at the Leicester Haymarket, and followed this up with two years as “Puss” in “Puss In Boots”. Of all the Panto animals Goose is THE most uncomfortable. I remember being onstage at the Haymarket – wearing yellow webbed feet with tap shoes underneath. A tall goose neck strapped to my head with four strings to work eyes and beak. A rudder to work the tail. My elbows were tied to the wing flaps and in my mouth was a “duck Decoy” call. The Director bounced on to the stage during the dress and said the words “I think it would be jolly to have a chase around the auditorium.. led by Priscilla”. If that beak could only speak!!

I enjoyed my five years in “Skin” roles, and have nothing but full and total admiration for anyone sweating and gasping in a skin- they have the power of magic in their grasp- done properly and with conviction that collection of fur or feather can, in a child’s eyes become real. Done properly when Daisy is sold at market , sitting out there you could get a tear in your eye- the scene stealer can be the craftsman who can make that costume live. Last year at Wolverhampton the guys in the Cow Costume did just that- they created Panto magic!

For as long as Dick Whittington needs to see off King Rat, or Mother Goose bargains for her Goose with the Demon King there will always be an animal in most pantomimes. Daisy has to be sold for a bag of beans, and Nana the Dog must guard the nursery- let’s not forget that somewhere an actor is snapping his latex jaws at Captain Hook in Never Never Land while Puss persuades his master to fight the nasty Ogre. For as long as we have Fairytales these faithful companions will be around!

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