How Stevenage theatre revived panto back in the 1980s

Stevenage's favourite pantomime Dame Paul Laidlaw. Picture: DANNY LOO

Stevenage's favourite pantomime Dame, Paul Laidlaw. - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

In normal times, before coronavirus, the hugely popular Stevenage pantomime would be approaching the end of its long run.

Dame Dotty Derriere (Paul Laidlaw) and Potty Pierre (Aidan O'Neill) smashing plates in pantomime Bea

Dame Dotty Derriere (Paul Laidlaw) and Potty Pierre (Aidan O'Neill) smashing plates in pantomime Beauty and the Beast at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage back in 2019. - Credit: Martin Smith Origin8Photography

However, this winter's scheduled panto at the Gordon Craig Theatre – Aladdin – was postponed.

While the titular hero of that panto defeats the villain of the piece, Aladdin wasn't able to beat the effects of COVID-19 on the entertainment world this year.

The theatre in Lytton Way has remained dark since lockdown last March.

Families will have to wait until Christmas 2021 to see again the antics of current panto favourites Aidan O'Neill and Stevenage legend Paul Laidlaw on the GCT stage – coronavirus restrictions permitting.

Aladdin is now due to run from Friday, November 26, 2021 to Sunday, January 23, 2022.

The Gordon Craig production normally plays for nearly 100 performances across a gruelling two months, with sometimes three shows a day.

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So how did the GCT panto become one of the longest-running pantos in the country, setting the blueprint for others to follow?

Stevenage's place in panto folklore is guaranteed thanks to the venue's former arts manager, Bob Bustance.

It was down to the venue's foresight in signing TV celebs and revamping a tired format that helped revive panto, making it the Christmas family tradition we know and love today.

This was partly down to Bustance’s appointment of Kevin Wood to produce the pantos in Stevenage back in the 80s. 

Among those to appear at the GCT in those days were Carry On legend Barbara Windsor, Hi-di-Hi! star Ruth Madoc, Doctor Who's Nicola Bryant, singer Toyah Willcox, Floella Benjamin, and Dad's Army's Private Pike, aka Ian Lavender. 

The late Barbara Windsor twice graced the Stevenage stage in panto productions.

The poster for Cinderella at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage in 1989/90 featuring Barbara Wind

The poster for Cinderella at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage in 1989/90 featuring Barbara Windsor and Paul Laidlaw. Picture: The Gordon Craig Theatre Archive - Credit: The Gordon Craig Theatre Archive

The much-loved EastEnders icon, who died last month after a long battle with Alzheimer's, played the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella from December 1989 to January 1990, with Richard Whitmore as Baron Hardup, Bobbie Lawrence as Cinderella, and Paul Laidlaw as Buttons.

Paul Laidlaw is still treading the boards at the Gordon Craig, and is now a panto institution at the theatre.

Before she arrived in Albert Square as Queen Vic landlady Peggy Mitchell, Babs also took on the title role in Aladdin in the 1993-94 Stevenage Christmas panto.

Barbara Windsor on the poster for pantomime Aladdin at Stevenage

Barbara Windsor on the poster for 1993 Stevenage pantomime Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre. - Credit: The Gordon Craig Theatre Archive

In the early 2000s, comedian Bradley Walsh, now presenter of The Chase, twice appeared in the Stevenage show, performing in Cinderella in 2002-03 and returning the following season for Jack and the Beanstalk.

You can find a full list of Stevenage's panto performers over the years on the updated Gordon Craig Theatre Wikipedia page.

Kevin Wood's story is also told in full by Andy Purves on the Gordon Craig Theatre Archive website.

Bob Bustance, the Gordon Craig’s then newly appointed arts manager, asked Kevin Wood in early 1985: “What do you know about panto?”

The pair were marking the opening night of Channel Theatre Company’s tour of The Birthday Party, the darkly humorous play by Harold Pinter, which Kevin Wood had directed. 

'Straight plays' were Channel Theatre’s and Wood’s stock-in-trade. 

Wood confessed to Bustance he had no experience of creating pantomimes, yet within months the posters were being printed: “Channel Theatre Company in association with The Gordon Craig Theatre presents… Snow White, written, directed and produced by Kevin Wood”.

Wood’s expedition into panto had just begun. And it kickstarted a panto revolution across the country.

When Bustance joined the Gordon Craig in 1984 he was alarmed to find that the festive show was only running for 15 days and failing to turn a profit.

He knew that a successful Christmas offering didn’t only mean happy Stevenage audiences, it was vital to the year-round financial viability of the theatre.

His brief to Wood was to bring the tired panto format up to date. A broader, higher quality entertainment offer was needed – this was after all a new era in theatre heralded by the arrival of mega musicals Cats and Starlight Express.

The average panto had trundled along for too long, relying on recycling of scripts, songs and sets – a journey not far from the form’s Victorian beginnings.

Bustance could see how irrelevant they were becoming to Stevenage’s audience. Panto needed a makeover.

Picking up the gauntlet, Wood cast well-known TV celebrities for his first panto: comedy actor Nicholas Smith, Mr Rumbold from popular sitcom Are You Being Served?, and Nicola Bryant, then playing the assistant to TV’s famous Time Lord, in Doctor Who.

Bob Bustance, star Nicola Bryant and Kevin Wood at panto Snow White

Bob Bustance, panto star Nicola Bryant, and Kevin Wood at the 1985 production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first year for Kevin Wood Productions at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. - Credit: The Gordon Craig Theatre Archive

He bought in spectacular sets that only just fitted on the Gordon Craig Theatre stage, hired great musicians who arranged songs recognisable from the charts of the day, and the gags in the script made sure it was to be a celebration of the town's local culture.

He also enlisted the help of actor and panto stalwart Peter Denyer after a phone call that began with: “Peter, how do you write a panto?”

Despite the posters and flyers all over the town saying so, Channel Theatre Company never did co-produce the 1985/86 Stevenage pantomime. Wood formed a new limited company, Kevin Wood Productions, to put on the show. 

Snow White opened in December that year and was loved by Stevenage audiences. Very soon the “house full” signs were turning away those not lucky enough to have tickets.

Soon after the final performances of Snow White in early 1986, Wood had received four requests from other theatres around the country – could he weave the same magic on their tired old pantos?

Two years later, Kevin Wood Productions Ltd was responsible for 14 UK pantomimes including Stevenage’s at the Gordon Craig.

With a devoted and growing audience in Stevenage, Wood’s pantos at the 500-seat theatre would soon become one of the longest running seasonal shows in the country. So what was Wood’s secret to making a pantomime hit?

In answering, he encourages us to look at the original logo for The Gordon Craig Theatre.

"There was a vision for the building, a place for families. What I did reflected that ambition.

"The show needs to work constantly on multiple levels: people who know the story – parents and grandparents; older children, who would probably rather be somewhere else, and younger children.

"They all need different things. I’m constantly balancing sophisticated humour with what a child might find alienating or boring. The whole family group sees the show through the eyes of the youngest children.”

Twenty years after that first Snow White panto in Stevenage, Wood formed First Family Entertainment Ltd, a major rival to the largest pantomime producers, and was soon turning over £14m in a single panto season.

Wood remarks: “I used the pattern I developed at Stevenage so many times that it’s just become part of what today’s pantomime business has become.

"The Gordon Craig, led by Bob Bustance, is a really very important part of that story.”

The Gordon Craig Theatre panto is now produced by Jordan Productions and families will be hoping to see Aladdin on stage in Stevenage later this year.

Stevenage panto favourite Paul Laidlaw

Stevenage panto favourite Paul Laidlaw - Credit: Alan Davies