Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The strange economics of pantomime

A few years ago I was talking to the artistic director of one of Britain's most prominent provincial theatres. It was after a charity performance of a Shakespeare play featuring a few very starry names. I asked him how easy it was to fill his theatre. He told me that if it wasn't for the annual pantomime season they probably wouldn't be able to keep the doors open.

I find it surprising that in this day and age you can still fill a theatre for two shows a day for over a month with this form of entertainment, charging (I've just had a quick look) up to £35 in Milton Keynes and up to £29.50 in Glasgow and no discounts for children.

I'm sure that the annual influx of American stars who increasingly top the bill at these shows (David Hasselhof is in Manchester this year, I see) genuinely love performing to full houses but I wonder how much money it takes to get somebody like Priscilla Presley to spend Christmas at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

A piece in the Independent in 2010 suggested that it could be as much as £250,000 for a five-week run with further bonuses tied to the total box-office  take. Last year the Telegraph ran a piece alleging that the Wolverhampton production of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs would henceforth use children instead of dwarf actors. Presumably the money saved is spent on the thing that puts bums on seats, which probably means former TV stars.

It's the strangest deal in the entertainment business: people who were big names thirty years earlier paid top dollar to dress up and perform in front of small children who would presumably be far more impressed with Jedward or a children's TV presenter.

In this I suppose it has something in common with rock festival economics. It's the line-up of big names that persuades people to sign the cheques when the line-up is announced. It's the small act on the fringes of the festival that actually justifies the investment when the weekend comes around.


  1. 'It's the small act on the fringes of the festival that actually justifies the investment when the weekend comes around.'

    OH NO IT ISN'T!!!

    Er..merry Christmas everyone

  2. Funnily enough, Jedward have their own panto in Dublin. From all reports, it's a joyous, riotous show, keeping both kids and grown-ups entertained. It sounds a lot more fun than seeing an aged American celeb struggling with British humour.

  3. Pantomine is not really done in my native Australia. This may have something to do with the fact that we go to the beach in December rather than the theatre, or it may be that it is because a lot of our cultural traditions are more Irish than English.

    However, when Australian soap operas first gained large audiences in the UK in the 1980s, we immediately started reading reports of how all the actors were spending December doing pantomime in England. It was convenient for them - Australia go to the beach in December and January rather than watching TV, so November and December are when actors are given time off from the hard slog of making a soap opera. The fact that it happened so instantly after these people became well known in England though, given that the actors were going off and doing something that was terribly culturally familiar to them, suggests that the money was really good.

    Australian soaps have declined in profile both here and there in the years since, and the rise in the Australian dollar relative to the pound probably means that the money is less good now, so it does seem to be fewer Australians and more Americans now. It was curious when it first happened, though.

  4. Hobnob Press has recently published a history of my local theatre, Salisbury Playhouse called 'Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter'.

    I think that sums it up quite well.

    By the way, Salisbury's pantos don't have celebrities, but they are, like most of the rest of the Playhouse's output, very good indeed.