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Sitting in an empty theatre on a Tuesday afternoon in Ipswich, Grapevine’s Tony Bell chatted to Mike McClean who plays The Jester in this year’s production of Sleeping Beauty.
You must be a fan of Panto, as you’ve been doing it for quite some time?
Yeah I do, I love it and my kids love it. My boys come every year and they love it, they sit and watch, and afterwards they’ll do the routines that I just did onstage or tell the jokes that I’ve just done on stage to their friends.
That’s most unusual because they’re boys aren’t they? So they don’t sit there and go “oh god it’s dad again”?
Yeah, got two boys, Carter & Cooper, aged nine and seven. But no, they’re not at that age yet where they’re going “oh god”!
I did a gig on a cruise ship this year and took them on, and I do a great joke in it, and I look down, and they were sat on the front row and I saw them laughing their heads off at this joke – that then made me laugh. So I was laughing at them, laughing at me, and I lost it. And I never lose it on stage, so I had to explain to the audience why I was laughing. Everybody applauded, and my little lad Cooper stood up and just started waving to them.
Thankfully they’re not at that age yet where they’re saying “oh god do we have to”, and they absolutely love boxing day. It’s been a tradition in my family since they were born that they never miss a panto and they come and spend a week with me. They see the show from the front and then they stand at the side of stage, they’re lucky they let them. Then they see backstage and how the magic is done.
Will you be encouraging them to take to the stage then?
They’re two very good footballers at the moment. The eldest has been asked about West Ham. I wouldn’t stop them if they wanted to, I’d help them, but I’d tell them how hard and difficult it is.
It’s not an easy life is it?
No It’s not, and you’ve got to be prepared to travel, there’s a lot of sacrifices. You’ve got to make, sure you adjust with the times of comedy too because comedy’s changed over the years, and you’ve got to be funny.
I presume you’re living in Ipswich now?
I’ve got a nice little dig not far up the road, I come in every day, and it’s nice. I live in Essex – I’m from Manchester originally, but I won’t get back there for Christmas at all. My kids are in Essex, they live with their mum so I will get there for them. My girlfriend lives in Derby so when I finish here Christmas eve, I’ll drive up to derby to spend Christmas day with my girlfriend, then Christmas night I’ll drive to Essex and pick up my boys so we’re here for boxing day. I only live about an hour and 10 minutes away from here, so it’s not too bad.
You’re playing the part of the Jester, have you gotten into the part yet?
Yep, it’s really the same part every year but with a different name! I never get to play the Prince, I always get to play the Prince’s idiot.
Would you like to play the prince?
No, I’m not good looking enough to play the prince. I haven’t got any hair; I’d have to wear a wig. All princes are young, good looking with a good head of hair. I think from comic it always goes to dame, but I would never play a dame.
I think that’s the time I’d just stop and write and direct, I think you know your shelf life and when you start playing a comic, you can either go the dame route or not. I don’t think I’d ever play a dame, it’s not for me.
It’s a very specialist part, isn’t it?
It’s a different kind of comedy. I’m quite a cheeky character, I don’t know if you saw Cinderella but I give with one hand and take with the other, cheeky but never rude. I’ve worked with so many great dames too, but they’re in short demand. Good dames are.
I see a lot of dames come in now and they’re like 27/28 and I think you’ve got to be at least 35/40 to do it. Ken Baker was probably one of the best dames I ever worked for; an old queen, an old dame. He was a real ‘mumsie’ dame, and you just warmed to him. I always think that’s how a dame should be. There’s also a lot of drag acts are coming in now and doing dames, and I just think they’re too glamorous, like you’ve lost the idea.
For many children Panto is their first experience of theatre.
Panto, it’s the only time of year that kids will come to a theatre. And if we get rid of all these great theatres, I’d be absolutely devastated. I don’t know what kids are going to do. I think there should be more encouragement for kids to go and see live theatre. I also think they need to keep the cost of that down, for the kids to afford to go and see it. Theatres are going ‘oh we don’t get many in’ – well, make it so it’s affordable for the kids to go in. Cinema clubs years ago would have been about £1 or something, so I think they should make theatre the same, kids £3/4 because then you’d pack it out.
And that’s what it’s all about. Once you get them in and get them interested, you can see what’s possible
Well that’s it, and then they’re hooked. They’ll think ah there’s another show… Just don’t bring the kids to bring my adult one nighter!
That show is taking place on January 14th here at the Regent. Meanwhile, back at Sleeping Beauty – you only started rehearsing for the panto on Sunday, how’s it going so far?
We’ve been running through scenes today. There’s a particular way I like things, and it’s nice when a director comes and goes what about this. But I’ve done them now so long, without sounding big headed; I know what works and what doesn’t.
Do you ever get tired of it?
It’s funny that, my girlfriend asked me the other day if I’d ever have a year off doing panto, and I have had one or two years off in the 22 or 23 years, and it was really nice because I went to watch Man City on Boxing Day which was lovely. I think I would like one year off; I’d like to come in, write it, direct it, put it on then come back and watch it.
Directing is not easy either… All those people on the stage to deal with!
You’ve just got to have the patience, and I’m not patient! I’ve directed a couple of times though and I’ve enjoyed it, but I like being directed too.
Some directors direct, some directors block. Ex-comedians are usually really good, there’s a great director I used to have called John Spillers, who heads Spillers Pantomimes LTD., and he’s one of the best panto directors. John’s great because he’ll say “no, that doesn’t work but if you do this and this”. Also guy called Ken Alfill, who’s working for this company too; he was Ronnie Corbett’s director. Like today, I’ve been going through stuff with Wayne, and I’ve gone “look, just do it like this” but it’s just experience.
Someone’s bound to get the giggles on stage, who would that be?
Yeah, Ella who plays the Princess, she’ll go.
Oh really? We thought it might be Sheila?
No, Shelia won’t, she’s one of those that can, but she won’t. I think I only have one scene with her. I reckon it’ll be Ella that’ll go, and maybe Jack. There’s a scene I do with the Prince & Princess, when they’re singing a song and they have no idea what i’m going to do. They say ‘oh what will you do?’, and I said I don’t know. They said, ‘oh but you’ll tell us because it’ll be the same won’t it?’ And I’m like no. It’ll be different.
Keep them guessing! Thank you for your time Mike, hope you have a good run.
Sleeping Beauty runs at Ipswich Regent from 17th December until 2nd January – click here to book tickets.
Check back over the next two days for our chats with Shelia Ferguson and Ella Gilling.