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Behind The Scenes At The Panto

December 2008

AS he lets rip an almighty bottom burp he turns to me, out of sight of the audience and winks.
Brian Conley is clearly enjoying himself.
I'm in the wings, watching my first panto here in 35 years. There are signed pictures of Leslie Crowther, John Inman and Mike & Bernie Winters somewhere in the attic but I've no recollection of which pantos they were in.
Whatever they were, I reckon they weren't as ferociously paced and near the knuckle as Cinderella.
And I don't just mean the synthesised flatulence.
There's a lot of adult humour going on.
On stage Conley is hidden inside a tree spying on Cinderella. She's being wooed by a hopeful chap in tights with a basket of fruit.
Every time Conley let's rip, the audience are in uproar.
You enjoying it? I ask as he exits from the scene.
"There are lots of really little kids out there," he says by way of an answer. He means they're not getting the adult-only gags. Of which there are plenty. They go down better at evening performances when there are more grown-ups in.
Today it's nippers and they're a noisy bunch. When the five-minute call to performers alerting them to the impending curtain riser is piped through backstage, there's quite a din coming from the auditorium.
"In the evenings it's about bringing it out of them. In the matinees it's about keeping control of them," says Conley.
"Yesterday was classic at the matinee," says Michelle Potter who plays Cinderella.
"The reactions were in completely different places to what we're used to in the evening. They were screaming 'it's behind you' at points when we don't expect it. And we had to ignore them, which was awful."
We're in Conley's dressing room before the show, which isn't particularly lavish. He has photos of his wife, two children and dog, there's an Elvis mug – a gift from The Ugly Sisters ("the Uglies" as he calls them) – and three bottles of water.
His sofa is covered in samples of artwork for The Music Man, a musical he'll be taking to West End in April.
There's certainly no champagne.
"I don't drink any more," he says.
"I packed that in about five years ago. The show used to get in the way of my socialising. And that's one of the best things I've ever done."
His biggest backstage demand these days is Halls cough sweets.
"I have one under my tongue all the first half. All the time when I'm singing and talking, there's one under my tongue."
It's a trick he picked up from Cliff Richard to keep his throat fresh.
"I remember when I was in Chitty (Chitty Bang Bang, the West End musical) and one day I accidentally spat it out and I hit the actress right in the eye."
Sensitive to the risks of getting ill, he also has an army of vitamins, .
"I wash my hands as soon as we finish and disinfect the mike because if you get a bad flu there's no understudy. You still have to do it."
Has he ever had to cancel a show in the past because of illness?
"No, touch wood," he says, grabbing the dressing table.
A 30-minute warning call goes out for the 1.30pm matinee. Conley has been in the theatre for half an hour. He has no morning routine apart from sleeping as late as he can to make sure he's full of energy for the two (sometimes three) shows each day.
"We have a huge energy. You'll notice that when you see the show. And it's not just the performers – there's a whole show going on behind the scenes. But it's a well-oiled machine and very relaxed. You'll notice that."
I do. There's a lot of laughter in the wings. And very little silence.
"We're like a little family," says Conley.
For two months they are work colleagues and friends.
Cinderella opened last Friday and since then they've been across to the Stage Door pub, and had an Italian and Chinese meal together.
Conley says: "My wife and the kids come up at the weekends and my daughters are part of the show when they come up. They love being on stage."
He has a six-year-old and an 11-year-old.
It's not his first panto in Nottingham. That was 25 years ago in Dick Whittington with Little & Large and Bernie Clifton.
"I love it here," he says.
"The backstage has quite a modern feel about it but on stage it's that beautiful, historic theatre that's got the little ashtrays, the Royal Box and all that."
And it probably won't be his last visit. Apart from West End musicals, he'll always say yes to a panto role. Because of the freedom it brings.
"You never know what they're going to shout out.
"At the end we get four kids up and I talk to them... you never know what they're going to say or do. But that keeps it fresh."
No one performance is the same. He'll add in new gags from current affairs: Selina Scott, Gordon Ramsay, I'm A Celebrity...
"As long as it's not too deep we can get away with it."
It's the his third panto with Potter, a stunning blonde who has made appearances on Doctors, Footballers' Wives and Wire In The Blood.
"I'm used to Brian," she laughs.
"I cut bits and don't tell her," he chips in as he applies more make-up.
"Yes, he did that yesterday. And he changes the dance routine to do what he wants and I have to follow him."
So there's room for playing tricks?
"Oh yeah. It's panto," she laughs.
"The sisters kick me sometimes when they're not supposed to."
I find them ten minutes before curtain up in an area behind the stage cordoned off for wardrobe.
Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins have been doing this for 28 years.
We head to their dressing room for final preparations, passing dancers in dressing gowns limbering up.
Sets from later scenes stand idle: pink steps, Cinderella's carriage, a giant ham, a pumpkin and... a rather sinister looking human leg. In the dressing room I assure them that it'll be a quick one as time is short.
"Oh, I say," says Robbins, always in character.
The pair have their own website dedicated to panto – – on which they'll be doing a daily diary about Cinderella.
"So you can read all about the backstage goings on."
I raise an eyebrow.
"Panto land is a happy land," continues Robbins.
"It's a happy land," confirms Ellacott.
"So no gossip whatsoever."
Ellacott's first introduction to panto was backstage.
"My brother ran a theatre so I'd watch them rehearsing.
"The dame was always an elderly gentleman with big false teeth, bald usually, wearing a cap and they used to have a carrier bag that clanked."
Robbins, the larger of the two when in costume (he's Susannah to Ellacott's Trinny), adds: "And my mum used to take me in the pram to see Nigel doing pantomime."
They're off...
"No, no, no, surely she took you to the old Hippodrome before it got bombed..."
I leave them to their bickering and head to my position in the wings to watch the performance. And while the gags about snogging, blindfolds, Senior Willie and the Notts County bra go above the heads of the noisy tots in the audience I find myself chuckling away.
Mike & Bernie Winters were never this much fun.

Until Sunday January 18. For performance times and ticket details call 0115 989 5555 or go to

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