He’s behind you: Living in York’s own panto world

David Leonard as the villain with one of the show's other veteran performers, Suzy Cooper.
David Leonard as the villain with one of the show's other veteran performers, Suzy Cooper.
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To the loyal audience of York Theatre Royal’s panto, he needs no introduction. All anyone else needs to know is that he is the best arch villain going. Phil Penfold meets David Leonard.

He bounds into the foyer of the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London with a slightly perplexed look on his face, and then admits that when he suggested this venue for our meeting, he’d called it by the previous name – the National Film Theatre.

David Leonard as the villain with one of the show's other veteran performers, Suzy Cooper.

David Leonard as the villain with one of the show's other veteran performers, Suzy Cooper.

“I only realised when I got here that it had all changed,” says a slightly embarrassed David Leonard, “and I wondered if you’d headed off somewhere else instead? How very stupid of me – completely my fault.”

We’re headed for a relatively quiet corner of the lounge area at the back of the building, and we soon deep in conversation. But not before David has plumped energetically into a rather comfy-looking leather-upholstered wing chair – and almost disappeared from view, so deep are its recesses.

“Blimey,” he says, just about containing his laughter from the depths. “Now that is low. I can’t talk to you from down here...” He manages to extricate himself (not a mean feat when you are well over 6ft) and settles himself alongside, on a fairly narrow banquette.

For the very few who don’t know David Leonard, he is one of Britain’s most accomplished actors, and was until relatively recently, headlining the West End’s hottest ticket, the smash hit musical Matilda. After he’d left that show, he went to Leicester, to play Billy Flynn in a revival of Chicago, where his reviews were so glowingly appreciative, he could have written them himself.

Those two shows, however, kept him away from a place which he has called his Christmas and New Year’s home for three decades. The York Theatre Royal. And, more specifically, the theatre’s annual pantomime.

Leonard had played the villain opposite Berwick Kaler’s legendary dame, and the inspired fall-guy sidekick lunacy of Martin Barrass for 27 years before Matilda came calling. Another actor was brought in to fill the space and, all things considered, did it very well indeed. However, it was not quite the same. For two years, it was Holmes without Moriarty, Bond without Blofeld, Jerry without Tom. There was talk of a rift between him and Berwick, and words being spoken, but when you mention that, Leonard is quick to put matters right.

“I read a few things in the Press that were total nonsense – and with hindsight, rather funny,” he says as he prepares to return to the fold. “Hurtful at the time, but funny now. The fact is that I have nothing but admiration for Berwick. Yes, there have been a few ‘ding-dongs’ along the way, but that is because he is passionate about what he does, and he is immersed in the show, completely, and totally, and he is consumed by it. Who else do you know who writes their own pantomime, stars in it and co-directs it? The man is a legend.

“For two Christmases now, in the West End and in Leicester, I’ve been sitting in my dressing room, and looking at the clock and thinking ‘This is the time when I’d be going on, in York. I wonder how they are all doing?’ It’s a fact of life that all families, all friends, have times when things do not run particularly smoothly. You get on with it, and forget it – and you make up.”

Kaler, he says, demands pace, energy and precision, and, however madcap it may all look, it is all meticulously drilled and rehearsed. We are talking just before rehearsals begin, and David confesses that he’s not altogether sure what the name of this year’s villain will be.

“It is bound to be something quite extraordinary,” he grins. “Warlock this or the other and whatever he’s called, Berwick is more than likely to change the name at some point, just to keep me on my toes.”

Born on a farm near Great Ayton, near Middlesbrough, Leonard, now 56, has been one of that band of actors who are fairly consistently in work – in his case mainly on the stage. He has done straight plays, comedies, musicals... and panto. Not many of his contemporaries can put all that on their CVs.

“There are a lot of very, very good actors out there who simply could not ‘do’ pantomime. It is beyond them. There are also those who think it’s a doddle, that they can just stroll through it. They can’t. The audience spots that immediately. They can see when someone isn’t putting heart and soul into the show.”

Playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, he says, needed absolute physical fitness and when his contract finally finished, he was completely exhausted. They wanted him to do more, but Leonard decided enough was enough.

He also suspected that at his age it might be his last big musical, but then the producers of Chicago came knocking.

“It was another physically demanding part. And when that finished, I really did need to take some time out to re-charge whatever batteries were left. I did a lot of gardening, some painting – which is how I relax, and now I’m throwing myself into the fray at the Theatre Royal, which I know from experience will also leave me, and everyone else in it, drained at the end of the run”.

He came very close to losing the Trunchbull role – because he tore muscles in his leg not once but twice before his opening night, and had to undergo thorough and pretty painful treatment. Leonard, however, bounced back and was soon in front of packed houses, vaulting around on stage like a young gazelle. After the show, he says, he was somewhat surprised by the people who came backstage to see him.

“It was incredible,” he recalls, “I mean, I was opening the door to the likes of Russell Brand and Liza Minnelli. You’ll know how tiny she is. And I’m not changed out of the Trunchbull costume, and I’m towering over her, and I can hardly see her, hidden underneath my vast bosoms. It was hilarious”.

Leonard is a self-confessed ‘corpser’, someone who, on stage often gets a fit of the giggles. It happened once when he was appearing in Single Spies, with the late Dilys Laye, who was playing The Queen. “She saw something in the middle of a scene, and started to go… and I caught her eye, and I ‘went’ as well. She was laughing so much that she turned to the audience, who were also starting to laugh, and said ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to sit down’. By this time the place was in uproar, and Dilys, bless her, got a spontaneous round of applause.

“Oh, and on another occasion, when I was a lot younger, I was playing Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. The actor appearing as the Merchant was of the ‘realist’ school, and had constructed himself a huge putty nose, and then had slathered his face in dark make-up to finish off the ‘look’. At one point, he’s declaiming about his ships and his fortune, and he struck the table violently, and the nose fell off – leaving a sort of pink triangle in the middle of his face… I am surprised that we were even able to finish the show. We were beyond help.”

He now lives in Haslemere, in Surrey – he’s married to Cathy, and they have a daughter, Hermione, 23, who will also be in the York show this year, and a son, Laurie, 26, who is a talented maker of music videos, and who works in production. During his time in York he’ll be staying with an old friend for much of the run, and then renting an apartment over Christmas for a big family-get-together.

“Both of the children have grown up with the panto,” he says proudly, “and they both love it – although I suspect that there were times in his teens when Laurie used to watch it through fingers across his eyes, deeply embarrassed at what a complete fool his old dad was making of himself.”

He only looks at reviews when the run is over, and then he reads the lot, good, bad and indifferent. “Reading bad ones during a run, can be very hurtful. They can puncture you. So I ask everyone to keep quiet about anything that is said, even if it is a ‘rave’ review.” He loves pantomime, he says, “Because you can see youngsters in the audience saucer-eyed with interest and enjoyment, lapping it up. Berwick must have done something right, because he’s now got people who saw his first shows bringing their own children – and in some cases, their children’s children. The man is a genius. The collusion with the audience is paramount. And oh, how I wish we could live in a panto world, where the Dame makes everything into something far bright, better, more optimistic, and where all is well forever….”

And now Leonard has to go and meet his son in Soho. There’s a big hug of 
farewell outside the BFI. And then a very slight pause. “Listen,” he says. “Do me a big favour, will you? When you write 
this up, please don’t make me sound boring?”

Boring? After over two hours of stories, anecdotes, questions and answers, theories, jokes and lots and lots of laughter, the only time that David Leonard could ever be considered as a bore is if he was cast as one.

If he’s ever set that task, it would be the only time ever that his performance would be unconvincing. And he’d also be more than likely get a fit of the giggles.

Old Mother Goose, Theatre Royal, York, December 11 to January 31. 01904 623568, www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk