The panto season has arrived and to get into the spirit, Sarah Freeman gets a rare chance to go behind the scenes of the Yorkshire company which produces the biggest shows in the country.
In a car park on a Beverley industrial estate stands a pantomime cow. It’s the focus of a Yorkshire Post photoshoot, but all is not well and not just because the wind is playing havoc with the portable lights.
“That udder’s not right, look it’s hanging off on one side. Trust me – if our head of costume finds out I let it be photographed like that she’ll kill me.” With that Annabelle White is off in search of safety pins. For the last 10 years she’s been production co-ordinator at the large 80,000sq ft warehouse belonging to Scarborough-based Qdos and learnt early on that it’s paying attention to details like fraying udders which has made it the biggest panto producer in the country. When the pins fail, the cow is rotated to ensure its best side is on show. Disaster averted.
“The kind of problems and requests you get in this job are like no other,” she says back inside the warehouse where 50 or so sets are kept alongside trunks containing Captain Hook swords and row upon row of hand painted backdrop cloths. Over the last few months Annabelle has overseen the production of 20,000 stottie cakes for the Newcastle production of Jack and the Beanstalk, assembled the 6,000 plates requested by the producer of Bradford Alhambra’s Aladdin and ensured a giant stiletto, which doubles as a vehicle for one Dame, is in fully working order. “In the past we’ve been asked to supply everything from a motorised toilet to plastic boobs which squirt water, I stopped being surprised a long time ago.”
Two carpenters, two painters, one full-time props co-ordinator and two electricians are also based at Qdos’ Beverley site and together they ensure that the 80 or so articulated lorries which leave the depot each winter are packed with exactly the right sets and props to bring 24 pantos to life.
“I love it, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” says Annabelle. “Many moons ago I applied for a job with Qdos in the payroll department. I got it, but I always knew an office job wasn’t really for me and as soon as there was an opportunity I escaped from behind the desk. I quickly learnt that packing a trailer is something of an art form. You have to make sure that what goes in last is what you want to come out first, but perhaps the biggest challenge is juggling the sets around.
“As well as producing our own shows we also hire out sets and it tends to come in waves. One year, everyone will want to do Jack and the Beanstalk, the next it will be all about Cinderella. I spend a lot of my time working out if I can steal a castle backdrop from one to work with another.”
Qdos was founded in 1982 by Scarborough entrepreneur Nick Thomas and is now one of the largest entertainment groups in Europe. It runs a talent agency, 10 venues, a design and printing arm, but panto is the firm’s beating heart. This year it is staging shows as far south as Plymouth and as far north as Aberdeen with venues ranging from an intimate 600 seat theatre to a vast 3,000 arena. It’s big business and while the curtain will have come down on most shows by mid-January, for those at Qdos’ Yorkshire headquarters panto is a full-time, year-long job.
“It is quite a beast,” admits Qdos marketing director Ian Wilson. “For us Christmas isn’t something which just happens in December. We used to have a breathing space of a couple of weeks once the sets went out, but not any more. Because of the number of shows we do and the fact they all start and end at different times, it’s now more like a couple of days.
“Once they come back we have to do a full inventory. The sets can take a bit of a battering, so any which are damaged have to be put aside for repair and the cloths might also need a lick of paint. We try to do one new set a year. That’s a big investment, but we have a reputation to keep.”
Qdos rarely let outsiders behind the scenes for fear of ruining the magic and most of those who work in the stores would never dream of stepping into the spotlight. However, there is always an exception to the rule. Step forward scenic artist Steve Arnott. When we meet he’s busy retouching an LED backdrop, but by the time you read this he will have swapped the overalls to tread the boards at Newcastle Theatre Royal as baddie Flesh Creep.
“Working here most of the year really makes you appreciate exactly how much hard work goes into staging a panto,” he says, paint brush in hand. “I come from Whitley Bay, so being in the panto up in Newcastle is a chance to see home. I love it.”
The sets, including a particularly glittery one which will be unveiled in Bradford a week today, will start arriving back in Beverley at the end of the first week in January and it’s the same story over at the Qdos wardrobe department in Scarborough. There they make and source costumes for all 24 shows from the tiniest local dancers to the big name stars which this year include Gok Wan, John Barrowman, Christopher Biggins over at Hull New Theatre of course, the Alhambra’s own Billy Pearce.
By the time we arrive, word has already reached head of wardrobe Teresa Nalton about the faulty udder and she’s not impressed.
“I’ve already asked for it to be sent back. We can’t be having our cows go out with loose udders. That costume wasn’t one that was made here, but we will need to fix it.”
When the faulty udder arrives it will be mended in a small back room, away from the offices lined with framed flyers from past Qdos pantos. This is the hub of the wardrobe operation and it’s where last month a small team of seamstresses were putting the finishing touches to the final costumes for this year’s performances.
The odd piece is bought in, but the vast majority are either designed and made from scratch or sourced, adapted and altered from Qdos vast wardrobe archive. It contains 100,000 costumes, 2,000 shoes and within it there’s even a small rail dedicated entirely to jackets made to fit Basil Brush.
“Remember Mr Benn?” says Ian. “Well, it’s a bit like that.” He’s not wrong. Had Mr Benn ventured into the Qdos changing room he could have emerged as Lady Gaga, complete with pink telephone hat, or this year found himself slipping into one of a couple of panda costumes. They’ve been run up on request of a producer who wanted to include a few gags about Edinburgh Zoo’s most reluctant performers – a double act surely made for panto.
“We begin fittings in the summer and most of the stars we work with our just lovely,” says Teresa. “There’s the odd one who swears they are size eight and when they arrive for a fitting you discover they are in fact a 14. We deal with it, you learn to be diplomatic. To be honest the most difficult thing is not the individual costumes, but the sheer scale of the logistical operation.
“A show like Peter Pan has around 100 costumes, but with say a Cinderella there’s a whole lot more. Take Bradford this year, the main roles have four changes each and that’s before you even talk about the chorus.”
This panto season, the yellow headdresses are heading for Southampton, the pink are going to Cardiff and Bradford’s chorus line will be decked out in blue. Teresa labels everything with military precision, so much so you get the impression that anyone standing still too long will find themselves in a trunk heading for Glasgow. “We pay a lot of attention to details the audiences will never see, but it’s important in helping to create the atmosphere of a show,” she says, pointing to a particularly glitzy roll of material. A producer had their heart set on a similar fabric costing £105 a metre, but Teresa managed to source a match for just £2.99 a metre from Bombay Stores. “You really see that with Julian Clary who is appearing in Cardiff this year. I’m probably being sentimental but his costumes are always so beautiful, he can carry anything off. “Then there’s someone like John Barrowman. This year he’s Dick McWhittington in Glasgow, but whatever role he plays he has to have a bit of bling, Although funnily enough the only costume he has ever wanted to keep over the years is his Spider-Man pyjamas.”
Like most years, Teresa will attempt to see all 24 shows and every Qdos employee takes in at least one or two pantos.
“I remember going to see Frank Carson in Cinderella,” says Ian. “I had never been to the theatre before and to be honest from that moment I was hooked. For a lot of people panto is their first experience of live theatre and I don’t understand people who are sniffy about it. The fact is that for a lot of theatres a good panto seasons pays for the rest of the year.” Qdos says it has the highest rate of repeat bookings than any other panto producer, but it knows it can’t rest on its laurels. One duff show and next year the audience will go elsewhere.
“A good executive producer is key,” adds Ian. “They are responsible for the casting, choosing the costumes and writing the script. Trust me, what counts as a joke in Belfast, doesn’t count as a joke in Bradford. Over the years we’ve also invested a lot in special effects.”
Qdos has worked with illusionists called the Twins for a number of years. They were behind the smoke-breathing dragon at Bradford a couple of years ago and for Aladdin they’ve masterminded a flying carpet. Ian won’t be drawn on the details, except to say it will be “spectacular”.
“I know some people complain about the price of tickets for panto and yes you could go to the cinema for much less, but it takes 30 people to put on a performance. It’s not just the cast, it’s the stage managers, front of house staff, lighting and sound teams. People have high expectations these days and that’s what we have to try to meet.
“These sets might not look much now, but when you add in the costumes, the music, a talented lighting designer and someone like Billy Pearce creating mayhem, then it’s just magic. At Christmas nothing else comes close.”
Aladdin with Billy Pearce, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, December 14 to January 26. 01274 432000, www.bradford-theatres.co.uk. Jack and the Beanstalk with Christopher Biggins, Hull New Theatre to January 5. 01482 300300.