They are scattered all over the UK. Industrial estates, big and small, often found on the edges of towns and cities, and each of them pretty much alike. They provide space for production and storage. They are practical places, well-lit but tucked away, unromantic and anonymous.
But behind the doors of buildings on two such sites, in Scarborough and Beverley, there is, quite literally, an Aladdin’s cave of delights: strident colours, eye-boggling costumes and sets, and a round-the-clock hive of twinkling activity. Welcome to the world of pantomime.
These units are home to the biggest panto production company in the world. This is the magical realm that is Qdos productions. Qdos isn’t just the panto king, it also one of the largest broad-based entertainment groups in Europe. The pantomime division alone has about three dozen full-time workers, and there are many other employees across the company, which has offices in Covent Garden, but the company is very firmly based on the Yorkshire coast, and owned by husband and wife team of Nick and Sandra Thomas.
The couple met, he reveals with a laugh, in rather unusual circumstances. Nick is a long-standing fan of the late Ken Dodd, and went to see the master comedian when he was headlining a summer season in Scarborough. “Sandra was in the cast as one of Doddy’s Diddymen. I rather think that she was playing Mick the Marmaliser. I fell in love with Ken’s devotion to show business, his unique take on the world, and his brand of comedy. And I also fell in love with Sandra. That was the golden bonus.”
But this isn’t the story of a shrewd young businessman sensing a good business opportunity. Nick was already immersed in performance, since he started out entertaining visitors on the seafront with his skills in puppetry. His office today is lined with cabinets full of puppets, marionettes and ventriloquist’s dolls. “Some people don’t like clowns,” he says pragmatically, “and if you don’t like puppets, my working space probably isn’t the place for you.”
This year, Qdos will be presenting more than 70 pantomimes in theatres right across the UK. They own a few of the venues, but have strong links to some of the nation’s finest theatres – including the Bradford Alhambra (where the panto this year is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, starring Billy Pearce, Faye Tozer and Paul Chuckle) and the New Theatre in Hull, which is doing Aladdin.
It is also returning to the prestigious London Palladium, presenting panto right in the heart of the West End. So successful have its Palladium productions been that it is contracted for four more, with Julian Clary among the stars.
Qdos has something like a £100m yearly turnover, so it is forced to be reckoned with. Walking into its West Yorkshire units, there’s a real sense of camaraderie in the air.
Nick – who won the TV talent show New Faces back in 1975 – knows his pantos backwards, and has an astonishing private (and priceless) collection of theatrical ephemera and memorabilia. Nick and Sandra’s shows move with the times, but here is one of the most curious things about pantomime. In the 300 years since it was born on the stages of Georgian London, it has changed out of all recognition, and yet at the same time retains its unique spirit of fun.
“Shows move in and out of fashion,” says Nick. “At the moment, Disney titles drive panto along – Beauty and the Beast, for example, with dozens of theatres offering that one a couple of years back. Aladdin, of course, and Snow White. Some titles are perennial favourites, with Cinderella being right there at the top of the list. Some have slipped in popularity for some reason, but, for the first time in years, we are offering a Humpty Dumpty next year and, surprisingly, Goldilocks is enjoying a revival, while Robin Hood is coming up, just as The Babes in the Wood (which is essentially the same story) is going down. Robinson Crusoe used to be in the top ten, but not any more.”
The modern pantomime is a repository of theatrical styles, forms and conventions, and it has always appropriated elements from every other form of entertainment. What works is retained and adapted, what doesn’t is discarded. That’s what makes it survive. It doesn’t run for as many weeks as it once did, perhaps.
“I can remember one season and it was with the blessed Ken Dodd, that ran so far into the New Year that he was actually tossing Easter Eggs into the audience!” he jokes.
The first panto he saw was Cinderella, or Aladdin, at the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre. “What I can remember is that the star was Adam Faith. One of the happiest relationships that this company has is with the Alhambra, and we’ve been involved there since 1998,” he says.
“I try to get to see every one of our shows over a Christmas season, but it isn’t always possible. However, I will never, ever, miss an Alhambra opening night, because the civic reception is such a joy. It’s the best anywhere, no question about it.”
Rather further from home, Qdos has expanded overseas – there used to be quite a pantomime tradition in some of the cities that were once part of the British Empire. That slowly ebbed and died. But Qdos has revived it in South Africa and Australia, where the panto is alive and positively thriving – but in the middle of the year, when it is wintertime over there, and summer over here.
Pictures of the productions are sent to the overseas venues, and they select what they’d like to use. Then a team will come over to Yorkshire to talk through the production and how it will be staged, and what the logistics are for getting A over to B. It is all packed – and then it returns, to be counted, checked and, if needed – refurbished. That’s on the international scale. Nationally, it is also a meticulous logging of what goes where – and what returns. Every costume has to be cleaned and inspected.
The quiet times for the company are in late January and early February, when the pantos are either finished, or just about to close. But then everything explodes back into life again. The subject for the coming season is announced, and the counting begins. A London Palladium show will not fit on to the space at the Hull New, for example, and will have to be adapted. There are always new costumes being made – Billy Pearce’s outfits are handmade every year, and that goes for many of the star names. Their measurements are all recorded, and every detail is kept.
In the Scarborough units colour bursts from the racks and shelves, and there are dresses in all shapes and sizes, Cinderella’s ball-gowns – dozens of them – Captain Hook’s brocaded topcoats. Who knows why Qdos has acquired some of Danny la Rue’s spectacular gowns, but here they are, rather incongruously adjacent to the Little Indian costumes from Peter Pan. The former requiring rather more upkeep and effort than the latter. Around the corner are more than 300,000 pairs of boots and shoes in all sizes and styles.
There is rack upon rack of rich cloth and fabric. And there is something new being added every day. Ask for something specific, and all of the wardrobe ladies (there are only two lads in that department) will know precisely where it is.
In Beverley, long-necked giraffes from a Goldilocks production look down on scenery being painted on the vast floors below. There are magic carpets, minarets and an electrically-powered skateboard alongside all kinds of paraphernalia. “We are a huge collaborative effort,” says Nick. “From the guys who write the scripts, to the electricians wiring up the scenery, to the lovely people sewing on the sequins. We are all just little cogs in a huge wheel. And when I hear the applause at the end of a show I can cheerfully say, ‘Job done’.”