Chris Berry heads to the Bradford Alhambra where he catches up with one of Yorkshire’s most popular pantomime entertainers, showbiz veteran Billy Pearce.
When Leeds-born Billy Pearce started out his modest ambition was to be a “club filler” but in 1986 he appeared in the final of New Faces on ITV and was catapulted to national fame hosting his own shows and picking up awards such as top theatre variety performer in 1994. He is now undisputedly the UK’s king of panto.
I caught up with one of the most likeable men in show business just a couple of days before his first rehearsal for this year’s pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. He’s careful not to say he has become an institution but he does see the funny side of this being his 16th year in Bradford’s beautiful auditorium.
“I was there first and they built it around me. My wife Kerry and I went to watch Barnum the other night and I sat staring in awe at this wonderful building. I said to her: ‘This is going to be mine again in a few weeks’, because that’s how it feels. It’s almost like it’s mine when I’m there on that magical stage. I don’t mean it’s just mine of course because it’s a real family feeling amongst everyone from the cast to all who work there. I’m just one part of the team that includes everybody from the stage door lady to front of house staff.
“I love pantomime because you meet people who you may never cross paths with normally like Joe McElderry this year. Funnily enough though I did work with him on the 100 Years of The Alhambra show. He seems a lovely lad and very well grounded. We’re all together from the start of December until our last show on January 25 and it’s almost like the intensity you feel on Big Brother. We spend more time together in those eight weeks than you do with your family, although that’s where I’m luckier as Kerry is in the cast too. She’s a dancer and has been in panto for years, but to be honest we don’t see a lot of each other as she’s with the rest of the girls. She did get time on stage with me when I was a frog and needed a kiss to be turned back into a human. Kerry came on looking stunning of course and kissed me. My punchline was ‘she’s after my tadpoles’.
“When you stand there at the end of the night feeling the warmth of the applause from everyone in the theatre it is such a wonderful experience. I’d love to bottle it and then one day when I’m in the old folks’ home just take off the top and have a listen again.
“I love the physicality of pantomime. We get a script that’s a bit like a telephone directory but the hardest bits are the singing and dancing. I used to do tap dancing and ballet years ago when my mum ran West Yorkshire’s biggest dance school and in this one I’ve a tap routine on wires. There’s always something where you think I don’t know whether I can do this. I’m knackered by the end and normally lose a stone in weight over the run.”
While Billy is now one of the UK’s most revered pantomime performers, after nearly 25 years of appearing in them up and down the country, he very nearly quit during his first one.
“I was Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk with Max Boyce at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. I was very naïve, probably a bit too simple, having never done panto before and I won’t mention names but the dame was horrible to me. In the end he did me a favour because it taught me all the tricks of the trade that one or two try to pull but at the time all I wanted to do was to go home.”
The experience clearly did Billy no lasting damage and his performance had been noticed elsewhere.
“By the end of that first run I had been offered four pantos for the following year and it has all carried on from there. I’d originally come into it because I wanted to get away from performing for office Christmas parties.”
Billy’s first Alhambra pantomime was as Buttons in Cinderella with Paul Nicholas as the Prince in 1994. This year will be his ninth successive lead role and his third Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He has now appeared as a lead role in more pantomimes than any other performer in the theatre’s history and with everyone from Coronation Street’s Amanda Barrie to Emmerdale’s Gaynor Faye.
“I worked with Chico last year in Aladdin. He was great and had fantastic energy. The audience loved him and we had a bit of banter going between us. The year before I played alongside Lynda Bellingham. She was the Fairy Godmother and was lovely and a joy to work with. It’s hard to think that in just a short time after that she’s no longer with us. She was such a nice lady.”
One of his favourites is Hayley Tamaddon currently in Coronation Street. He appeared with her in the 2008-09 pantomime Cinderella.
“‘Hayley tells this story of having served me in McDonald’s and asking people who were trying to talk with me whether they would mind leaving me to my Big Mac and fries. We chatted afterwards about her ambitions and look at her now. She’s done great things and she’s a wonderful actress. Hayley and Kerry are great friends.
“I’ve been very fortunate to meet some true friends in the show business world over the years particularly through pantomime. John Challis who played Boycie in Only Fools and Horses I’ve stayed friends with ever since we did panto together in Wolverhampton on one of the other times I played there; and I did two summer seasons and two pantomimes with John Inman of Are You Being Served? He was a smashing bloke.”
The Alhambra is recognised as West Yorkshire’s most visited pantomime venue and Billy has played a large part in its on-going success. He believes that the best pantomimes are those that have something for everyone. “People think you need kids to go to a pantomime but you really don’t. It’s a big entertainment show and a large part of people’s Christmas. Also because I live not far from the theatre I have to be good. It keeps you on your toes and when people come up to you with a smile on their faces telling me they’ve loved the show it chuffin’ fills me up.”
Live entertainment has changed massively since Billy started out with a double act called The Stewart Brothers following time as a stagehand at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.
“My ambition was to be that club filler because in those days if there was somebody good on at your local working men’s club you thought you’d cracked it if there was a queue at 6 o’clock to get the best seats. If you had your name up in coloured chalk instead of white that was another good sign! New Faces suddenly transported me from that environment and I was offered more television work and a summer season with Danny La Rue.
“It’s all very different for comedians today. Comedy was king in the clubs years ago when people like Bobby Knutt and Marti Caine were big names and some of my favourites were and still are Johnnie Casson and Mick Miller, but now it has gone massive. I’ve followed Lee Evans’s career with great interest and he reminds me of Norman Wisdom. I worked with his dad Dave who was a multi-instrumentalist and comedian. I went to see Lee at Leeds Grand Theatre and that was just part of his warm-up tour trying out material to a full 1,600-seater auditorium before taking it to the stadiums.”
Having seen Billy’s stand-up show first hand myself this year I can vouch for his quality as a comedian. He makes people laugh out loud and that’s the top and bottom of it.
“Funny is funny whoever you are and having grown up with Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Freddie Starr we now have other greats such as Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre. I’ve loved being on tour again this year and I’ve just signed up for an 18-week run at The Spa in Scarborough every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next summer.”
Until the start of this year’s panto run, Billy has also been hosting his own Saturday afternoon show on BBC Radio York.
“I found myself sat in a room with just this bit of foam rubber in front of me and had to entertain for two hours with no-one there. It’s nice to try new stuff and challenge yourself. I thought I’d not be able to do it but by the end of the four month run I was much more relaxed. Nowadays I don’t think you can really do just the one thing.”
Happily married and with a young son, Jack, the Pearces are Bradford-bound from now until the end of January but Billy takes nothing for granted over the longevity of his record-breaking Alhambra panto run being extended for a tenth successive year and a 17th starring role in the 2015-16 show.
“There’s that old saying in show business that you should always leave the audience wanting more but of course I’d love to be back. That’s why I must get this tap routine sorted out. I love the Alhambra, come along and see us if you can get a ticket.”
• Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Alhambra, Bradford, to January 25. 01274 432000, www.bradfordtheatres.co.uk