Following their truly spectacular production of Aladdin last Christmas, Qdos Productions return to The Bristol Hippodrome this December with the best-loved pantomime of all – Cinderella.

It promises to be a family-friendly show, packed with special effects and laugh-out loud comedy, much of which will be provided by Strictly favourite, comedian, king of pantomime, and musical theatre star Brian Conley, who takes on the role of Buttons. Vivienne Kennedy from Bristol City Centre BID caught up with him recently to find out what audiences can expect.


 

Image - Cinderella @ Bristol Hippodrome

Pantomime is …

(Brian interrupts) I think you can tell that me and Gok Wan do have a rapport. We’ve known each other for the last few years, especially doing pantomime, and I think you really get to know someone when you’re doing panto. We do two shows every day and of course we have long breaks in between the first show and the second. He genuinely looks after me – he cooks meals and his dressing room becomes a green room, all the company go in there. I’ve even given him the bigger dressing room, ‘cos I know we’ll all be in there.

(Gok appears with a drink for Brian)

Sorry, go on Viv…

So, pantomime is a curiously British thing and for many children, and quite a lot of adults, it’s the first theatre they will ever see – how would you describe it to someone who has never experienced it before?

To describe it in a very small way, yes, it is traditional but it’s a bit like the Pixar film Shrek. You are telling a story, a very traditional story, but you’re also putting in a lot of comedy, a lot of modern references and modern songs.

You’re telling a very old story, but I would say it’s not a documentary. Cinderella the story is just a skeleton we can hang all the comedy on. Everyone knows the story, but this is our take on it, with all sorts of twists and turns.

There are just no other family shows out there any more, you know; there really isn’t. You’ve got your musicals, yeah, but nothing else where three-year-olds and 90-year-olds can enjoy it together. I always say that as long as the first week is busy, we’ll take care of the rest, because it goes through word-of-mouth and you have to be good.

Does the matinee differ very much from the evening show? Is the evening show aimed at one age level and the matinee more at children?

No, not at all. I’ve been in this too long to try play innuendos. I want everyone to get it; I don’t want the parents to be thinking “I’m glad the kids don’t know what that means”.  

You’ve got to keep it really visual. You’ve got to keep it pacey. And topical.

(Gok brings Brian another drink)

There’s no difference between matinees and evenings; you’ve always got to give 110 per cent. They’ve all paid their money and they all want to have a good time. There’s no abbreviated versions or things like that.

Everything works, it’s like a tuned-up Ferrari this show. People ask when we’re going to rehearse but we could do it tomorrow. We all know what we’re doing… there will be topical jokes added and topical songs, obviously we’ve got to do The Floss, things that the kids can relate to. My youngest is 16 so I just say “What should we do? What we gotta do? What we gotta do?”

Last year we took £1.7 million and that’s not because people thought it was a good show, it IS a good show.

What’s your own first memory of pantomime?

Well, that’s it, you do remember your first one. For me, it was seeing Arthur Askey and Dickie Henderson in Babes in the Wood, which you definitely couldn’t do now!

I remember being so upset that I wasn’t picked to go up on stage at the end. It absolutely devastated me. I genuinely needed therapy after that; I was so upset. I must say, when we do it, I get the usherettes to choose the kids because I don’t want to be responsible in any way for affecting a child that way.

I really do remember that and all the colour and how everyone understood how pantomime works and thinking “ooh, I’ve got to learn how to do that”.

All that “boo, hiss, it’s behind you stuff”

Do you know, we don’t do any “it’s behind you” bits or ghost scenes or anything like that. We do X Factor, we do The Voice, we do things that the kids and everyone relates to and knows about.

Any boos?

Oh of course, the Ugly Sisters get boos.

(laughs) I thought you said booze!

No, boos and hisses.

Last year’s production of Aladdin was spectacular – what can we expect from Cinderella? Is it going to out-do it?

There’s a lot of magic. There’s a wonderful flying coach that comes out and does a full turn.

(Gok wanders over to take a selfie)

This is the Palladium set – it was built there and did one season there and now it’s moving here. It’s the most incredible set. And of course, the costumes, and there are a lot of effects.

I think everyone understands this story and Cinderella very much epitomises Christmas. It’s always the one that all the theatres are excited about getting. You think about Aladdin or Dick Whittington and you’re like “oh, I don’t know, is that Christmas?” but you get Cinderella and you think “oh yes, that’s Christmas!”

You’re a panto veteran – how many have you done?

Well, I’ve done so many, I don’t know how many I’ve done and that’s the gospel truth, but I reckon it’s 35 at least.

I’ve worked my way up, it’s only the last 20 odd years that I’ve been top of the bill.

Out of those 35 or so pantomimes, I’m going to ask you to tell me about just one memorable moment…

I met my wife, we’ve been married 22 years and known each other 27 years, at Wimbledon. I was there with Bonnie Langford, Barbara Windsor, Ray Allen and Lord Charles. Remember them?

Ray Allen’s wife worked with my future wife in an office and she said: “I’m going to bring this girl along, she’s very attractive and I think you’re going to really like her.”

And we have two wonderful children and it’s all because of pantomime.

Aw, I love that story…

This is your fourth pantomime with Gok and it’s obvious that you get on very well and look after each other. Did you know it was going to work from the start? Was there an instant chemistry?

Gok lights up any room. He’s got such a warm heart.

We did hit it off straight away. As soon as he met me he said “Oh go on, get your hair cut, sort it out. What are you wearing that for?”

He’s very warm and when he used to do How to Look Good Naked you knew why ladies took their clothes off; you feel very comfortable in his presence.

He’s very funny, very cheeky. We’ve become close friends. We’re going to his birthday. We were round his house not long ago, my wife and my children love him. He’s sorted out my wife, tells her what to wear, sorted out her make-up, tells her where to go and get her hair done. He’s a real friend and he genuinely looks after me - he’s so caring. When we do the panto, he’ll say: “I’ve got rice and chicken for in between”.

He doesn’t have to do this, he really doesn’t; he’s got fingers in so many pies, what with his fashion empire and things, he does it because he loves it, as I do. We’re not here to earn a lot of money and leave, we’re here to give everyone a really good time and it’s so wonderful and such an honour.

Christmas is pantomime for me; I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have panto.

You co-write the show, so you have a lot to do with the development of your character…

Indeed, and the comedy too. It’s not a case of just putting in a topical joke, it’s the way it’s been structured over the years.

It is the character of Buttons is best part, you’re very much part of the show and you have a lot of pathos too - she goes off with the Prince but you’ve very fond of her. It’s very important to have that light and shade. Everyone thinks you’re going to have a laugh, but there are moments when they think you are being extremely funny and then the carpet is taken out from under them and people think “oh my goodness, I genuinely felt upset for him at that point”; it’s great. I love playing those bits.

You did Cinderella last year in Milton Keynes, will it have changed very much by the time it gets to Bristol?

There won’t be as many Strictly gags this year!

Yes, I’m always looking for the next song and new references. But comedy is comedy and it’s always funny.

You’ll be in Bristol for a month of performances and a little while before that; I know you won’t have much time off but when you’re not on stage what are you looking forward to seeing and doing?

I like being in the hub of it and I like that the city has a very young feel. You’ve got some wonderful restaurants here, so we’ll be frequenting them. I’m staying near the theatre and the only thing I’m not looking forward to is trying to park my car, everything else is going to be great – Bristol’s got such a great buzz.

Cinderella opens at The Bristol Hippodrome on Saturday 8 December and runs until Sunday 6 January with two show most days including captioned, audio described, signed, and relaxed performances. There are no shows on 10, 17, 21 and 25 December, or on 1 January

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The Bristol Hippodrome
Theatre
The Bristol Hippodrome

One of the country's top provincial theatres, which proudly continues to stage major West End and Broadway productions.

Cinderella at Bristol Hippodrome
Theatre
Cinderella at Bristol Hippodrome

Bristol audiences shall go to the ball this Christmas as Cinderella transforms from rags to riches, outwits her very Ugly Sisters, and with the help of her hilarious friend Buttons and one very magical Fairy Godmother, wins the heart of the dashing Prince Charming.