Rob Macpherson, Director of Marketing and Development, blogs about our recent panto cast announcement:
The title for this blog post was pretty much echoed by the many interested media players across the world last week when we announced that Joan Collins would indeed make her Pantomime debut here at Birmingham Hippodrome this Christmas.
The legendary star of stage and screen, shortly celebrating her 60th year in the acting profession, will play the role of Queen Rat (specially written for her of course) in Dick Whittington for 74 performances from 18 December 2010 to 30 January 2011. Ms Collins will be heading a truly star-studded cast including Nigel Havers, Julian Clary and the formidable team of Keith Harris and Orville. What a line-up!
We were delighted to welcome Joan here in 2004 with the light comedy drama Full Circle. During the week she kindly hosted a ladies luncheon to raise money for the Hippodrome’s important education work with schools. Nigel Havers apparently was the one to persuade Joan to take on Panto this year having enjoyed it so much himself. (We’re told Joan finally agreed but only if she could play the biggest in the country!) Nigel’s previous recent appearances here include The Play What I Wrote and an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Both were huge successes, with the latter producing at the time the highest ever recorded box office gross for a single week of drama in the UK.
Somewhat ironically, Julian Clary started his stand-up career with a risque act entitled The Joan Collins Fan Club and, as he admitted on Twitter last week, appearing with the great lady this year will undoubtedly be “the pinnacle of his career”. Quite how they will get on is anyone’s guess!
Contrary to some ill-informed media reports, Orville has actually been quite reasonable so far in his demands over dressing rooms. Keith Harris has kindly agreed to broker a mutually agreeable arrangement by the time we open.
Over the last 10 years, Pantomime has enjoyed an impressive resurgence with all sorts of star names stepping forward to take part in the seasonal fun. Ian McKellen has appeared twice in Aladdin at the Old Vic; John Barrowman spent two years here at Birmingham and this year tackles the 3,000-seat Glasgow Arena; Baywatch glamour girl Pamela Anderson shared a lead role at Wimbledon last year (and is reportedly set to produce her own Panto in Hollywood this summer); and whilst Stephen Fry added his view as script-writer for Cinderella, theatrical bad boy Mark Ravenhill updated Dick Whittington for the Barbican a few years back.
The big Panto favourites who work hard up and down the country to keep families giggling together over Christmas and the new year include Brian Conley, Joe Pasquale, Christopher Biggins and Lesley Joseph. Theirs is a long-standing tradition dating back centuries, and that history is very much respected by today’s writers and producers. But they are careful not to rest on any laurels or rely on celebrity status alone. These days the big production companies like Qdos who create the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza are just as likely to insert expensive 3D sequences, ice-skating rinks, astonishing water effects, giant beanstalks and amazing flying in addition to the odd custard pie and old-fashioned slapstick. The dedication to detail is huge and all-encompassing with a two or three week intensive rehearsal period on top of year-round writing and marketing activity.
Every year here at Birmingham Hippodrome, we go on sale for the next Panto just as we open the current one, and without fail some of our closest supporters book immediately – often long before we’ve even hinted at any casting. For these die-hard fans, Panto is an important annual family treat and tickets for the peak performances of Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve are always the fastest to go.
As part of our Pantomime promotions last year, we helped shift this time-honoured tradition into the 21st Century with a little experiment on Twitter. The social media networking platform, the big new media hit of 2009, was crying out for a little audience participation and “Twitpanto” seemed the ideal opportunity. Thrown together by a bunch of Brum’s finest bloggers and online pioneers, and directed with a firm hand and plenty of strong coffee by Jon Bounds (@bounder), Twitpanto was a huge hit and can still be viewed here as it happened: http://twitpanto.co.uk/. A specially-written panto story drawing on all the best titles and characters, with an enthusiastic and poorly rehearsed cast of a few dozen from the twittering world, ‘performed’ for a live online audience for about an hour. There were a few virtual chants of ‘Oh no he’s not’ and ‘It’s behind you’ as we progressed finishing with an expertly recorded YouTube song for a good old singalong. We discovered later that the #twitpanto hashtag had been used over 30,000 times and we even briefly ‘trended’ (which is a good thing!). A few weeks ago we also learned that the experiment had been awarded Honoree status as part of the global Webbys, Twitter’s version of the Oscars.
We’ve had some big announcements in recent years which have really hit the headlines. Back in 2004, Joe Pasquale was lined up to appear alongside Letitia Dean in Jack and the Beanstalk. The casting had been announced, sales were steady. Then Joe took part in ITV’s “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, doing daft and daring turns on peak time television every night for about two and half weeks before finally winning the competition. “Joe King” trumpeted The Sun’s front page, and a star was re-born. Box Office rocketed taking nearly £200,000 in the week Joe returned to the UK.
On the same day I was quoted as a spokesperson in both The Sun and The Financial Times who had picked up on the economic value of Pantomime to UK theatres. 18 months later we were in the final moments of a successful charity auction for the theatre at a private fundraising dinner. The prize was for a child to appear on stage as a walk-on part at the end of that year’s Panto with the cast. The lucky youngster’s family would be treated to a backstage tour, an opportunity to meet the stars plus a lavish private hospitality package – quite a day to remember. The bidding was almost complete at just over £1,000 when we revealed with a flourish that the Panto lead was to be John Barrowman. Instantly, a forest of hands were raised and the bidding kept going all the way to £2,500 within 30 seconds. In fact the theatre benefitted doubly as we agreed to extend the prize to joint winners at this rate. Barrowman panto sales took off.
Last week was no different. Together with the team at Qdos and Borkowski PR we crafted a press release with approvals from all the parties, briefed the sales team, ensured the website was ready to go, checked all the ticket prices and off we went. The Daily Mail and Birmingham Mail ran a prepared feature, The Stage alerted online, and the BBC website made it a feature on their English news page. This was shortly followed by many more pieces on local radio, and excerpts in this weekend Sunday Times, Guardian and even this week’s Hello magazine. BBC Midlands Today did a live lunchtime piece with yours truly, followed by an extended feature including interviews with local people and their own version of the famous Dynasty title sequence.
The result? Box Office heaven once again with over 5,000 tickets sold or reserved since 10 May and still showing no sign of slowing down. As they say, to avoid disappointment, book now! And start practicing your boo-ing and hiss-ing in time for the majestic arrival of Queen Rat this Christmas.
You can follow Rob on twitter @robmacpherson