Brummie Beanstalks! – the history of Jack and the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome

Simon Sladen

Simon Sladen

This year we are delighted to welcome back Simon Sladen to the Birmingham Hippodrome blog.   Simon is widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading experts on British Pantomime. He is Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Pantomime Editor for The British Theatre Guide and creator of National Pantomime Day.  Here Simon delves into the history of Jack and the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome.

In 2013, Jack and the Beanstalk was the most popular of all pantomimes, seen on more stages than Cinderella, Aladdin or Snow White. Its roots date back to the 18th Century when the first printed copies of the story were read, but it wasn’t until 1733 that it became a festive favourite, 86 years before the first pantomime version of the tale appeared.

Beryl Reid

Beryl Reid

Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin and the Ogre delighted audiences at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s premiere panto theatre, in 1819. Not only was this the first time Londoners saw the title in panto form, it was also possibly the first pantomime to feature a female Principal Boy.  Completing a hat-trick of firsts, Jack and the Beanstalk was also the first pantomime to be presented at  Birmingham Hippodrome, when in 1957 actress Beryl Reid appeared on the Hippodrome stage complete with Brummie accent channelling her radio character Marlene from Educating Archie.

But the Hippodrome had to wait fourteen years before it saw Jack again, this time with Irish pop group The Bachelors as the show’s headlining act.

Four seasons later, it was time for Jack to defeat yet another Giant. The Hippodrome’s 1976 production starred Charlie Drake, one of the biggest comedians of the day and no stranger to the pantomime stage having appeared numerous times at the London Palladium.

A fellow Palladium panto star was to be the Hippodrome’s next Jack in 1983 when Cilla Black played the title role. That year the Hippodrome orchestra featured eleven musicians and a French circus family called the Santus Troupe. Their speciality act involved nine people riding a bicycle and was just one aspect of a spectacular show strong on music, spectacle and comedy.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

The production ran from 19th December 1983 to 25th February 1984 and much like this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk featured two Comics in the form of Paul Squire as Simple Simon and Jimmy Cricket as Silly Jimmy,

Comedy has always been at the heart of a Hippodrome panto and in 1988 the theatre presented a slightly different version of the tale with Russ Abbot as Jack – this time not the Hero, but the Comic. Abbott’s television sidekick Bella Emberg played the Vegetable Fairy battling against It Ain’t Half Hot Mum‘s Windsor Davies as Demon Blackspider whilst Jilli Foot played the panto’s Principal Boy Tommy Tucker. The show ran for slightly longer than the previous Jack and the Beanstalk and opened on 16th December 1988 and closed on 25th February 1989.

1994 saw Ray Meagher swap Summer Bay for Southside when the star of Home and Away graced the Hippodrome stage as King Crumble and a decade later Birmingham welcomed another soapstar to its Jack and the Beanstalk, this time Eastenders‘ Letitia Dean, who as Princess Apricot fell in love with funny man Joe Pasquale’s Jack Trot.

And so to 2014’s fresh new production, honouring past Jack and the Beanstalks with the return of two Comics in the form of Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack as Simple Simon and Silly Billy whilst Gary Wilmot joins a long line of Dame Trots including Don Maclean, Wyn Calvin and Tudor Davies.

BirmJATBnewThe Hippodrome’s eighth Jack and the Beanstalk adds another soapstar to its tally, this time Corrie’s Chris Gascoyne with Jane McDonald and Blue’s Duncan James not only the latest stars to make their pantomime debut at the venue, but also following in the footsteps of fellow singers Cilla Black and the Bachelors.

In a show featuring magical special effects, breath-taking musical numbers and laugh-out-loud comedy for all the family, this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk is set to be the Hippodrome’s biggest yet!   #brumpanto

You can follow Simon on Twitter @simonsladen


Birmingham Hippodrome is the home of the UK’s biggest pantomime productions.  This year’s Jack and the Beanstalk opens on Friday 19 December until 1 February.

A permanent exhibition of pantomime at Birmingham Hippodrome can be seen on Level 1 foyer.



The Home of Pantomime…


We are thrilled to welcome creator of National Panto Day and Pantomime history expert Simon Sladen for a special guest blog. In this fascinating article Simon takes us through the homes of British Pantomime including the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the London Palladium and, of course, Birmingham Hippodrome…

Drury Lane
In 1879, as the curtain came down on the opening night of Bluebeard at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the theatre manager asked the audience, “Well, are you satisfied?” “Yes!” they replied wholeheartedly. A new era had dawned for the history of pantomime.

Simon Sladen

Simon Sladen

No history of pantomime is complete without mentioning the importance of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Regarded by many as the birthplace of modern British pantomime under the management of Augustus ‘Druriolanus’ Harris, Drury Lane saw some of the most spectacular pantomimes ever presented, with casts of up to 500 people performing from Boxing Day to March each year.

With a capacity of over 3,000, Harris knew he had to stage the most spectacular shows possible to delight audiences from the stalls to the Gods. Under his reign at the theatre, spectacle, stars and story became his mantra, with special effects and grand transformation sequences delighting young and old as some of the most famous Music Hall names of the day trod the boards in a variety of fairy and folk tales.

Pantomime thrived at the theatre until 1938 when the final curtain came down on Babes in the Wood. With the theatre re-branding itself as the ‘Home of Musical Comedy’, the pantomime crown was ready to be inherited by a new venue, this time ‘The Home of Variety’.

London Palladium
The London Palladium opened its doors to the public on Boxing Day 1910, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War and Val Parnell took over the theatre’s management in 1945 that it began to establish itself as the new ‘Home of Pantomime’. Pantomimes at the Palladium, with its capacity of over 2,200, upheld the traditions and values established by Harris and just like at Drury Lane, showcased the very best of British talent.

Under its reign as the ‘Home of Pantomime’, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane popularised the roles of Dame and female Principal Boy, as well as the use of grand transformation sequences. But just as Drury Lane contributed greatly to the evolutionary course of the genre, so did the London Palladium, none more so than in 1956 when a male Principal Boy was cast in the form of Normal Wisdom as Aladdin. No female Principal Boy was then seen at the ‘Home of Pantomime’ for almost fifteen years until 1970 when Cilla Black was cast as Aladdin alongside Leslie Crowther, Terry Scott and Basil Brush.

The London Palladium presented a total of eleven different pantomime titles in twenty four different productions between 1948 and 1973, but with the advent of the Mega Musical in the 1980s, it became more and more difficult to programme a pantomime due to open-ended runs. An increasingly international West End audience unaware of pantomime’s traditions and for whom many of the top British names meant nothing led to pantomime’s West End demise.

Between 1974 and 1987 the Palladium only produced four pantomimes Cinderella (1976), Aladdin (1978) and Dick Whittington (1980), with Babes in the Wood (1987) ending the Palladium’s reign as the ‘Home of Pantomime’. With large scale pantos in London almost extinct at this point, the ‘Home of Pantomime’ was set to take up residency outside of the capitol for the first time in history.

Birmingham Hippodrome
The London Palladium pantomimes did not, however, only play the Palladium. Using the London venue as a launch pad for new productions, Palladium pantomimes were frequently enjoyed around the country at some of the UK’s largest venues, often retaining members of the original production’s cast.

Aladdin starring Danny La Rue in 1981

Aladdin starring Danny La Rue in 1981

One of these venues was the Birmingham Hippodrome, which in 1989 became home to the final Palladium pantomime Babes in the Wood complete with Cannon and Ball, who, along with Christopher Biggins, played to packed audiences from 15th December 1989 until 24th February 1990, only two days fewer than the Palladium’s own run in 1987. Other ‘direct from the Palladium’ pantomimes in the Hippodrome’s history include Dick Whittington starring Anita Harris (1971) and Aladdin starring Danny La Rue (1981).

The Birmingham Hippodrome’s first pantomime was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Beryl Reid and Reg Dixon in 1957. Since then, a wide range of pantomime titles have been produced at the venue and seen at theatres across the UK as they, like their Palladium forefathers, go on tour to delight audience members young and old. But whereas the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and London Palladium never presented Snow White as a pantomime, this will be the Hippodrome’s second version of the tale after 1999’s in which Lily Savage made her pantomime debut as the Wicked Queen. 2013’s Snow White is also set to celebrate two pantomime debuts with Gok Wan’s first foray into Pantoland as the Man in the Mirror and Gary Wilmot’s first panto season playing Dame.

Since 2008’s Robin Hood starring John Barrowman and 2009’s Sleeping Beauty with Joe Pasquale, these titles have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pantoland, proving the Hippodrome’s influence over the industry as the ‘Home of Pantomime’ is looked to for inspiration. With this year’s production promising stunning effects by the Twins and featuring a host of stars from stage and screen, the Hippodrome’s reputation as the ‘Home of Pantomime’ shows no sign of fading as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves celebrates over half a century of glorious pantomimes.

Raising the anchor on Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates at Birmingham Hippodrome

Today (Weds 5 Dec) marks national Panto Day and we have a very special guest blogger! Simon Sladen (@simonsladen) is the founder of Panto Day (#panto) and a fountain of knowledge on everything Panto! To commemorate today’s celebrations he talks us through the fascinating history of this year’s panto title, Robinson Crusoe…

The tale of Robinson Crusoe, a seaman shipwrecked on a tropical island, was originally written by Daniel Defoe and published nearly 300 years ago in 1719. The novel enjoyed great success and it wasn’t too long before pantomime writers decided to ride the wave of popularity and turn the tale into a fantastical seafaring adventure for the stage.

Simon Sladen

Simon Sladen

Robinson Crusoe was first presented as a pantomime in 1781 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. The production was a sell-out and ran for a total of 38 nights, one more than this year’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Pantomime is often thought of as a purely British form of entertainment, but Robinson Crusoe holds the accolade of being the first ever pantomime to be staged in America. In 1786 Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday toured to the John Street Theatre, New York where it repeated its success and paved the way for a number of subsequent productions, including an 1878 Robinson Crusoe which ran for ten and a half weeks in Newcastle. Other popular productions include Drury Lane’s 1881 and 1893 Robinson Crusoes, the latter of which featured music hall stars Marie Lloyd as Polly Perkins, Dan Leno as Mrs Crusoe and Little Titch as Man Friday. The show was the only one in the so-called ‘Father of Modern Pantomime’ Augustus Harris’s career to lose money and featured a scene in which Ada Blanche as Robinson Crusoe encountered a troupe of cannibals and shot them dead with a machine gun!

Having enjoyed great success and popularity until the late 1980s, including an ice-panto version at the Empire Pool, Wembley in 1951, the title fell out of favour only to be revived with the birth of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films. In 2008, Qdos Entertainment, the world’s biggest pantomime producer, launched their brand new version of the tale Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle starring Clive Webb as Robinson Crusoe, Danny Adams as Captain Crusoe, Chris Hayward as Dame Rita Crusoe and Kathryn Rooney as the Magical Mermaid. Since then the production has been entertaining audiences around the country in venues such as the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, SECC, Glasgow and the New Theatre, Cardiff. The Caribbean Pirates are now a staple of the narrative, with pantomime company First Family Entertainment and pantomime writer and director Janice Honeyman including them in their 2010 productions at the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and Joburg Theatre Complex, Johannesburg.

Lesley Joseph & Brian Conley in Robinson Crusoe

Lesley Joseph & Brian Conley in Robinson Crusoe

This year Qdos Entertainment brings its latest version of the title to the Birmingham Hippodrome starring Brian Conley as Robinson Crusoe and Lesley Joseph as the Enchantress of the Ocean. The Hippodrome’s production is the only professional Robinson Crusoe to be staged in the UK this year and will be the first time the theatre has welcomed the title since 1967. Interestingly, not only was Robinson Crusoe Conley’s first ever pantomime when he appeared as the Bosun at the Grand Theatre, Swansea in 1979, but it was also the first ever pantomime Qdos Chairman Nick Thomas produced. In 1982 Thomas staged Robinson Crusoe in Outer Space at the Charter House, Preston which starred Jimmy Cricket as Simple Skyman in his debut pantomime performance.

With its exciting swashbuckling narrative, Robinson Crusoe has hosted a wealth of stars. Tommy Cooper and Arthur Askey starred in the London Palladium production of 1957, with Askey repeating his role as Big Hearted Martha in the theatre’s 1967 pantomime alongside Engelbert Humperdink as Robinson. In 1990, Olympic gold medallist in javelin Tessa Sanderson starred as Girl Friday in Guildford and in 1997 Jordan aka Katie Price appeared at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing. David Essex has played the title role six times and in 1973 the Wolverhampton Grand’s production starred four real lions onstage! Other notable Robinson Crusoe cast members include Norman Wisdom, Christopher Biggins, Keith Harris, Colin Baker, Joe Pasquale, Samantha Mumba, John Barrowman and the Krankies.

A title offering plenty of spectacle, it was also one of the first to incorporate 3D film technology when the Theatre Royal, Norwich staged a 3D shipwreck sequence in 1980.

This year’s Robinson Crusoe at the Birmingham Hippodrome is to set to boast a flying sea monster, a shipwreck, acrobats, dinosaurs and mermaids, demonstrating pantomime’s ability to move with the times and remain fresh and exciting for a 21st Century audience.


Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates at Birmingham Hippodrome marks the 6th pantomime appearance for Brian Conley.  The production opens on 15 December and is the UK’s biggest pantomime production.

CLICK HERE for more info & to book tickets for Robinson Crusoe & the Caribbean Pirates.