Secrets of the panto dame game

Howard Chadwick as Dame Sue.
Howard Chadwick as Dame Sue.

THE New Year may have slammed the door firmly shut on the season’s festivities but at Harrogate Theatre the Christmas spirit is still going strong, well, at least for another week or two.

While the rest us get back to the daily grind, for one man the fun is yet to stop.

Howard Chadwick.

Howard Chadwick.

After his making his dame debut last year in Dick Whttington, Howard Chadwick is back in this prime role in this year’s hugely popular Harrogate Theatre pantomime, Beauty & the Beast, which continues its run until January 15.

Although it’s the seventh time this likeable actor has appeared in the town’s panto, he still feels something of a new boy at this most matronly of roles.

And unlike some practioners of his craft, he’s relishing the experience of performing as Dame Sue, the Sous Chef.

He may have played Richard III at Lancaster Castle in a career which has seen him move from Wigan to Cardiff to Manchester to London but appearing as the dame is no laughing matter for Howard, except on stage.

“To play the dame is to fufill a really British tradition. It encompasses so much - acting, singing, comedy, dancing, it‘s got everything.”

“Some actors can be quite snobby about panto but I feel it’s as an essential part of English theatre as Shakespeare.”

Dressed to the nines in ladies clothes and caked in loud make-up, the dame is a unique character within what is, itself, a bit of a unique pantomime.

Howard said: “Traditionally, there are seven pantomimes in the canon. Beauty & the Beast isn’t often done as a panto.

“Harrogate has its own style. I’ve appeared so many times in panto here now that when I perform elsewhere, I notice the difference.”

As always at Harrogate, which last year was acclaimed by Sir Ian McKellen as the best panto in the whole country, there’s no celebrities and no smut in a show co-written by director Phil Lowe and the theatre’s chief executive David Bown.

“It’s a truly family pantomime of quite a rare kind, a fairytale with panto characters. Saying that, this year’s is more spectacular with special effects and genuine magic tricks. It’s great fun to be on stage, particularly with colleagues like Tim Stedman who is back again, too. I love doing the routines with him.”

Bulked up in tights, padded bra and some truly fabulous outfits courtesy of dress maker Nicola Downing and designer Helen Fownes-Davies, Howard has to undergo seven changes of costume each show, all to become the silly centre in a romantic sandwich formed by Belle, a beautiful young woman, and the Beast, a handsome prince.

Not that Howard sees the act of creating such a flamboyant performance as in any way trivial.

“I remember seeing Les Dawson in my late teens playing the dame in Manchester, which was great, and I’ve worked with fantastic dames at Harrogate in the past such as Alan McMahon.

“There’s certain colours in the palate of being a dame. The key is to apply them in your own way.”

If Harrogate audiences are lucky to enjoy such a high quality panto each year, Howard feels he is equally lucky to be performing for them.

The role may require him to be away from his wife and two children in a small village in the Peak District at a time when most of us are meeting up with our families but he wouldn’t change it for the world.

Like many actors of his generation, Howard earns his bread and butter part of the time in role playing for companies for everyone from prisons and hospitals to the General Medical Council.

The good news is that, a week after Beauty & the Beast ends its run in Harrogate, he will be starting rehearsals for another show, Much Ado About Nothing.

“A lot of my friends in the trade are being hit by shorter runs and smaller casts, at the moment, especially with all the cuts in the arts.

“I’m lucky to keep working and I‘m lucky to be in such a great pantomime as Harrogate’s.”

l Beauty & The Beast runs at Harrogate Theatre until Sunday, January 15. Tickets are still going fast and cost £11-£18 with concessions available.They can be booked at or through the Harrogate Theatre Box Office on 01423 502 116.