PAIGNTON PANTOMIME PRODUCTIONS
Paignton Pantomime Productions is proud of its history and of all those dedicated people who, throughout its existence, have worked so hard to present a pantomime to the residents of Paignton and South Devon each Christmas from 1935 to the present day.
The 1935 Jubilee of King George V was good reason for Paignton Council Chairman Evan Powell to invite one of the town's theatrical “brains”, Jack Baker, to organise a concert. The resulting Paignton Pudding ran for a week from May 6th 1935 and played to capacity houses, which was not altogether surprising as every seat was free! The same year, Torquay's Theatre Royal was forced to close its doors as it was to become the Odeon Cinema, and with it went the Theatre Royal pantomimes. The Pavilion had not yet begun to stage pantomime, and so after the success of Paignton Pudding, Jack was egged on by local councillors to produce a pantomime for the people of Torbay. He did so with such success that he went on to write and devise the next twenty-five Paignton Pantomimes, and raised large sums of money for charity in the process.
The first pantomime “Babes in the Wood” exceeded all expectations and played to over 5,000 patrons from all over South Devon. The first Musical Director was Gerald King, who was succeeded by Harry Holwell. In 1938 Jack Baker appeared in “Katinka” with Paignton Operatic, who had just acquired a new director, Jeffrey Snelson. The two sealed a partnership that was to last a very long time and see many successful pantomimes. Jack Baker would write the script, devise the show and oversee the production, whilst Jeffrey Snelson would direct and often paint the scenery. When Jeffrey married Margaret Warren, she choreographed the productions.
When many theatrical groups were forced to shut down for the war years, Paignton Pantomime continued. There was even an invitation from Torquay Counciul to put the pantomime on at the Pavilion Theatre, but this was found to be impractical. Eventually the shortage of men became acute, and after three war-time pantomimes between 1939 and 1942, the 1943/44 show was a revue called “Going Crackers”. The final war year saw no Paignton Pantomime, but following the war, the society was back in strength.
After the war, many local and regional performers played for the society, but like all good things, the partnership between the two producers had to end. In 1959 Jack Baker was forced to retire due to the severe illness of his wife. It was a sad time, and at the end of the pantomime a mass of coloured balloons were released to drift over the heads of the audience. Unfortunately, Jack was not there to see it. Left without a leader, the Operatic Society helped things along, and Bill Coysh became producer, with Hector Farrant as Chairman. Jeffrey Snelson continued on for another few years, but finally retired as Director in 1962 when he was in his mid 80s!
The 60s were a hard time, and the opening of the Princess Theatre saw a fall in audiences and the society found it difficult to compete with the large professional pantomime running well into February. In 1963 Gilbert Martin, the new Director, tried a new approach, and staged “Where the Rainbow Ends”. He followed this with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, but as this wasn't Disney, the public were not interested. Then it was the turn of Dougie Donald, who took up the idea and directed “The Pied Piper”. Then professional director Eileen Vaughan tried “Beauty and the Beast”. Not one of these shows caused a sensation, and after four years it was back to traditional pantomime.
BACK ON TOP
By the end of the 60s, the situation looked serious. The Festival Theatre had by now been opened, so with two major 1,500 seat theatres to compete against, one of which was showing ice pantos direct from London, the future looked unhealthy to say the least. One day early in 1970, the Vice-Chairman of the society, Stan Pike, was walking past the theatre when he bumped into Dorothy Harwood, a TV and radio singer who lived locally and had also become a well-known local performer with the operatic societies. She was to become a highly regarded director of musicals within the Bay, but that was still in the future, although she had been directing the pantomime at Newton Abbot. Stan commented on how sad it was that PPP might come to an end, and Dorothy asked if anything could be done. He asked her if she would like to have a go, she accepted the challenge and directed the next twelve Paignton Pantomimes. She quickly found that the old favourites pulled the best audiences, and she persuaded many talented performers from the local operatic societies to join the pantomime. Her first four shows at the Palace were all huge successes, playing to totally full houses, and the society was back on top.
THE FESTIVAL ERA
By 1973, the local theatre scene was starting to change yet again. The Council was finding it difficult to put suitable Christmas shows into the Festival Theatre. PPP's 1973/74 panto “Dick Whittington” was deemed so good by the Council, that they invited the society to take up the challenge of moving down to the Festival Theatre. There were objections from Equity as 'A' Class theatres were deemed the domain of the professional companies at Christmas. It was a big move for the society, having to gear up shows for a much larger stage, a 1,500 seat theatre instead of a 400 seat one, having to field a much larger cast, and coping with hugely increased costs. There was also the small matter of trying to attract sufficiently large audiences. PPP had been attracting about 3,000 people to its Palace shows. A good deal more would be required for the planned 22 performances at the Festival Theatre! The previous year's professional pantiomime had attracted over 16,000 people. The Council hoped that the amateur pantomime would possibly attract about 9,000 people, but would require far less financial support.
The first show at the Festival, “Mother Goose”, played for almost two weeks, and was a massive success, playing to 16,500 people (slightly more than the previous year's professional pantomime, but with a week's less performances). It cost £10,000 to stage (a massive sum for an amateur show in those days), but for PPP the Festival Theatre era had begun with a bang. The following year the Council decided to start staging professional variety shows at the Princess at Christmas and leave the panto to Paignton. This left PPP as the only large-scale panto in the South West. Plymouth Theatre Royal was still just a pile of paper plans, and the other pantos were on a smaller scale. Audiences came from all over, and the four pantos 1974/75 to 1978/79 were indeed arguably the most successful period in the society's history. Audiences increased anually, reaching a peak of 25,000 with the 1977/78 “Cinderella”. The 1978/79 panto was hit by blizzards mid-run, which saw the cancellation of some performances, but much bigger trouble was just around the corner.
In 1978 the old Palace Theatre in Plymouth reopened and staged an all-star pantomime that ran for three months. Many said it would flop, in fact it was a spectacular success, but at the expense of the theatres in Torbay. Cornish panto audiences disappeared in the blink of an eye, and audiences plummeted. All this coincided with the biggest Paignton Panto ever. The 1979/80 “Mother Goose” ran for three-and-a-half weeks with a professional comedian (Gordon Peters) as the star. It suffered small audiences and lost a massive sum. The professional “Emu in Pantoland” at the Princess Theatre also suffered poor houses, and the Council decided on a change of strategy. That strategy was to have professional panto for a shorter run at the Princess Theatre and persuade PPP to move back to the Palace with its pantomime. After the rough ride of “Mother Goose”, the society was easily persuaded, but still hoped to return once more to the Festival after a while. So in 1980/81 it was back to the Palace with “Aladdin”. The society quickly settled back into life at the Palace and soon decided that its future lay with the 'Grand Old Lady of Palace Avenue'. PPP also dabbled with two summer seasons of plays, one a success, one a miserable failure, but life went on.
BACK TO THE PALACE
After 1982 Dorothy Harwood moved to America and Roger Bloxham took over the director's reins, and so began another era for the society. Roger was well known to the society, he had constructed and painted all the scenery for many years, and ran a well-known scenery firm which supplied show scenery for many theatre groups across the South of England. Roger directed the next fourteen shows, some of them very successful indeed, including the 50th and 60th Anniversary shows. During this period, the society purchased its own scenery store, and was also renting costume stores, but the hope of finding its own rehearsal rooms never materialised and the halls were still rented on an ad hoc basis. The success of the shows in this period also helped the society to set up its Theatrical Grant Scheme to help menbers who went on to professional training, and also to support charity in a much bigger way than it had been doing in the 60s and 70s.
After fourteen shows, Roger departed for pastures new, and after one show directed by Reg Messenger, society member Iain Douglas took over productions in 1996/97. Iain had joined in 1980, so was well known in the Bay, and once again another era had begun. The society had also managed to gain a regular rehearsal base at St Luke's Church Hall in Torquay, and with the closure of the Festival Theatre, The Palace once again became the main player in the theatrical life of the town. The final curtain of “Cinderella” 2005/06 saw the closing of The Palace for a long-awaited refurbishment. For the first time in its history, PPP took their pantomime “Dick Whittington” 2006/07 out of Paignton due to a lack of suitable venues in the town, performing a reduced run at the Riviera International Conference Centre in Torquay. This was a challenge for the society with a larger venue and greatly increased costs, but won the society Stage Electrics' Technical Achievement award for the huge amount of additional work required to turn the Arena into a panto-worthy theatre.
December 2007 saw PPP return home to the re-vamped Palace Theatre with the very successful “Sleeping Beauty” and audiences have continued to increase every year since. From an average annual attendance of 2,700 in 1996, this has now increase to almost 5,000 patrons during the run, and the Paignton Pantomime is regarded as one of the best pantomimes in South Devon.