From a mondegreen in a record shop to a panto reviewer’s Christmas and working in a home for wounded ex-service personnel, at the end of a difficult year, Andrew Welsh, Rob Adams and David Pollock look back on a working during Christmases past.
THE PANTO REVIEWER’S CHRISTMAS by DAVID POLLOCK
As someone who’s lucky enough to review theatrical Christmas shows across Scotland throughout the month of December, it’s fair to say the point of reviewing panto sometimes escapes me, at least at first.
This feeling tends to arrive while I’m looking at the slate of shows coming up and trying – and failing – to imagine which ones will be the guaranteed hits. For the question “What makes a good pantomime?” isn’t far away from asking “What makes a good fish supper?”.
In each case, the ingredients are expected to be exactly the same, and any effort to go off-piste is probably going to be poison to the customers. You wouldn’t stage a panto without a Dame, for example, like you wouldn’t put chilli in the batter – or you’d better know exactly what you’re doing, and even then it’s a big risk.
Just like that fish supper, pantos generally satisfy, but it’s difficult to know exactly why. The equivalent of draining the batter enough but not drying it out completely might be something equally subtle on stage – an inventive dance sequence, for example, or an ambitious designer who has done the work of a team of Disney animators.
A good Dame is essential, of course. One of the finest in Scotland is Perth Theatre’s Barrie Hunter, who can turn on a dime between hapless auntie and knowing, wink-for-the-adults comedian. Mention of Perth Theatre reminds me of the first panto I can recall seeing on official business; the name escapes me, but it was around the mid 2000s.
Seeing a panto for the first time as an adult and before you’ve had children of your own is an unusual experience, as the kids around you holler at the cheesiest lines and jump at the most obvious effects, while missing out on all the smart design and performance techniques which you spot.
At that self-conscious first show I remember a more experienced colleague, sitting near me on the balcony, getting right into the spirit of “He’s behind you!”ing with the rest of them.
A decade and a half later, having travelled across the country to see dozens of Christmas shows from Dundee Rep to Glasgow Citizens and Dunfermline to Greenock – and some incredible variations, from Dundee Rep’s recent technical marvel The Snow Queen to the Traverse in Edinburgh’s prestige productions – the idea of what makes a good pantomime didn’t really crystallise until I’d seen one with my own children.
As it is for many Scots kids, their first panto was at the Kings in Edinburgh, and weirdly, it was my son’s viscerally fearful reaction to Grant Stott’s villainous performance (a wee bit overdone, to be honest, but the situation demanded it) that opened my eyes.
Children don’t look either side of the proscenium arch when the lights go down, you see; they don’t appraise the design or performance qualities.
For them, the pantomime tradition is a step into another world, a natural, easy suspension of disbelief which we unlearn as adults.
To see their minds open up before us puts our own boringly knowing “That wouldn’t happen” or “That was an obvious twist” into the shade.
This year, we could all do with finding space to spend some time with our hopes and imaginations, and the Christmas telly schedule isn’t going to recreate the smell of popcorn in the foyer and the swell of voices ringing around a theatre for those of us who have grown to love the experience.
So I’ll be doing the next best thing; sitting down with my children to watch Barrie Hunter’s performance in Perth Theatre’s live-streamed panto – and others at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and other desperately hit venues across Scotland – and dreaming of the show going on for real as soon as possible.
A MONDEGREEN IN THE RECORD SHOP by ROB ADAMS
People often ask me if I miss working in a record shop at Christmas and I usually say “No” until I remember occasions like this:
It was almost closing time on Christmas Eve when a woman arrived in a cloud of Chanel and gin fumes. She looked at me as if I were twins on a distant horizon and announced: “Bloody a**ehole.”
I was about to say: “And a merry Christmas to you, too, madam” when she wagged a corrective finger.
“Have ye jot,” she got out as her legs grew a bit wobbly and she had to lean on the counter, “Bloody A**ehole?”
Now, I’ve extrapolated Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder from a request for “Steeefffeee Window’s Apple Busfare”, but Bloody A**ehole wasn’t ringing any bells, let alone ringing up a sale.
So I had another go and asked this vision, who was beginning to look as if she might hit me before she toppled over, to repeat herself one more time.
“Bludddd. Deee,” she shed, sorry, said, “Arsh hole.”
Was this a request or an accusation? I must have looked completely helpless because she helped me. She gave me a clue.
“Ye musht hiv herdoit. ‘Eee shed if anbideee’d know whit ah meant, yeeee-eeew wid.”
A faint memory came to me. I’d seen this woman someplace before. But where was it? And who was she with? Who was ‘Eee who had such faith in my powers of musical deduction?’.
“Ahm shoor ‘eee shed ‘eee heard the coal man shingin’ it,” my challenger wheezed as I looked at the racks, praying that an inspired volunteer album cover would launch itself into my arms so that I could close up the shop and go for a dri… Well, no, maybe not. I’d already inhaled several doubles.
Bloody A**ehole. The coal man sings it. Phew. When I was still at school we used to get coal delivered to the house by a chap who whistled tunelessly the whole time and wouldn’t have been above miscalling his driver, who was always telling him to get a move on and stop his infernal whistling, although infernal wasn’t the adjective he used. But I doubted if anyone would have released a record of this duo’s contretemps.
Then the eureka moment came, like the answer in a crossword puzzle. The bloke I’d seen this woman with. They’d been at a gig together somewhere. He liked saxophone players. I’d sold him some Art Pepper albums – I wished I could have sold his other half some more Art Pepper albums because we had plenty in stock.
None of them, alas, was called Bloody A**ehole and although doubtless Art had invited such a greeting at some stage in his very colourful life, he hadn’t named a tune in its honour.
Bloody. A**ehole. I heard a snatch of a tune, lyrics too; a little voice inside my head began to sing them to me – and that’s how I came to complete this woman’s Christmas shopping by selling her Body & Soul by Coleman Hawkins.
AT THE HOME FOR THE WOUNDED by ANDREW WELSH
Anyone who’s been paying attention won’t have failed to hear about the flabbergasting threat to sub-zero temperatures, not to mention snow itself, in near-future Scotland.
Global warming aside, I can see why it’s regrettable that the chances of a white Christmas this year are substantially less than even three or four decades ago.
In our heads, isn’t it nearly always the case that a blanket of snow was somehow omnipresent in Christmases past?
Whether the equally loved and loathed white stuff had really, actually, made an appearance in 19 oatcake scarcely matters, so ingrained is it in the festive season’s mythology.
Elton John was spot on when he alluded in a gloomy 1980s hit to Yule’s bitter chill, and it’s surely beyond dispute that finding warmth helps being cheer.
After saying farewell to my university days, when clinging to radiators in often draughty accommodation seemed like a perennial winter pursuit, I landed a job in a home for wounded ex-service personnel.
Working in the health care industry hadn’t really been part of the script for a politicised social sciences graduate, but needs must – and without doubt it was an experience that stood me in good stead for bigger challenges in my working life in later years.
As well as housing long-term residents, Second World War combatants and their spouses descended from all over the UK throughout much of the year for convalescent breaks.
In summer, games, concerts, bus trips and garden activities kept all but the prickliest of the erstwhile troops content, with a wickedly jocular vibe making the home more like a pensioners’ holiday camp than a medical centre.
At Christmas, of course, the focus was firmly on the indoors, with bounteous meals – think massive fry-ups and roasts – on a constant loop as the veterans took the eat, drink and be merry maxim to an old-school festive extreme.
It may not be the done thing in care nowadays, but back in the mid 1990s the alcohol also flowed like it was going out of fashion among the ex-youthful recruits, giving a whole new angle to the late Vera Lynn’s then still oft-sung wartime favourite We’ll Meet Again — when seen as a Dr Strangelove-like tempting of the fates.
Up until this eye-opening coming of age I’d previously savoured Noeltide largely unfettered by the responsibilities of work.
My first Christmas Day on shift was a slightly surreal experience, therefore, but one which brought its own contentments in the company of a new extended family of the cardigan and corduroy-clad kind.
Feeling somewhat compelled to attempt to eat two Christmas dinners, one at work then another back home, was among the few downsides.
But then who wants to appear ungrateful at the most wonderful time of the year?
One of my most abiding memories, though, is of the grating central heating in that home, which was always cranked up to such a level if you closed your eyes during a brief moment of respite you could imagine you were hearing Jingle Bells somewhere south of the equator.
Whether the two or three Christmas Days I worked there were white ones I can’t now definitively say.
I’m certain, however, that if snow had landed, like the polar ice caps it wouldn’t have stood a chance.
A warm glow, indeed.