Liverpool Sound And Vision: The Saturday Supplement. An Interview With Michael Chapman.

There is a danger of meeting a hero, even if it is one dressed in flamboyant oversized dress, a huge wig that would not be out of place in a revival of a Georgian period comedy and the sound of laughter forthcoming across the various parts of the Epstein Theatre as they wind down on a day in which their Pantomime cast has run a mock and been interviewed to within an inch of their lives.

Michael Chapman is a hero, or indeed heroine, to many of the children in the city, his appearances as the melodramatic matronly but streetwise mother of many of the protagonist or employer of the comic sidekick have children and their parents in their droves enjoying the seasonal offerings supplied by the Epstein Theatre. This Christmas is no different as he prepares to showcase the great Widow Twankey in Aladdin

The actor not only performs out of his skin on the Epstein stage but he writes the pantomimes as well, each one a delight to the families of the city and one in which he seems to revel in. It may be hard to meet a hero but on behalf of the many children who no doubt will find their way to the pantomime this Christmas I go in search of the man behind the make-up and huge frock and ask him about what pantomime means to him.

Congratulations again on writing another play for the Epstein Theatre for the second time this year!

MC: “You don’t need to congratulate me; no one’s read this yet!”

You’ve mentioned Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper; were you a big fan of them?

MC: “Not so much Frankie Howerd, I love Tommy Cooper and stuff like that, I loved Tommy Cooper’s joke books, they do things like the Top 100 Joke Books and Tommy Cooper’s are always in there. There can only be so many jokes, so a lot are re-worked and situations but I nicked a load off Tommy Cooper.”

You’ve done all the Christmas pantos here for the past five years, including all the Spring pantos as well, you are so loved by the audience, it’s definitely like the appreciation for Tommy Cooper.

MC: “You’re being daft!

No, especially with the children, the part at the end when the kids are on stage, does that give you a feeling that this is what the writing is for?

MC: “The bit at the end is a different kettle of fish really because you know, I’ve got three kids and I actually find it easier because I’m not the most intelligent person in the world, I find it easier to interact with children! My sense of humour is like theirs.”

What gets me is that every year, is that you manage to persuade some kids to get up on stage, for some, it’s their first time at the theatre, you bring them into the theatre, make them comfortable in that setting. You though get quite abusive verbally with them!

MC: “They seem oblivious to the fact that I’m being quite nasty to them, I think it’s because they are so nervous they are just deaf to it really.”

When did you start getting into panto?

MC: “I’ve never seen a panto, that’s a big confession to make for someone dressed as I am! We never went at all, I wasn’t even allowed to watch I.T.V. when I was little; it was too naughty. I wasn’t allowed to see T.I.S.W.A.S., all my mates were watching the Young Ones on B.B.C. 2 and stuff, I wasn’t allowed to see that as it was after 9.00pm so things like panto – no way, double entendres, never saw it!

When I went to drama school, you can be a snob about pantomime and you go pantomime just looks so awful and then I got this opportunity to audition to do pantomime and I thought I’m not doing anything else so I went to the audition and I didn’t know how to do a panto dame or anything, so I You Tubed it and thought I hate that kind of camp approach to it, like Les Dawson, I’m not really into that and around that time Ali G was massive and he’d just had his film released when I went to the audition and I think was the kind of influence on it and since then, I’ve not seen a panto because I’m always in one!”

I get what you mean about the influences, when I was a child, I saw Arthur Askey, Jimmy Edwards and Jim Davidson at the Birmingham Hippodrome in panto, I actually prefer panto now – they are funnier. Writers like yourself seem to have a better ethos as writers than those in the 70s when it was just about this joke must go here to make this other joke work.

MC: “That’s not a deliberate thing for me, it’s just pure accident, if I’m doing something that’s different from the traditional, then that’s an accident.”

It seems to work though, that must give you a good feeling to hear the laughter from audiences during the run.

MC: “It’s a buzz, yeah! Particularly when they are jokes that I haven’t nicked! If they are jokes that I’ve sat down and really thought about, every time we do something we’ve got these different celebrities and stuff and you have to find ways of showing them up, so I need to think of things and very specific jokes for these people and with those jokes – people love to laugh at people like Jordan or Callum Best last year, or whoever and to see them take the mickey out of themselves was great!”

Talking about Callum Best, he was quite a revelation last year, I actually enjoyed his performance.

MC: “He found it really hard to let go and then I think he started to get it, he would endear himself to more people if he’d let his guard down and went I’m a bit of an idiot rather than trying to pretend he wasn’t by doing it. He’s by no means an idiot though, when we were asking him to do things, like to behave like an idiot it but he did do it in the end and I loved that.”

The music number the Twelve Days of Christmas, he threw himself into that one!

MC: “He did, he did, when he got it, it took a few shows for him and then he realised what panto was about, it’s hard, it’s not just about being hard work; it’s about getting your head around why something is funny. Sometimes we’d rehearse and people are going to cringe at this but if you don’t cringe at it people won’t cringe at it as long as you get into it. I say to some of the performers who have never done panto before, you have to embrace the cheese, don’t shun it.”

It’s a bit different this year because you’ve got the rather splendid Natasha Hamilton. How difficult was it trying to write jokes around her?

MC: “It was very difficult with that Princess role, trying to avoid messing with that specifically but some parts of the audience I think the children need to go that’s our Princess and that’s our Prince – don’t mess with those stock characters, they stay pretty straight throughout the whole panto, I don’t really give Natasha jokes which take her too far away or removed from her character of prim and proper – almost Disney-like and likewise with the Aladdin character, you don’t want to deviate too much from people’s expectations really. I always think of Wishy Washy or Buttons or Muddles are totally for the kids always funny – the kids have to get it. He is taking the kids on this journey and all that and they need to look to him.

I definitely think that the Dame character needs to provide loads of humour for the adults, so I have these categories for certain characters; so Princess and Prince or whoever, I don’t mess with them, is there a good joke to be had then I’m having it or Wishy Washey’s having it.”

I’ll leave you with this one, it’s been a great honour to come across Lewis, and the guy is just made for the stage.

MC: “Lewis and I are – it must border on bullying! We have good banter off stage and it can literally be that we treat each other like the characters onstage, I mean I’m hitting him!”

It was great to see him in the Christmas pantos and the Easter ones as well; this lad is born to capture your lines! That smile wins all the time! You can see that you’re brimming with pride when he’s saying your lines.

MC: “Yeah, first and foremost it’s lovely to work with him, obviously we have to work with people who’ve never done any performing so it’s so relaxing to be on stage with someone you know that if you mess up, he’ll be there, sometimes you think, oh no, if I mess up now then I’m on my own, that’s the first thing about Lewis. Lewis is completely up for whatever so if I change it he’ll come with me.”

Thank you so much for your time; it’s a pleasure to have met you!

MC: “Oh stop it!” 

Ian D. Hall