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Veteran Panto Dame John Inman Tells David Whetstone About His Life On the Stage
Free to grace stage with his favourite panto role
THE play Stones In His Pockets – two Irish actors playing 17 characters, no sets, minimal props – has been an “enooormous success” in London, says John Inman.
We are sitting in the grand circle bar of the Theatre Royal but his eyebrows are reaching for the sky.
The great dame – Widow Twankey in this year’s panto, Aladdin – is taking a break from rehearsals upstairs. For the time being, the Irish play – what little there is of it – occupies the stage.
John says he has no ill feeling towards the Irish play but he clearly doesn’t get it. “It’s just not my kind of show business,” he says, his high tenor voice registering extreme puzzlement. “I like lots of feathers and frocks, the whole Las Vegas thing.”
Actually, there’s a funny line in Stones In His Pockets, which John Inman says he hasn’t seen. A tyrannical Hollywood film director tells two wannabe film-makers: “People don’t go to the cinema to be depressed. That’s what the theatre’s for.”
On that point, John Inman would heartily disagree. The veteran of “40-something, maybe 45” pantos is in it for the colour, the laughter, the jokes and the fun. His brand of theatre is about warmth, humour and an escape into a world where a 67-year-old man can wear make-up and a wig and get the sort of funny looks that don’t get you into trouble.
Best known, of course, as Mr “I’m free” Humphries in the Seventies golden age sitcom Are You Being Served?, it is the theatre which has occupied much more of John Inman’s working life. All those pantos, for one thing.
He has played Buttons and a handful of other masculine roles, but apart from that he’s been nothing but a dame.
“When you get too old to jump on the table, you play the dame,” he suggests, but then contradicts himself. “Actually, I was quite young when I first played the dame, but I do think you get better at it.
“I think there comes a time in your life when you think, ‘Well, yes…’ You put on weight and you start to look more like a dame than when you are a strapping young man. You look less like a drag act and more like a dame.”
But just occasionally, playing the dame can get to be, well, a bit of a drag. Playing 15 Mother Gooses on the trot threatened to turn him doolally. “I started to hear myself saying the words so I said to my agent, ‘Do you think I could have a change?’ They said, ‘Well, why don’t you play Aladdin?’ That was a huge change.
“It was all very well but then they had to find someone to play Widow Twankey.
“They asked Roy Barraclough but he said, quite reasonably, ‘Well, who’s playing Aladdin?’ When they told him it was John Inman, he said, ‘Right, well I’m not doing it then. I’m not playing dame next to someone who has done it so many times’.”
The way John tells it, Mr Barraclough did and it was a great success. But this year John’s back with his rouge and his powder puff, preparing to give us the benefit of his seasoned dame routine. Rather that than a part in a play with no props.
He recalls that his first “really proper professional panto” was at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. “It was Goldilocks & The Three Bears and the dame was a man called Peter Butterworth. I didn’t appear very much but I did have to go on and cop for the custard pie.”
His first bitter experience of the “slosh scene” clearly didn’t send him rushing for a safer and cleaner occupation. No, the theatre was his calling.
“My dad was a hairdresser and he had an advert on the fire curtain at the Hippodrome, Preston, so we used to get ‘comp’ tickets for Monday nights. I suppose that was it. That was what started it off.”
The family moved to Blackpool where the headmaster of his school, who John thinks was “a little bit stagestruck”, told him one day: “Inman, you keep saying you are going on the stage. Get down to the South Pier Pavilion and learn these words.”
So it was that a 13-year-old John Inman made his debut with the local repertory company in a play called Freda.
“It was a post-war melodrama about a prisoner-of-war who had married a German girl and brought her back home. There was a lot of animosity. It was a bit weepy for a child to be in.”
John’s actual first job after leaving school was in a little outfitters’ shop where he made tea, swept up and didn’t for a moment imagine that one day he would make his name in a similar, but bigger, establishment called Grace Brothers’.
He didn’t last long. Soon he was back on the South Pier, making tea and sweeping up, but it was a foot on the acting ladder. He has never spent too much time looking back.
Nowadays he tries to take it a little easier, prompted partly by the fact that he “died for a few minutes”. What started as a respiratory problem turned into pneumonia and then a very bad chest infection which caused his heart to stop.
“According to my friend who took me to the hospital, I went blue. I have a pair of tracksuit trousers at home which are in strips because they had to cut them off. I’ve kept them.”
He doesn’t smoke any more, watches what he eats and carries an inhaler.
“As far as exercise is concerned, I’ve just been knocking myself out in the exercise room with all these boys and girls, doing a number – so I do keep on the move. It is always said that you don’t give up the business, the business gives up you. But I’m 67 and don’t want to work every hour God gives, like I have been doing for most of my life. I have been very, very fortunate.
“I have had a lot of work but I would like to slow down, although how the heck you slow down doing two shows a day, each with 12 costume changes, I don’t know. I’ll slow down in January. To tell you the truth, I love it to death – and this is a beautiful company we’ve got.
“This is the first panto I’ve ever done north of Manchester and I’m loving it already.”
Aladdin was at Newcastle Theatre Royal.
(Used by permission The Journal, Newcastle.Used by permission The Journal, Newcastle).
(Used with permission. ©Cape Cod Times).
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