Sunday, 27 December 2015


Steve McFadden as Fleshcreep, in Jack and the Beanstalk at The Hawth in Crawley (2015)

This afternoon I did something I haven't done for a very long time: I went to see a pantomime. 

Oh yes I did. (Had to be done, apologies.)

I genuinely can't even remember the last time I was in the audience to watch one: I've appeared in many more than I've ever sat through. However, now having a two year old daughter (and an extended family who simply love the campness and tomfoolery of it all), I decided this year to not be the archetypal grumpy old man sitting at home refusing to join in, and came along with them to a matinee performance of "Jack and the Beanstalk" at our local theatre, The Hawth in Crawley. 

The "big name" for this particular production turned out to be none other than the absolute kingpin of British celebrity pantomime culture, Eastenders' Steve McFadden. A man notorious within the industry as being one of the very highest earners, his better known pseudonym of Phil Mitchell commands astronomical pay-cheques the likes of which most of us will never ever see. 

In fact, Mr McFadden's salary for a few weeks of festive chicanery will be more than the average UK earner makes in 7-8 years of working full-time.* 

The gravity of that is just immense. I for one simply cannot get my head round the idea that one recognisable actor (who with the greatest respect, has hardly led the most varied or interesting career) should earn more in a single Christmas season than the average person does in almost a decade of their entire adult life. 

Every year. 

In addition to his main salary on Eastenders.

It's absolutely grotesque. 

Mr McFadden is by no means alone. It's one of those "accepted" industry norms that all theatre performers are well acquainted with, myself included. 

Of course that also meant I knew full well the hard-working dancers and ensemble, the puppeteers/stilt-walkers and technicians, set and costume designers, the band, the theatre staff, even the other lead roles who lacked a prerequisite name-tag, all of their salaries combined for the entire run probably wouldn't even cover half the Mitchell brother's panto wage. The kids who made up the ensemble numbers wouldn't have been paid at all. 

I cannot deny that leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth. It did as a cast member, and it did just as much today as an audience member. Perhaps it's the socialist in me. I do see it as the most gross and deplorable inequality. As so often in every aspect of our society, it's the "little people" who do all the hard graft, creating inordinate wealth for a minority whilst only receiving the barest and most disproportionate remuneration: often barely enough to get by. This rule of thumb, like countless other aspects of mainstream UK politics has been deemed "simply the way it is" by the controlling parties - no further justification is deemed necessary. 

I've played the odd panto villain myself...
Sadly my Abanazar's wage packet wasn't quite as oversized as the hat (or that of the "celebs" involved)
It's as if by making a corruption so brazen, so widespread and frequent, it somehow ceases to be such. (Or at least ceases to be viewed as something the "little people" can change.) I find myself wishing every single "faceless" performer/technician/creative working in the industry today would stand united and refuse to tolerate it; the people at the top would undoubtedly reassess the situation and share the wealth a little more evenly, were they left with no platform from which to amass their own vast fortunes. 

That is, of course, what unions are all about. And is why our current Conservative government are in the process of trying to irreparably cripple them. 

Back to showbiz though, in the 21st century age of post X-Factor arts/culture, those at the top of the industry have no need for concern. The performers' unions are powerless. The industry is no longer seen as a profession, or even a vocation subject to the same rules and regulations as everybody else. When just about everyone and their brother considers themselves an aspiring singer/actor/presenter/artist/musician, and there's consequently a queue round the block of people willing to suffer any manner of degradation in return for their "15 minutes" or a shot at stardom - fairness, ethics and working rights cease to matter. 

Like many professional performers, I'm immensely saddened how the cult of celebrity carries far greater currency than the art-forms do themselves these days. I would much rather see a spectacular and well-crafted piece of theatre performed by genuinely talented unknowns than a disjointed incoherent mess loosely held together by the periodic appearance of a one-trick pony off the telly. 

I'm apparently in the minority though, judging by the trend of UK ticket sales year after year.

Of course, many will say the inflated fees attached to celebrity pantomime roles are simply a case of supply and demand, like everything else in a "free market". After all, it's celebrity involvement and presence on the bill that guarantees a vast majority of bums on seats (applicable to a lot of musical theatre as well these days), so some might argue those celebrities are directly responsible for the fact anyone else makes an income at all. It's very comparable to theory of "trickle-down economics", eg: a warped perversion and far kinder spin on what is essentially divine right or feudalism, eg: entitlement and elevation justified by no more than birth or circumstance.

No-one's saying those at the top of any important institution shouldn't earn well, or enjoy greater wealth and luxury. There are virtues to the capitalist model that have spurred mankind to areas of great success and practicality, and created order amidst chaos. Aspiration and betterment are important aspects of functioning society. However, it's a model now totally derailed and hijacked by an acutely different mentality: namely the legal ring-fencing of outrageous and disproportionate greed. No-one's saying the elite can't have more, but they don't need SO much more. Not when our entire economies are depressed and literally crumbling around us. That goes for sportsmen and women, musicians, actors, politicians, businessmen, even royalty. 

Oh yes, the panto... it was fun in places, there were a couple of good gags, some very impressive on-stage giants/trolls, the backdrops were pretty, and the band were great. Not that we could see them. (Maybe I'm biased due to my background and favoured genre of music, but I always like to see the instrumentalists - if music is featured in a live performance, they're as integral as anyone.) 

Steve McFadden? Well, as many of his offhand gags referenced, he's apparently wasted owing to his training at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), the veritable Eton of UK drama schools. However, I found it rather an odd boast, considering the man tends to gabble his lines in a seemingly endless wave of virtually indistinguishable guttural cockney noises absent of any diction whatsoever. Or occasionally even consonants. He's personable enough, and has a voice like razor blades being dragged over glass that's highly suited for a pantomime villain, but an inspired or even vaguely impassioned performance, it was not. I definitely wouldn't go and see his King Lear.

Most of the cast were passable, but I'd be lying if I said any performance blew me away. A bit amateurish, under-rehearsed and unimaginative, if I'm being painfully frank. Distributing lightweight tennis balls in act two. telling the kids they were huge garden peas we could throw at the baddies was a nice touch - but it also opened the door to an anarchy the actors were hard pressed to act through from then on to the end. 

Sadly, it was only too obvious where most of the budget went. It wasn't the beanstalk.

* Based on the average UK earnings published in 2014 of £26,500, and Steve McFadden's reported earnings of £200,000 for the role of Abanazar in Aladdin, 2011.

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