What is it like to be a part of panto?

PUBLISHED: 12:13 22 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:13 22 January 2020

Mark Carter as Fleshcreep (c) Matt Pereira Photography

Mark Carter as Fleshcreep (c) Matt Pereira Photography

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Ever wondered what it was like to star in panto? BBC Surrey's Mark Carter tells Surrey Life all about his on stage debut

As you read this, Christmas no doubt now seems like a distant memory, as thoughts turn to the first signs of spring and the prospect of longer days and better weather.

However, December 2019 will stay etched on my mind for a long time to come. In fact, it's a time in my life that I'll never forget.

Appearing in a pantomime has been something I'd been toying with for the past few years. I've known a number of radio presenters who've taken to the stage and it always sounded like great fun. Then again, one of the joys of doing what I do is sitting in a studio talking to thousands of people - but never seeing them staring back at you!

Furthermore, and perhaps more crucially, I had no real experience of singing or dancing on stage. The only exceptions... Playing a dog and a turkey respectively in two radio station stage shows. (The dog had to woof enthusiastically and there had been no turkey costume available, I went on dressed as a chicken instead).

In spite of everything, what did I have to lose? I took some sage advice from my friend and long-time panto star and director Chris Jarvis, the TV presenter who lives in Guildford and embarked on my first audition.

I would be asked to sing and read a script. The script shouldn't present a problem - I read out loud for a living. The singing, however, was a different matter, so I booked a one hour tutorial with a Weybridge-based singing coach. After 60 minutes, I could vaguely belt out 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' by The Beatles, so what could possibly go wrong?

The day of my first ever panto audition arrived. The lift opened and I was greeted by several actors pacing the corridor, doing vocal warm-ups. They were running behind schedule, so one by one, actors went in and out of the casting room... And I became more and more nervous.

Eventually, I went in and was greeted by a scene reminiscent of the X-Factor. There were three judges and a man who would take my phone and connect it to their play-out system for my backing track.

After initial niceties, I was due to sing, but the chap couldn't get my phone to work. As I walked towards him, the music started to play. I was scuppered from the start. I came in late and was off-key.

When the chorus finished, the three judges just stared, their faces blank. Nerves, and technology, had got the better of me and even though the script section went well, I knew this hadn't been my day.

A week or two later, I then struck up a conversation with Nick Wyschna. I'd known Nick as the founder of the Guildford Fringe Festival and as a contributor to BBC Surrey. A lovely chap but also incredibly talented and driven, who gives 110% to every project. "We're going to put on Godalming's first ever professional pantomime", he said.

Before I knew it, I was in a second panto audition, this time with Nick, along with co-producer Charlotte Bateup and Director Jo Kirkland.

A couple of days later, I got a call from Nick to say they'd loved the audition and I'd showed more enthusiasm than many regular actors they'd seen over the years. "We'd love you to be our baddie", said Nick. I was over the moon but terrified at the same time. Suddenly, the reality of what I'd craved for so long was starting to sink in.

The next few weeks, I had to keep everything secret until the big announcement was made. That could only happen after the posters were ready to go. The photoshoot was the first time I got to dress up as "Fleshcreep", complete with full make-up. The finished product looked incredible, so much so that one of my children wasn't entirely convinced it was actually me!

Now the hard work really began. The nature of my job means I usually have a script in front of me, but this was a totally different experience. I recorded all of my lines onto my phone and would chant them over and over again on my trips to and from our radio studios.

Some of our initial rehearsals for the panto were over at the Star Inn in Guildford and this was where, on a chilly November morning, I first met my fellow actors. Once again, the enormity of what I'd signed up for hit home. They were a friendly bunch but they were all professional actors, who'd studied for years to land their roles.

The first few days were made worse by the fact that I'd fallen on some wet leaves whilst picking my son up from school. The nurse at the East Surrey told me I hadn't broken my leg but had badly sprained it. I could have kissed him when he said that as I had visions of Fleshcreep being pushed on stage in a wheelchair. All the same, for those initial rehearsal days, I was in a lot of pain.

The rehearsals were fascinating and I learnt so much. Who knew, for example, that you never say the last two lines of the panto (A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year) until you have an audience, as it's considered bad luck? At times, I also felt hopelessly out of my depth. On more than one occasion, our director would send everyone to lunch, followed by "...But could Mark stay behind".

I totally appreciated the extra investment in order to get me up to standard but felt bad that I was not on par with my fellow cast members and didn't want to let anyone down.

Before I knew it, rehearsals were drawing to a close and we were in the Borough Hall preparing for our first show in front of an audience. The dress rehearsal went badly. At one point, I almost forgot to take one of my props on stage (the magic beans), meaning I then froze on stage and couldn't remember my words!

The big day arrived. For many, Thursday 12th December was memorable as it was the day we went to the polls but this was the date of our first two shows. One of my university chums travelled from North London to see my first show and offer moral support. In fact, she was one of many family and friends who did the same during the run, along with lots of listeners to my BBC shows. It meant so much to me.

The first few shows were a bit of a slog, not least because I also presented an overnight election special... Not your best timing, Boris! That said, the twenty shows we put on sped through incredibly quickly and before I knew it, it was Christmas Eve.

We had our final two shows that day and between performances we did Secret Santa and enjoyed a glass of bubbly. Nick and Charlotte then handed out thank you cards to the cast. I read the words inside and almost cried. They'd loved my performances and I felt so proud.

The life of an actor feels strange in many ways, not least that you work so intensely with a cast and crew and then everybody goes off in different directions. I will really miss their friendship and support but I wish them all the best for the future. I'm in no doubt that they are all destined for great things. For me, I proved that I could do something new and do it well.

Would I do more on stage in future? If you'd asked me that question on the day of that fated dress rehearsal, the answer would have been a resounding no. But now, I'm not so sure. The mere fact that I could do it if I was asked to, felt like a massive personal achievement. Oh yes it was...

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