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Peter Duncan - Panto Online Interview

For stage and screen star Peter Duncan it's clear from our conversation just how much he enjoys pantomime and his own Panto Online series which returns for a third year after two successful offerings.

The project began in 2020 when theatres were all closed due to the pandemic. "It started when COVID struck and I made a panto of Jack and the Beanstalk in my back garden and lots of people watched it including in schools. It was partly because theatres were closed and people wanted their panto kick. It become a very creative process, it started very humbly and ended up in cinemas."

Peter Duncan in Panto Online. Photo by Gordon Render

With such success the first time, it was inevitable that a return was on the cards and the project continued in 2021. "Second year we did a slightly bigger production on location, leaving the back garden, where we did Cinderella with coach and horses and mansions and that was fun too in a different kind of way."

2022's offering is entitled Pantoland "it's slightly different, it's a mash-up of three pantomimes, Peter Pan, Aladdin, and Little Red Riding Hood" Peter explains to me. "I play Dame Dolly Doughnut who goes through with all the characters who find themselves in each other's stories."
Peter's life goes hand in hand with pantomime as his parents used to produce performances. This is clearly where his own inspiration comes from "I was always surrounded by that world. I didn't start doing it until way after my Blue Peter days and because I've made various TV programmes and documentaries I was sure we could do this on film without losing that sense of interaction. In some ways, it enhances that interaction because you can tell a story more intimately as well as having a big production"

Panto is renowned for that interactivity but without an audience live to bounce off, for Peter, it's all down to his own experience "you know what gaps to leave that's the simple answer. It's not just 'it's behind you' and 'oh, no it isn't' there are other reactions. The tradition of panto is that it catches you out, you feel sad at the sad bits and obviously, there's laughter. It's good to watch as a group or as a family because it's a theatrical ritual and tradition that you shout out the lines. To be honest, having seen it in the cinema, I found myself shouting at myself which is a bit ridiculous. It's not something that doesn't work but it was a bit of a risk, to begin with, because we weren't sure. People used to complain that they found themselves sitting alone watching it shouting at the screen and feeling like an idiot!"

Peter Duncan in Panto Online. Photo by Gordon Render

How do you go about filming a pantomime without the audience and on location? Peter told me "If you film in a theatre, lots of people put their pantos out and it's just a film of what's happening on stage. It's a different medium, you're looking at it in a flatpack way. The whole joy of going into a theatre is it is a dark room with something interesting happening on the stage. It's kind of one-dimensional in some ways. On film, it's not because you've got all sorts of angles, shots and transitions between scenes that are different. In musical theatre, say you take Les Mis from the stage and put it on film it adds a different dimension. I think the trick of doing musicals on film is you want to make it feel live so say we did an opening number we made sure the vocals were live and that you can see the actors are actually singing. There might be a bit of tweaking but essentially you're getting what you see as live"

In 2020 when the project originally came to fruition theatres were all adapting to a new world of digital streaming productions. Since then not many theatres have continued that. Making Panto Online accessible is clearly the highest priority for Peter "If you want to see it this year it's very cheap. It is £15 for the new one and the previous two which is fantastic value. It is, in the end, be that schools or families much cheaper than going to the theatre. Obviously, the world is back on and doing the thing that it does but the problem is that people are choosing one thing they can do. For people it is a tough time, they don't have the money to spend like they did or are anxious about the future. You don't have to spend a lot of money and you can enjoy it at the same time."

Making pantomime accessible when times are difficult with the current cost of living crisis and challenges we all face is clearly something that Peter is passionate about as well as the educational side. "I've always been a bit of an educationist, partly because of Blue Peter and also partly being Chief Scout, part of the idea of this is that we very much focus on the key stages, key stage one and key stage two. Each of the films has an activity pack so if you're a school once you've watched the film you can then do work around it. Lots of people do this but it's very much relevant to the story we're telling, we do science, design and technology, English and Maths. It's very much a support system to give teachers a break in that they have something they can use and refer to. It's a great way of getting young people creative from something they've watched. They have to make up their own stories, their own pantos, maybe build their own models or work out how Dame Dolly Doughnut flies through the air whilst standing on a flying carpet so there's a lot of science involved. We also focus on how do you make music? Do you start with a tune and then some words and it becomes orchestrated. All of that comes into it, I'm very much into doing the creative stuff, not everyone is going to become an actor or make films but it certainly helps when you get older to decide what you want to do with your life, the creative element is really important."

2022 sees Peter playing Dame Dolly Doughnut in Pantoland, it's clearly something he enjoyed playing. "I know it's a strange world for dressing up but I don't think of it like that because it feels perfectly natural to me. I grew up in that world of men dressing as women and women dressing as men, I don't even really think about it. I have a fantastic set of costumes and wigs and that really makes it. There are all kinds of Dames now but I'm a kind of Northern man dame with a sort of slightly expansive personality a bit like the old Les Dawson tradition. I enjoy that side of it, it makes it funnier that you're not trying to be a woman you're just dressed as a woman and being your character."

Peter Duncan in Panto Online. Photo by Gordon Render

Having enjoyed two successful runs with Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, Pantoland is something slightly different "there was something in wanting to tell stories other than absolute panto stories. Soon after the opening number, there's a story about a new character called Alexis. It's very much a story of our age and this is particularly aimed at schools, I think sometimes when very young children start to look at the world as it is. Often what is happening in the news is not explained so that it is easily comprehended. Everyone has a sense of a planet that is in trouble because of our behaviour and then there's when they watch what is going on in the world where people are fighting each other. It's sometimes never explained to kids. So this story is about a character that through his dreams starts to see the world and by chance, magical things happen. It's still a fairy tale and a pantomime but there is that element to it as well. We still do a rather innovative version of the '12 Days of Christmas' and then we have Captain Hook still having his arm and his leg bitten off by the crocodile. That's all kind of funny too. Then what we also have this year is a puppet show with two muppet characters called Blue Ears and Gnasher who decide to put on a version of Little Red Riding Hood for the local kids. It's a bit of a tale within a tale." 

With his background from his parents and from Blue Peter and The Scouts, it's clear how much Peter enjoys education and supporting others, particularly young people. It's also something that comes as a bit of a surprise to him. "I started out as an actor and spent 10 years just being an actor and then I got offered the Blue Peter job twice and I knew it was a change of direction. There was always something in me to be more outward and to use one's personality as a way to give out information. It's still entertainment, you're still showing off and doing things but there was another level to it. With the Scouts that took it to another level. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be the leader of half a million people but in some ways, it was being a face that lots of the leaders knew and again it was using the skills of communication to do positive things and encourage young people to do positive things. I'm sure that's why climate action is led by young people because it's their world they're inheriting and they're very passionate. It's lovely to be supporting what young people think and giving them a voice. I've enjoyed that side of the work."

Growing up with parents in the business was the first window into the world of theatre. In fact, his earliest theatre memories came when watching them. "Watching my parents from the wings, hearing my mum singing. I think sometimes when the nanny or babysitter didn't turn up I was parked in the wings in a cot. Hearing my parent's voices, hearing the laughter of the audience, it's vivid to me. As I got a little bit older and being on stage with my Dad doing the songsheet and being his stooge, getting the laughs and giving the right lines so he could make fun of me. I did slip out at front eventually but somehow I've stayed backstage pretty much."

Having a life and career so shaped through theatre, presenting and performing, it's clear throughout our conversation just how much it all means to him. He tells me "once you start in that world, I've just toured in a ghost play which was a two-hander and was on stage for two hours and you're storytelling. It's a bit like a muscle, you do when you've been working on it, touring for a few weeks, you do sort of miss it. You miss that intensity, that's your skill. If you were a football, and I would be very happy to be 25 and going out and on the pitch playing and playing football. What I love about football is that it's a great improvision, it's like an opening night every night. Once you know how to play football and you've learnt all the skills and tactics you go out and now you've got to be inspirational and use those skills and be at the peak of what you do. I think all performance has that element to it. Of course, it is all about practice and how much you practice to get it right."

As our chat wrapped up Peter told me why he thought anyone should checkout Panto Online. "I'd go for the curiosity. If you've not seen an online panto, you'll be pleasantly surprised about how involved you'd get. Both in the action of it and the laughter. If you're a bit cynical thinking this won't work cause it's meant to be in a theatre, I and others have proved it can. I don't want anyone to miss out this Christmas. Three pantos for £15 that you can watch as many times as you like. Kids tend to watch things, again and again, so you'll get a peace and quiet."

Panto Online is avaliable through Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk are available now and Pantoland is available from 1st December. Tickets for all three cost £15 for home viewing with price packages available for schools and groups.

Peter Duncan in Panto Online. Photo by Gordon Render.

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