Panto!, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews
Comedian's co-written comic drama follows festive conventions flawlessly
Pantomime is one of the great festive traditions and the version of Dick Whittington envisaged by John Bishop in this one-off comedy drama checked off every single one of the clichés. Taking a writer’s credit alongside Jonathan Harvey of Gimme Gimme Gimme fame, the Liverpool comic drew on his experiences on regional stages near the beginning of his showbiz career in pulling together the script.
Bishop starred as Lewis Loud, a local radio DJ making his pantomime debut at the Grand Theatre Lancaster as part of a group of characters straight out of central casting. There was soap star Tamsin Taylor (Sheridan Smith), famous for playing "Mad Mindy the Axe Murderer", as principal boy Dick; a well-spoken Shakespearean actor reduced to the role of pantomime dame; a bad-tempered dwarf whose role as Tickles the Cat seemed like a step backwards after the previous year’s Snow White; and an accident-prone Chesney Hawkes, who was (quite literally, after falling down a manhole five minutes in) wheeled onto the stage to perform his big hit “The One and Only” at regular intervals during the show.
The show itself, and the growing tensions between the cast in the hours leading up to its opening night, were entertaining enough but what gave Panto! depth was the attempts by Lewis to rekindle a relationship with his estranged son, Paul (Daniel Bishop). Ex-wife Gina (Kaye Wragg) and her new partner had won an exotic winter holiday as part of a dubious-sounding jingle-writing competition, leaving Lewis to juggle his son, theatrical duties and his blossoming relationship with co-star Tamsin. The situation theoretically became further complicated when the DJ was offered the chance to join his new love on hotly hyped reality show Celebrity Sleigh Ride, although whether the show itself would go on was never really in any doubt. Just as in the medium which gave Panto! it its name, certain conventions must be followed in a family primetime drama - and yet, the end result seems no worse off for it.
The all-star cast contributed some fantastic performances, with cracking one-liners and some surprisingly hilarious physical comedy - albeit mostly with the hapless Hawkes, sent up throughout as its victim with good humour (as it’s tiresome to be cynical at Christmas, the presence of a new song playing out over the show’s closing credits shall be written off as purely coincidental). Sam Spiro as egomaniac producer Di (pictured above right, with Mark Benton as Francis, the show’s director) was hugely entertaining while panto dame Michael Cochrane stole the show, delivering most of the best lines and acting as conscience and cautionary tale for Lewis in a gorgeously mellifluous voice. Ami Metcalf, deliberately mis-cast as the show’s leading lady, played a similarly sweet-natured girl making the best of an awkward situation as she did the other night in Call the Midwife’s Christmas special, and her atonal perfomance of “Like a Virgin” while clothed in shiny plastic was perfectly pitched to be cringeworthy.
Bishop himself hardly seems to have to act at all - Lewis’ radio schtick consists mainly of bad jokes and comedic sound effects, while if the credits are to be believed the actor who portrays the DJ’s son bears a name suspiciously close to Bishop’s own - but by the end of the show, I was rooting for him regardless. Watching him demonstrate how he would perform improvisational stand-up to a cynical director during dress rehearsal was far funnier than the comedy itself.
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