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BWW Interview: Peter Duncan Chats JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Coming To Everyman Cinemas

The former Blue Peter presenter discusses filming a panto in his back garden

BWW Interview: Peter Duncan Chats JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Coming To Everyman Cinemas
Peter Duncan as Dame Trott

In March, theatres across the UK closed, and hundreds of pantomimes were cancelled due to the pandemic. Blue Peter legend Peter Duncan - a critically acclaimed panto dame, writer, producer and director - decided to film Jack and the Beanstalk in his back garden as an online alternative to be downloaded by families to watch together at home over Christmas.

The film will get a VIP red carpet premiere at the Everyman Cinema King's Cross on December 4, with a nationwide release the following day. We caught up with Duncan to talk about this unique project that provided work to thirty-five theatre freelancers over the summer.

How did Jack and the Beanstalk come about?

When I realised there might not be any pantomimes at Christmas during the first lockdown, I had an idea to create my own film on location in London back garden. I already owned costumes and scenery from my previous theatre productions, so then it became a matter of finding a talented cast, crew, and production team.

When did you first get the idea to bring panto online and into cinemas this Christmas?

I always thought the film would work by streaming it from our website, but I never imagined it would have a cinema release. The cinema release came about because my sister knew the wife of the Chief Executive of the wonderful Everyman cinemas. A meeting was arranged, and I showed him the footage, which he liked, and so it progressed from there.

How important is it for families to have access to a pantomime despite theatres being closed?

Some theatres are planning to put on smaller pop-up panto productions or panto alternatives, and I wish them luck. It is important primarily because of laughter.

There is nothing more joyous than watching a whole family or group of friends laugh together, sometimes at the same things, sometimes at grown-up jokes but more often for the giggles that children have when they think something is funny.

Pantomime is a deep-seated tradition in our culture built up over a couple of hundred years. We all know how to interact with the actors, but the sadness and pathos often catch us out plus a good pantomime will always captivate with a good story well told.

BWW Interview: Peter Duncan Chats JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Coming To Everyman Cinemas
Peter Duncan with
cameraman Luke Roberts

Tell us about the process of filming the panto? What was that like?

First, I had to write the screenplay, which I adapted from my previous theatre productions. I also wrote the songs, some old, some new, and this was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the process.

I collaborated online with my wise musical director, Colin Cattle, who lives in York and the award-winning director Ian Talbot, who used to run Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and is famous for his bottom! Shakespeare's that is, in A Midsummers Night Dream.

I suppose this is what the pantomime turned out to be. Once the production was cast, and crew assembled the actual filming was exciting and hilarious partly because the freelancers who jobs were suddenly curtailed during lockdown were bursting with energy - if only because they had found work in a profession, they love and were dedicated too, in their element!

And it was a family affair, wasn't it?! Everyone got involved!

Apart from my sister and my brother-in-law performing as Buttercup the silly old moo (in a cow "bubble"), my middle daughter Katie, who is a playwright played the piano in one scene, and my eldest Lucy, a singer known as "Luki" recorded the original song as the end credits roll.

Georgia, my youngest daughter, lent her editing eye to the process and Arthur, my son, was head of location catering as he is a chef. My wife Annie is the production co-ordinator, known as "The Boss". Great nieces and other family members also feature in the big song numbers as well as a glamorous array of local extras.

Jack and the Beanstalk will be available to watch online, but it'll also be shown in Everyman and Showcase cinemas across the country. You must be really excited about that.

I am a little too over-excited about that and looking forward to the Everyman premiere. I'm also pleased for all the actors who'll have a nice film credit to add to their CV.

It is also a great opportunity for my cameraman, Luke Roberts, who's a drummer and once played Ringo Starr. I'm especially happy my for co-producer Denise Silvey with whom I've collaborated on several productions.

There is still something magical about a cinema release; it's kind of romantic and a boost to all those behind the scenes, the editors, the marketing department, and all the charities we are making donations to.

It might not be panto as we traditionally know it, but does Jack and the Beanstalk still have all the classic elements of a traditional panto?

It does, especially the ability to "shout at the screen" when you feel the need! It is also interactive, and there is a song sheet so that you can sing your heart out, too.

For schools that watch online, we have produced a four-part video guide to show you how you to put on your own pantomime for classmate bubbles or family and friends as well as a live zoom call with Dame Trott for shout outs and birthdays.

For the Scouts and Guides, I'm doing a few Facebook live events and a singalong video for care homes. We have even filmed a spoof Blue Peter; it's an episode where I show you how to make good slosh/gunge. I even wear my famous green and white suit!

BWW Interview: Peter Duncan Chats JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Coming To Everyman Cinemas
Peter Duncan

What is your family's background in theatre?

My father Alan Gale began his career doing "fit-up" shows on Redcar Sands, called The Wavelets. When he met mother, they produced and performed in pantomimes and summer seasons their whole lives. It's in my DNA.

What was it like starting your acting career in Laurence Olivier's company at The National Theatre?

It was amazing, but I was too young to realise just how lucky I was. I used to watch him from the flies wailing as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I was convinced he could see me and kept ducking down.

Sir Larry once asked me if I played the spoons. I had no idea what he was on about. He used to live in Brighton and would often perambulate along the promenade to see my parents' Olde Tyme Music Hall on the West Pier. I like to think that was what inspired his character Archie Rice in playwright John Osborne's The Entertainer.

John Osborne also featured in the movie Flash Gordon banging a stick in the scene I was about to be bitten by the stump monster. I was then stabbed through the heart by a future James Bond (Timothy Dalton). Although the current James Bond won't be in cinemas this Christmas, I will be as Dame Trott. What goes around comes around.

You've starred in some really big musicals. Which roles were your favourites?

My first big stage musical was The Little Tramp playing Charlie Chaplin. On the first night, many famous people were watching, including Antony Newley. I worked with him in a film musical called Quilp in the 1970s based on Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop.

He was telling me all about Chaplin's strange life while my eldest was sobbing because she had been so immersed in the story. After all, Charlie had died. Cameron Mackintosh came to see it at a later date, and I eventually ended up playing Denry Machin in a remake of The Card. It was the first big musical he had ever produced with Jim Dale in the lead.

I received an Olivier nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Jim Dale created the title role in Barnum in America, and I got to play the part several times in the UK, once in a 2000-seat tent on Shepherd's Bush Green.

Unfortunately, that one closed early as the producers ran out of money and did a runner. I did, however, tour the UK a few years later as PJ Barnum and tightrope walking is still one of my hobbies. My third favourite is Me and My Girl playing cockney Bill Snibson - Oi! Oi!

BWW Interview: Peter Duncan Chats JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Coming To Everyman Cinemas
The cast of Jack and the Beanstalk

Where did your love of panto come from?

My love of panto came from standing in the wings and watching them as a child, my mother in fishnet tights playing the principal boy and kissing the princess to my father's funny man called Miffins.

I would join in with his song sheet every time I attended. The audience would ask, "How come this little boy knows all the words, and he's funnier than the funny man?"! It's all about the practise.

After filming Jack and the Beanstalk, my home is just like my childhood home full of costumes, wigs, props and the smell of greasepaint. That's the make-up which lingers on well after the last performance.

What is that you think makes pantomime such an important festive tradition?

It is one thing that makes us different from the rest of the world. It's more important than half the things we get riled up about. You can't export it or leave it and, despite COVID-19, it's still here in one form or another.

It is satirical and pokes fun at the pompous and inefficient at any age. It can make you laugh and sometimes cry. The baddies get crushed, and the goodies win in the end, and we forgive them.

You became a household name as a presenter on Blue Peter - how did that job come about? How big a deal was that?

It was the best job any 27-year-old could have. I was a busy actor, but I couldn't resist the adventure of becoming a Blue Peter action man. I could pick up a ukulele and pretend to be George Formby or fight a sumo wrestler in Japan.

I also got to be a trainee journalist or a part-time fundraiser helping young people to discover that doing good things for other people is what life should be about. I would also be thrilled to clean Big Ben's clock face again - with a safety harness this time! What a challenge! - and perhaps I could give the Houses of Parliament a once over too. It needs it.

What do you consider the highlights of your career over the past 5 decades?

My highlight would be the three family travelogue documentaries that were broadcast on TV in many countries. The six of us spontaneously backpacked around the world, turning up in China and India and anywhere else that would let us in.

This work led to becoming Chief Scout of the UK in 2005 a volunteer job I am most proud of. It's cool to be a Scout!

Are there any challenges ahead for you?

I have a holiday company called The Natural Adventure Company, and after 10 years of building it up, it almost stopped overnight, as did the rest of the travel industry.

I would be delighted if it could get going again so we can all prove to each other that we can explore the world without ruining it. I promise Greta.

Finally, why should people come and see Jack and the Beanstalk at their local Everyman or Showcase cinema?

Come for the spectacle of a pantomime in a new setting, and feel safe in socially distanced cinema. It's a new genre in cinema, and just perhaps the rest of the world might catch on to what makes us Brits laugh.

Jack and the Beanstalk available from 4 December online and at Everyman Cinemas with a screening at Showcase Cinemas on 11 December

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