Pantomime dames lead march to show support for threatened theatre industry

Video report by ITV News Arts Editor Nina Nannar

Pantomime dames descended on London to raise awareness of the plight of the theatre sector during the coronavirus pandemic.

Performers and members of the creative industry joined the walk to Parliament Square on Wednesday to highlight the issues caused by the closing of theatres.

Six pantomime dames who were in costume led the march.

The Bectu and Equity unions planned the demonstration, along with Excluded UK, a campaign group calling for Government help for workers who currently fall outside of the state aid system.

A panto performer outside a theatre. Credit: PA

Gary Bridgens, who performs as a pantomime dame and works under the stage name Gacko, said more needs to be done to help support the industry.

“If the Government don’t support theatre in its hour of need, there won’t be any – or worse, it will all need rebuilding after this disaster,” he told the PA news agency.

Mr Bridgens, who said he normally performs in a pantomime at Christmas, said the shows are “hugely important” for venues.

“Most theatres make most of their money, regional theatres anyway, make most of their money from pantomime, so not only is it a big payday for them over the festive period, it also helps to keep them afloat through the rest of the year.

“Pantomime is the first time that the entire family will generally go to watch a piece of theatre and if a pantomime is good and children are engaged, they might go to theatre for the rest of their lives.”

Panto is in trouble. Credit: PA

He added the impact from the cancellation of pantomimes this year “will ripple through the entire theatre industry for a generation”.

While socially distanced indoor performances have been able to take place since last month, many venues have not yet reopened.

In July, Jon Morgan, the director of the advisory public body Theatres Trust, warned that the majority of theatres will not be able to open with social distancing measures in place because it is not financially viable.

Actor Paul Valentine, 32, from south London, described the situation actors are facing as “bleak”.

He added: “At the moment, really the industry is on its knees.

“It is very difficult to get auditions at the best of times but at the moment, obviously there’s no stage work available.

“Then of course you have to think about what we sometimes call the ecosystem of the industry as a whole.

“Often when we are out of work from acting, we will go and work front of house at the theatre or we will work in hospitality or something like that to pay the rent or put the food on the table.

“Obviously all those jobs have gone as well.”

The panto dames are calling for Government support. Credit: PA

Equity general secretary Paul Fleming said 40% of his union’s members have not received coronavirus-related support from the Government and the industry is “genuinely on the point of collapse”.

“There’s only one pantomime villain performing this year and that’s Rishi Sunak,” he said.

Last month it was announced that four of the biggest pantomimes in London will not go ahead this year because of the uncertainty over whether indoor performances can resume without social distancing.

Hackney Empire, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Theatre Royal Stratford East have all announced they will not be producing their annual pantomimes this year and will postpone until 2021.

A £1.57 billion support package for the arts has previously been announced by the Culture Secretary.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport have been contacted for comment.