'Bring on the glitter!' Former Emmerdale star Charlie Hardwick to make panto return in Sunderland

15.11.23 Charlie Hardwick Panto Credit: Barry Pells
Wallsend-born Charlie Hardwick is looking forward to her return to panto as she prepares to play Fairy Bon Bon at the Sunderland Empire. Credit: Barry Pells

Actor Charlie Hardwick is looking forward to her return to pantomime in Sunderland after a six-year break.

The former Emmerdale star, who played Val Pollard in the ITV soap for more than a decade, is preparing for her part in a production of Beauty and the Beast at the Sunderland Empire.

Following her recent role as Sue Carp in Channel 4's comedy drama, Ackley Bridge, Wallsend-born Hardwick said she could not wait to get back to her roots and tread the boards again.

"My first traditional, proper, old-fashioned pantomime was Dick Whittington at Newcastle's Theatre Royal in 2015 - the year I left Emmerdale," she told ITV Tyne Tees. "I played the Spirit of the Tyne - not the Mouth of the Tyne as my dear nieces said!

"I can't wait! It's six years since I've been in a panto. Bring on the glitter!"

The 63-year-old grew up in Wallsend so is almost back on familiar territory for the festive season.

No stranger to the North East panto circuit, she recalls performing in Christmas shows at Newcastle's Northern Stage since 1988.

  • Video Credit: Sunderland Empire

"I first appeared in the baby shows for the under-5s at the Gulbenkian Studio followed by the magical spectaculars on the main stage where I played the Snow Queen and Morgana Le Fay amongst other wicked women," she continued. "I loved it! They were spectacular productions."

Hardwick's passion for panto first began when, as a child, she was taken to watch Butterflies' actor Wendy Craig play Peter Pan alongside 60s star Jane Asher as Wendy.

"They were both huge stars and Peter Pan flew, I was absolutely blown away," she added. "I was also terrified because we were in the Gods and it was a long way down."

The popularity of panto is known to sustain many theatres throughout the year and is a tradition dating back to the 16th-century Commedia Dell'Arte.

The first British pantomime was staged in 1721 when acrobat and mime artist, John Rich, transformed the character of Harlequin into a funny and mischievous magician.

'I want all people of all ages to always feel welcome in a theatre'

Fast-forward 300 years and audiences continue to be enthralled by musical performances, slapstick and comedy.

Hardwick told ITV Tyne Tees why she thought audiences keep asking for more: "Panto is ostensibly for kids and it's anarchic and hilarious but I think it's really about class.

"People from all backgrounds feel welcome in a panto which is brilliant. In panto, the actors talk directly to the audience and encourage their participation and that makes adults feel confident and relaxed.

"It's really funny and colourful and a bit scary and thrilling, and ultimately exhilarating. I want all people of all ages to always feel welcome in a theatre, regardless of their background."

Festive panto fun: Charlie Hardwick ( right ) and fellow cast members ( L-R Olivia Birchenough; Miss. Rory; Sam Wyn-Morris and Tom Whalley ) Credit: Barry Pells

Hardwick believes there should be free and reduced priced seats for children and adults who find themselves in challenging circumstances.

"There should never be a spare seat in a panto," stressed Hardwick. "They should be filled with laughing and shouting children, young people and older people. Theatres must reach out - support and encourage their community."

Sunderland Empire works with Gentoo, Together for Children and Cultural Spring to provide families of all backgrounds the ability to enjoy the magic of panto.

There are concessions for under 16s, schools and youth groups in a bid to ensure panto is as accessible as possible.

This year, Hardwick plays the part of Fairy Bon Bon alongside a well-known North East cast, including Miss Rory as Rorina La Plonk and Tom Whalley as Louis La Plonk.

The festive family tradition is famous for folklore and fairy tales but for those working in the industry it is also very demanding.

Hardwick shared her secrets of how she prepares herself for up to 12 performances each week.

"Bootcamp, gym, wild-swimming," she joked. "But actually, yoga, walking and eating healthily but also fingers crossed."

Hardwick promises Fairy Bon Bon to be sweet, sparkly and full of love and laughter, adding: "She's also a strong northern woman who can hold her own and won't let the baddies grind us down. Go Fairy Bon Bon."

The Geordie star says there should never be a spare seat at a panto and supports inclusivity for those in challenging circumstances. Credit: Barry Pells

Not everything goes to plan in a panto and Hardwick remembers only too well her stint as a furry bee.

She said: "I once played a furry bee who had lots of little bee puppet friends that flew in on a wire. One day the wire snapped and all the little furry bees plummeted to the floor.

"The children watching were traumatised but were then relieved and comforted as I gave each bee the kiss of life and then they flew - were gently thrown - into the wings."

Looking to the future, Hardwick has high hopes and added: "I hope panto thrives and I'd like to see more women in the line-up playing baddies, goodies and inbetweenies."

As for what is next for her, she hinted at a well-earned rest as she quipped: "Now, what's the phone number for Easy Jet?"

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