All of them carry more cachet than the follically-challenged Matt (who he) Slack. Hell – and sorry Matt, but it’s true – even The Krankies have a bigger profile.
And yet the real reason why Birmingham’s annual panto is the UK’s best is this: it stars Matt Slack. And Matt flippin’ Slack is the King Kong of panto, the champion of laughs and giggles, the inimitable, preeminent, first class boss of audience participation.
When it comes to oh-no-he-didn’t, oh-yes-he-did, when we all need a bit of he’s-behind-you – where – OVER THERE – Matt Slack is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Capo Di Tutti Capi. Slack is, in short, a God.
Slack’s name might not carry the same clout as Joan Collins, Nigel Havers and Gok Wan at other times of the year – hell, the guy hasn’t even got a Wiki page: someone fix that now and whack up a page – but he’s the nonpareil when it comes to panto.
Now in his seventh year at the Hippodrome, Slack will thrill almost 2,000 fans with 12 shows a week as he notches up his God-knows-how-many performance between December 21 and February 2.
Lining up with Lesley Joseph, Joe McElderry and Faye Brookes, Slack will star in the fairest panto of them all – Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. The Black Country’s very own Doreen Tipton will join him for a show guaranteed to provide laugh out loud moments.
Slack is thrilled that he’s made the show his own. Though, of course, he’s humility itself when we suggest it’s all about him. Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is. No it isn’t. Yes it blinkin’ well is.
Slack started out as a blue coat for Pontins back in 1993. Two years later he became an entertainments manager and won the Pontins award for “Entertainer of the Year”. That same year he went on to win the prestigious Stairway to the Stars one of the biggest talent shows in the country. The following year, after breaking out on to the cabaret circuit he won “Best Comedy Act” and also took the title of outright winner in the Entertainer of the Year, South West Awards.
TV work followed while he continued to plough his furrow at holiday centres, on cruise ships and in theatres around the UK.
Matt’s first panto saw him play the role of the court jester in Snow White (Pavilion Theatre, Worthing). It smashed box office records and put Matt on the path to becoming one of the country’s leading pantomime performers. He appeared in several summer season shows in Blackpool and Torquay, where he headlined for three consecutive years at the Babbacombe theatre.
Matt then made the move into musical theatre though panto kept drawing him back and for the past seven years he’s led the line at Birmingham Hippodrome.
Not that he’s content with 17,652 shows and 11,887,943 laughs this Christmas. He’s also slotted in a little consultancy work, putting together a show in Cardiff before opening in Brum. “I made my directorial debut this way in Cardiff. I literally started directing on 25th November in Cardiff, we rehearsed that over two weeks to get it up and running and then the following morning I was off to London to start rehearsals for the panto.”
The gig in Cardiff came from the makers of the Hippodrome panto, Qdos. “They asked me because of the way things have gone in Birmingham. It’s the way I should be moving forward. I’m a veteran of panto now and I would like to think I know what I’m on about. It’s nice for me to sit back and tell people what to do for a change. It also gives me a better understanding of the other side of the coin.”
Panto comes but once a year. From December to February, families rejoice to shows that they’re able to watch together. And yet for Slack, the process is ongoing. No sooner will he wrap up Snow White in Birmingham than he’ll start work on next year’s show.
“The process is relentless. It is literally all year round. We will finish the panto at the start of February after doing two shows a day for six weeks – that’s 12 shows, isn’t it. It really is hard work. We put on all of those shows in a short space of time with new material. Nothing is ever tried and by the opening night we have to put on a gleaming show. Believe me, there’s a lot of pressure.”
And then there’s the pressure to keep it up. With families forking out money that might easily be spent on gifts or turkeys, expectations are invariably high. And despite there being so many shows, performers are expected to be on top of their game day in and day out.
“It never stops. Whether you’re ill or have flu or no vocal chords or no ligaments, you carry on and get through it. Sometimes you feel like you’re doing something supernatural, then the process starts again for the next show. It’s exhausting and exhilarating and fantastic. There are ups and downs. Every emotion goes into the mix. But when you get it right it’s magical.”
When the shows come to an end, Slack sometimes feels as though he has the bends. Readjusting from hyper-adrenalinised performances to a slower pace isn’t easy.
“The only way to describe it is like you’re on a high speed train and you’re going on the bullet train around Japan and you motor along and all of a sudden it stops and you get off and you’re a bit giddy. It takes a long, long time to come down. You learn to adapt to it and try to switch off, as much as possible. I won’t lie, it’s difficult. I’m a celebrity once a year and I have all this attention and adulation but I quite like being a celebrity in Birmingham – I couldn’t cope with it all year round. When I’m not doing the show, I like going to Devon and play golf and spend time with my parents and friends. I have a nice life. In amongst that, the work goes on.”
And yet, when Slack considers his lot – the six hours of performance each day, the time in make-up, the journey to and from work, the media, the social media, the lack of sleep due to excess adrenalin and the tugging at the heart strings from so many worthy causes – he reaches an irrefutable conclusion: performing is the easy bit. The real hard yards come before the curtain goes up, in the long hot months of summer and the cooling months of autumn when he puts the show together.
“The hardest work for me is the whole process before the show. Getting into rehearsals, that’s the enjoyable part. When you see it all together and you meet the cast, that’s great. But the stuff before the show reaches the stage is awful. You start doubting it because you don’t get the laughs in rehearsals, you get paranoid and insecure. But then you get on the stage and you pray for a good audience. And of course, at Birmingham, you get great audiences. You pray that they’ll like it and when they do it’s like riding a very, very extravagant fast bike.”
Slack has played at other venues in the UK but nothing compares to the West Midlands.
“I just love it. I’ve never experienced it anything like it anywhere else in the country. And I do get emotional about things because I do appreciate that kind of warmth. I’ve always known the warmth from the comedians when I did the clubs, like Sedgley Working Men’s Club. I was a young comedian when I played there and I had no act but I stormed it. It was a lovely place to perform and learn a craft. Now, when I get to the theatre at the Hippodrome and walk through stage door and meet the guys – Brian and all the rest – straight away I feel at home. It’s ‘Hello Matt’. It’s like coming home, it’s like a family.”
He loves the audience just as much as he loves the rest of the cast and crew.
“I love the vibe. I love coming up to Brum. I look forward to it. It’s my second home. When I get recognised, there’s never any bad stuff. Nobody is ever negative. It’s not a one-man show, I couldn’t do it all on my own, I wouldn’t want to. I like working with other people.
“But when you look over the years we’ve had big names in, like John Barrowman, who’s a massive force, and that can be quite tricky sometimes. You have to find your way through so that everybody can have their moment on stage and be allowed to shine. Throughout the years it’s sort of evolved. When Jimmy Osmond wasn’t very well – and he still isn’t – it was tough. And getting to know those guys is always interesting because with someone like Jimmy, his reputation precedes him. I’m not a celebrity in the same way but those soon find out who I am and I earn their respect. Beverley Knight came in and just wanted to have a laugh and she’s a huge star. I’m a massive fan. It’s all great.
“Sometimes the celebs are in awe of me because they’ve heard about the show and I find it odd because I just do what I do. I get paid as much as possible and have a nice time, as stress-free as possible.
“Everybody has an ego, me included, and you need that to sustain the confidence and keep the performance up: if you lost that, you’d be screwed. But there’s no arrogance. If someone else is funny, put them centre stage. There’s no competition as such. We all just want a great show. Give the audience the best possible show.”
Panto is a very different discipline to comedy or acting, to dancing or singing, and Slack is the best in the business. That’s why the show has been so successful in recent years; punters keep coming back to check out the funny bald guy who does the ridiculous dance routines and lip synch stuff.
“It’s gruelling when the show’s up and running and I really do give it my all. I give more than 100%. There’s nothing left at the end of the show; I feel that’s how it should be. I never walk through a show or phone it in; I’ve seen that from some people, but not in Brum. Panto used to be naff, but it isn’t any more. It’s an art form. Not everyone can do it. There’s some brilliant stand-up comics around the country but they wouldn’t be able to do a panto. You have to understand it and get it. It’s nice that it’s being recognised now. People can go and see smaller productions or traditional shows, but the Hippodrome is a show that we take huge pride in. It’s an expensive night out but look what people are getting. You won’t see any other show like it. I want to make adults laugh. I never forget that. Adults first, kids come second. When I look out, all I see is adults. They’re the ones who buy the tickets and make it.”
Remarkably, Slack didn’t go to panto as a kid. He went once, to the Festival Theatre, in Paignton, where he’s originally from. He watched Cinderella and thinks the show may have planted a seed. Slack is a massive fatalist and believes that what’s meant to be is meant to be. “Looking back, it all led to panto and to Brum. It was like a process. It’s funny how it’s become like my destiny.”
But though he’s the best in the land when it comes to Christmas shows, he still harbours ambitions to become mainstream; to feature in a hit TV show or film.
“I’m still very, very ambitious performer and actor. At the minute, I work hard on the panto but if someone was to say to me that was it I’d be mortified. I like the drama side, the straight side, I’ve done guest leads in Casualty and Doctors and I’ve been a copper in Eastenders. I’d like more of that. I’ll always be heavily involved with panto because that’s what I’m good at. But I’d love to do radio and present a show. I’d love to be a game show host. I don’t know why I don’t do more telly? Maybe my lucky break is being a panto star.”
That is his lucky break and he’s grateful for it. As are the tens of thousands of fans who’ll see him at this year’s biggest show. Oh yes they are.