FOURTEEN years had passed since Ben Fry’s one and only appearance in pantomime, but the City of York Town Crier was quick to say Oyez, Oyez, Oyez to starring in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs this winter.
The Minster FM breakfast show co-presenter is playing, you guessed it, the Town Crier at the Grand Opera House until Saturday, in the company of ’Allo, ’Allo! star Vicki Michelle’s Wicked Queen and Australian comedian Mark Little’s Lord Chamberlain of Trumpville.
“I did panto once before at the Scarborough Spa in 2005 when I was at Yorkshire Coast Radio, and I played one of the Ugly Sisters – she was called Ugly Sister Whitby – in Cinderella,” recalls Ben.
“I remember it was a Tony Peers production: he was a panto legend, who gave me plenty of good advice, so I was able to go from nothing to playing Ugly Sister in one leap! It felt like an episode of Big Brother, where every experience is heightened; every emotion is heightened.”
Ben may have the gift of the gab as a cheeky radio presenter, speaking off the cuff each morning, but performing in pantomime makes contrasting demands. “Having to follow a script and learn lines is a different experience, which is interesting to do, though once you’re into the show, the performances are flexible, and the next show can be nothing like the last one!” he says.
“Part of the fun with pantomime is that no two performances are ever the same, and while it might be a bit of a treadmill, it’s never boring.”
Ben is candid about his acting skills. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “I’m not in Snow White for my acting prowess, am I?! I’m a walking, talking PR machine on the radio, to make as many people as possible know about it.
“So, I’m being the Town Crier for the show almost as much off stage as I am on stage. I see my job as being to get bums on seats, then I hand it over to the professionals.
“I think we only agreed I should be in the show once the rest of the cast was in place, so Chris [Three Bears Productions’ director and co-producer Chris Moreno] then shoe-horned me into the show here and there. No-one is coming specially to see me, but hopefully because I’ve plugged the show.
“I don’t think anyone will be saying, ‘it was fantastic, but I’d hoped there would be more bell ringing’.”
Ben is being unduly modest. He more than holds his own in the Busy Bee, Busy Bee slapstick scene with Martin Daniels’ Muddles, and he plays not only the Town Crier but also a second uncredited role.
Ben’s “costume” is the official City of York Town Crier livery, coupled with the City of York bell. “So, anyone who’s seen me around town since May will recognise me on stage,” he says. “It’s all a bit ‘meta’: the real Town Crier being the real Town Crier ion pantomime, whereas Vicki Michelle is not playing a wartime French waitress!”
As a son of York, Ben is “very proud to represent the city” both in his presenter’s role on Minster FM and now as the Town Crier too. “The Town Crier is the embodiment of York: I like the pageantry, the history, and it adds something else to people’s experience when they come to the city,” he says.
Picking out highlights from his first year in office, Ben selects pop star Ellie Goulding and Casper Jopling’s wedding ceremony at York Minster on August 31. “Welcoming Ellie to the Minster…and meeting Katy Perry that day was obviously the greatest day of my life – and that includes my wedding day and the birth of my two children,” he says, with his tongue by now nudging his cheek.
“The Mayor-making ceremony was a good day too, and I enjoyed the ceremonies for Yorkshire Day [August 1] , reading out the declarations at four bars where you enter the city, and the Christmas Lights switch-on in front of the Minster was pretty special too.”
Maybe Ben was destined to put his voice to public use as York’s Town Crier. “When I was a child, people always said that I had to grow into my voice, as even then I had a loud, bellowing voice,” he says.
It was a voice that stood out. “! got picked to play Bob Cratchit in Scrooge when I was at Westfield Primary School in Acomb,” Ben recalls.
That voice led him all the way to becoming the matchday pitch announcer at Elland Road during Ken Bates’s turbulent chairmanship of Leeds United, when Ben also would interview “Mr Chairman” on Bates’s station, Yorkshire Radio.
“It was a difficult time for Leeds United, as there was a great deal of unrest, and I was seen by some as a frontman for Ken as I was doing a lot of interviews with him, as well as doing the matchday stuff on the pitch,” he says.
“But I’d always wanted to work in football, and you don’t know when the chance will come. Those moments under the Elland Road floodlights, like when Luciano Becchio put Leeds ahead against Chelsea, were special.
“I’ll never forget the game against Bristol Rovers when Leeds won promotion, going around the pitch with [centre forward] Jermaine Beckford after the final whistle, in a yellow high-vis jacket, and being asked by the police to tell all the fans to get off the pitch. It was possibly the most futile thing I’ve ever been asked to do in my career!”
No stranger to performing to crowds, Ben is taking his pantomime role in his stride as he sees in the New Year. What’s next? “We’ll be doing the Minster FM Search For A Local Hero in February, and the Town Crier is available for any fete or envelope opening, of course,” says Ben. “Just go to the York BID website and make a request there.”
Ben Fry plays Town Crier in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, until January 4. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york. Charles Hutchinson