GOODIE or baddie. Which is the better to play? Let’s ask James Mackenzie, CBeebies star and now revelling in his role as Luke Backinanger in York Theatre Royal’s pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk.
“Baddie,” he says. “I’ve been a jobbing actor for 25 years, doing pantomimes where I’ve played everything from Prince Charming to Abanazar. The only roles I haven’t done are the silly billy and the dame, but I’ve always loved playing the baddie, getting the audience to boo you, and getting the kids screaming with a mixture of fear and excitement is priceless. It’s a whole lot of fun.”
It turns out that Scotsman James is keeping it in the family. “The first panto I saw was at the age of four; Babes In The Wood in Inverness. My dad [Michael Mackenzie] is an actor and he was playing the baddie, the Sheriff of Nottingham,” he recalls.
“I loved it! It was a bit strange that my dad was on stage and people were booing him, but I forgot all that as soon as I got asked to come up on the stage to meet the comic. ‘So, what does your Daddy do?’, asked the comic. ‘He works,’ I replied. It got a huge laugh. That was it, I was hooked!”
Now Dundee-born James is playing Luke Backinger, a villain with a name that nods to Oasis’s 1996 chart-topper Don’t Look Back In Anger, a name that surely no-one can take seriously? “That’s the point, right? No-one ever really takes a panto baddie too seriously, as they always have to be redeemed by the end and find their inner goodness,” says James. “For this reason, I think Luke is a 7.5 [out of ten] on the baddie scale.
“Traditionally, the baddie in this pantomime is Fleshcreep, but Luke Backinger is a more contemporary take on the baddie’s role, so there’s no Fleshcreep in the show, but Luke still has a baddie bond with the Giant.”
Was it inevitable that James would follow father Michael into the “family business”? “I think it probably was,” he says. “It felt familiar, and to be honest it was the only thing I was really ever good at. I was always adequately academic, however acting and performing was my happy place, the only thing I seemed to excel at. Well, when I say ‘excel’, I mean, I was better than adequate.”
James’s father once auditioned to play James Bond, missing out to George Lazenby for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “How cool would it have been to say ‘my dad is James Bond’?! I’d love to play him, absolute career goal. However I think that ship has definitely sailed, and a middle-aged bearded Scotsman is probably not what the Bond producers have in mind for their eponymous hero.”
Instead, James is most associated with his role as mysterious, leather-clad, immortal warlord Raven in the BAFTA award-winning CBBC show of the same name, but was he a good guy or bad guy? “Oh he was definitely a good guy,” he asserts. “He was there to guide the young warriors, to teach them the path of the good and true, to be a reassuring presence when facing the forces of evil, but he was a stern teacher.”
James once described himself as a “feathery Obi Wan-Kenobi”. “Who wouldn’t want to call themselves that?!” he says. “When Raven was recommissioned in 2017 after a seven-year break, my character was brought back as a guide to the new young Raven. He was there as a sage and a confidante to help the new immortal warrior defeat the forces of evil.”
The 15 series of Raven were screened worldwide. “I still do get recognised for Raven,” says James, who hosted the children’s game show with his catchphrase of “Let the challenge…begin”. “Raven became a bit of a cult with that Lord Of The Rings medieval fantasy vibe, garnering that cult status amongst the late-20 somethings.
“Of course, now I get recognised just as much by little ones for Molly & Mack [the CBeebies drama series that ran for five seasons from 2018 to 2022 with James ‘Mack’ Mackenzie playing James, Molly and Mack’s father].
“The thing that makes me feel really old [he is 44] is when someone says, ‘Oh, I used to watch you in Raven; I loved it. And now my kids love watching you in Molly & Mack’. That’s when my grey hair feels particularly apparent.”
James is working with York choreographer Hayley Del Harrison for the third time this year. “We did CBeebies’ Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe, then the CBeebies’ Panto, where I’m playing Alan, the singing squirrel, that really famous character from Robin Hood [showing at cinemas from December 1], and now, of course, the panto here,” he says.
Playing Luke Backinger marks several firsts for James. “This is my first Evolution Productions pantomime, my first time at the Theatre Royal and my first time in York. I’ve only ever been through York when the train stopped at the station. It’s a beautiful place and everyone told me it’s particularly magical at Christmas.”
James retains his Scottish accent for the climate-changing, weather-making villainous Luke. “Quite often it doesn’t feel as though it will be as much fun to use your own accent, as you want to take a part further, and it’s not common to take the Scottish accent south of the border,” he says. “But we felt we would have fun with Luke as a Scottish baddie in a York show.”
James Mackenzie appears in Jack And The Beanstalk at York Theatre Royal until January 7. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
James Mackenzie: the back story
BEST known for his role as Raven, the children’s game show host in the multi-BAFTA award-winning CBBC series of the same name that first ran from 2002 to 2010 and was re-commissioned from 2017. Garnered cult status over 15 series, filmed in far-flung exotic locations such as India. Aired from Canada to Australia and multiple places in between.
Worked for many theatre companies, including National Theatre of Scotland. Performed all over the UK in everything from Macbeth to Sunshine On Leith The Musical.
Regular role as Gary Trenton in BBC Scotland soap opera River City. Guest appearances in Still Game and Outlander. Introduced to a new generation from 2018 to 2022 in CBeebies series Molly & Mack, playing James.
Takes “immense pleasure” from being part of CBeebies’ Christmas shows for the past few years and performing at Shakespeare’s Globe in CBeebies’ Shakespeare shows. Among the plays was Twelfth Night, playing Duke Orsino, with Jack And The Beanstalk co-star Anna Soden as Feste.
Like most Scottish actors, he has appeared in Taggart more than once!