TIM Stedman has made his name playing the silly billy in Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime for 20 years: Buttons, Muddles, Simple Simon, Idle Jack. You know, the daft lad; the dimwit; the village idiot, the baffled buffoon.
Now he is adding a new name to that portfolio of fools, Happy Harry, in Snow White, but isn’t that traditionally Muddles’s panto patch?
What’s going on, Tim? “Well, I dare say, in the present PC climate, calling me names like Silly Billy may not be politically correct, so we’ve changed the name from Muddles. For this reason, we’ve changed it to Happy Harry, and some people have now suggested using the same name every year,” he says.
“I don’t have a problem with these PC issues myself, and I do think my pantomime character is of a simple type. He has a foolish innocence about him; he’s either happy or sad, and everything is new to him each time he goes through the door. When he says something or thinks something, it’s a wonderful, fresh, beautiful thing, just like children experience things.
“Like at one of our performances, where, when I said ‘I’m exhausted’, someone shouted out, ‘Well, don’t run then’! You can’t argue with that.”
Tim made his Harrogate debut in Sleeping Beauty in 2000, having been brought to North Yorkshire by Rob Swain. “He’d been a very good director at the New Vic, where he was associate to director Peter Cheeseman, and I got a job there in Hansel And Gretel straight out of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the mid-1990s.
“I also did The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice there, playing the nervous telephone repair man Billy, and when Rob moved to Harrogate Theatre to be artistic director, he invited me there.”
In the room too was director Lennox Greaves. “I said I was really nervous, and he said he was really nervous too as he’d never done panto, so we really hit it off straightaway,” Tim recalls.
Greaves gave him a good piece of advice: “Lennox was very clear: he said, ‘the dame is there to entertain the adults; you are there to keep the children entertained’.
“I made my character a little bit vulnerable, a little bit impetuous, and very innocent, so children can laugh at that combination.”
Tim was blessed to work for his first seven years with Scottish beanpole actor Alan McMahon as the Harrogate dame. “He’s such a talented man and I learnt a lot from him. I was the baby of the bunch at the start and I knew I needed to be good, but I couldn’t help but learn from Lennox and Alan.
“Alan was very encouraging from the start, telling me that ‘if you’re the comic, have a gag whenever you come on’. That’s why I started doing the cracker jokes and the straightforward physical jokes; jokes children tell in the playground the next day and will irritate the adults!”
Tim remembers his first note from Rob Swain. “It said: ‘Make us feel safe when we watch you’. His second one was ‘Don’t let your first mistake become your second, or you will make another one’.
“If I did make a mistake that first year, Alan would turn to the audience and say, ‘well, it is his first job’!”
Twenty years later, the Harrogate Theatre pantomime revolves around Stedman’s brand of strawberry-cheeked, squeaky-voiced buffoonery, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. Ahead of the first of 76 performances of Snow White, he admitted: “Even after 20 years, I still feel nervy. You never lose that.
“I do feel a sense of pressure to make it better each year. I’m terrified of complacency. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this to you, but I’m terrified of people writing things that aren’t positive.”
Rest assured, Tim, the reviews have been typically enthusiastic, but he is quick to point out that the show’s success is not down to him. Instead, he emphasises the importance of being a team player. “Anything extraneous I keep brief, like the ad-libs, because if we focus on the story and the characters in the story, that’s far better than putting Tim Stedman out front, because it’s not about me,” he says.
“If the story’s good, that’s what matters. I put the icing on the cake and maybe the cherry.”
Snow White marks Phil Lowe’s 13th year as director and his 11th in pantomime partnership with co-writer David Bown, Harrogate Theatre’s chief executive, and they are as important to the show as Stedman.
”If we can do it in the same vein each year, like when I grew up watching Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies every Christmas, we can entertain everyone from age three to 93, and if we can do it with a bit of magic, then hey, we’ve done our job!” says Tim.
Could he ever envisage playing a different pantomime role? “It’s been mooted…though I quite like what I’m doing! And you have that ego problem with actors, thinking that because you’re good at something, you can do something else just as well!” he says.
“I’ve worked with some really good dames, Alan McMahon, now Howard Chadwick, and it’s different from what I do.”
What about moving over to the dark side as the panto baddie? “They have the most fun, but I suspect there would be uproar if I came on as the villain, though I’ve often suggested it would be fun for the villain to have an assistant coming on from a different side,” says Tim.
Surely he will return for pantomime number 21, Cinderella, come November 25? “I’ve not been asked yet, but I love doing what I do here, and it’s so lovely when people come up in the street to say hello,” he says. “Harrogate is such a lovely place to work.”
Tim Stedman plays Happy Harry in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre until January 19. Box office: 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
Did you know?
Tim Stedman has appeared in three roles in Emmerdale: Kevin Harmon in March 2014; locum veterinary surgeon Joseph Gibson in April 2016, and Jeremy, the leader of a surrogacy support group, in March 2019.