Why Tim Stedman is as happy as Harry to be Harrogate panto’s daft lad for 20 years

Tim Stedman as Happy Harry in Snow White at Harrogate Theatre

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.

” I made my character a little bit vulnerable, a little bit impetuous, and very innocent, so children can laugh at that combination ,” says Harrogate Theatre pantomime buffoon Tim Stedman

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.”

Tim Stedman’s Happy Harry, left, with Howard Chadwick’s No Nonsense Nora the Nanny, Zelina Rebeiro’s Snow White, Pamela Dwyer’s Fairy Ruby Rainbow, Colin Kiyani’s Prince Lee, front, and Polly Smith’s Wicked Queen Ethel Burger in Harrogate Theatre’s Snow White

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.

Charles Hutchinson

Fry’s delight at taking his Town Crier role into pantoland for Snow White

Ben Fry’s Town Crier and Mark Little’s Lord Chamberlain of Trumpville in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. . Picture: David Harrison

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’.”

Vicki Michelle as the Wicked Queen in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Picture: David Harrison

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

Why Steve Wickenden will be “getting Nurse Brexit done” from Thursday as Snow White’s dame

The “softer side” of Steve Wickenden’s dame, Nurse Brexit, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture: David Harrison.

STEVE Wickenden suddenly had to divide himself into two in last winter’s Cinderella And The Golden Slipper.

This time he is playing a dame with a most divisive name, Nurse Brexit, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as the cheeky southerner returns north for his fourth successive Grand Opera House pantomime in York.

“I’m always one for a challenge. I love a challenge, and that’s what happened last year when we lost Ken [fellow Ugly Sister Ken Morley] from the show when he was taken ill at the first Friday matinee,” recalls Steve.

“I love Ken, he’s a dear friend, and it was sad he couldn’t continue, but then there had to be that element of ‘Come on, let’s make something of this’.

“By Saturday morning we were re-blocking the show on stage after I re-worked the songs on the Friday, with me now doing both Ugly Sisters’ lines.”

Ken Morley: Steve Wickenden’s fellow Ugly Sister in Cinderella And The Golden Slipper last year before illness struck the former Coronation Street soap star. Picture: David Harrison

Steve Wickenden’s rival sibling double act as Ugly Sisters Calpol and Covonia pretty much stole the show, but he says: “When you’re working with people you trust and that trust you, like Martin Daniels and John Collins, they’ll have your back. It was the younger ones in the cast who were more nervous at first, but the thing about panto is you just have to get on with it, as the rehearsal process is so quick you just have to crack on.”

Was Steve paid double for his impromptu one-man double act? “I’m still waiting. Funny that!” he says.

Certainly, audiences more than had their money’s worth from Wickenden’s extra-quick wit. “That was the thing. The audiences were really sympathetic and just went with it, once it had been explained why there was only me when they were expecting two Ugly Sisters. Our audiences here are very understanding and supportive and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Last winter’s show turned into a learning curve for Steve. “The main thing I learnt is that normally, playing the dame, if I have a spot, a gag, a routine, I can do whatever I want. It just affects me, but what happened last time made me think about partnerships, and they’re about the other person and that relationship,” he says.

“It’s taught me to be more mindful of other people I’m working with in the rehearsal room, where it’s all so quick you tend to only think of yourself.”

Steve Wickenden’s Nurse Brexit with fellow Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs cast members Louise Henry, Jonny Muir, Vicki Michelle, Martin Daniels and Mark Little on the Grand Opera House stage. Picture: David Harrison

Playing Ugly Sister was harsh and mean spirited by comparison with his latest dame, Nurse Brexit. “I’m looking forward to being someone softer this time, after the nasty wicked Ugly Sisters. She’s more gentle, and I’ve been working with Martin, who’s playing Muddles this year, to maximise our comic relationship, to create comedy vignettes for us.”

There ain’t nothing like the dame in panto, reckons Steve. “This is THE part to play. When I first came into panto, I always wanted to play dame. I’d done bits and pieces of comic roles and straight roles, but I always felt most comfortable doing this role,” he says.

“I started quite young at 27; they took a punt with me at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, when I played Hyacinth Horseradish in Rapunzel. It’s not a panto that’s done very often, but what was great was that it was a very Mother Goose-type role in a very dame-driven show, so it really gave me the full first experience.

“I remember they said I was ‘very good but far too pretty’ as this beautiful young thing as I didn’t do make-up like I do it now.”

Steve had been the youngest auditionee in the room, but he took everything in his stride. “My agent had fixed it up for me because I’d kept saying ‘I really want to play dame’ when people had said, ‘you’re really good but come back in two years’.

“The main thing I took from that was ‘be ugly’, and I can’t believe how lucky I was to be given that first chance, but the even luckier thing was then to come here, to the Grand Opera House, and develop my character and ‘find’ my dame,” he says.

“I remember they said I was ‘very good but far too pretty’ as this beautiful young thing as I didn’t do make-up like I do it now,” says Steve Wickenden, recalling his first pantomime dame at the age of 27.

“I really play on my ‘inner southerner’, taken from my grandmother and great grandmother, and that southern turn of phrase works really well in a northern theatre, where it’s a bit alien, and the dame is a bit alien anyway, and doing it in a northern theatre makes it stranger still!”

He can’t wait for opening show on Thursday (December 12) when he starts to “get Nurse Brexit done”, right on cue on General Election night. “One of the things I said about my first year here was the warmth coming off the audience towards me, which, to an extent, I’ve not been able to have since then because of the characters I’ve played: Mirabelle in Beauty And The Beast and the Ugly Sisters,” says Steve.

“I’m looking forward to having that warmth again, rather than last year’s boos, but it’s always exciting because it’s dame again but in a new setting. I just love coming back here and I think it’s become my second home now.”

In the year since he was last in York, Steve has been busy directing a children’s theatre show, the musical Annie, doing plenty of teaching, and performing with his Fifties’ rock’n’roll band The Bandits, even headlining The Vintage Rock’n’Roll Festival in the South West, “just beyond Stonehenge”.

“I’d love to do a rock’n’roll number in the panto. Why not? Maybe Tutti Frutti!” he says. “I always say that one of the wonderful things about here is that there’s absolutely no expectation that the dame will sing well. You can screech!”

Steve Wickenden plays Nurse Brexit in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, December 12 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york

Charles Hutchinson

Louise is just right for Snow White in first professional role

Royal appointment: Louise Henry as Princess Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. Picture by David Harrison.

LOUISE Henry will swap flat whites for Snow White next week after being picked to lead the Grand Opera House pantomime cast in York.

Louise, 22, from Knaresborough, works at the Hoxton North café bar in Royal Parade, Harrogate, but will join rehearsals for Three Bears Productions’ Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs from Monday (December 2) for the December 13 to January 4 2020 run.

After playing Liesl von Trapp in York Stage Musicals’ The Sound Of Music at the Cumberland Street theatre, now she will star as Princess Snow White alongside Mark Little’s villainous Lord Chamberlain, regular dame Steve Wickenden’s Nurse Brexit, ’Allo, ’Allo! star Vicki Michelle’s Wicked Queen and Martin Daniels’ Muddles.

From producer Chris Moreno’s search for a local principal girl in Three Bears’ fourth Opera House panto, Louise was among 30 invited from the many applicants for a day’s auditions in May.

After queueing in the rain in the line of Snow White hopefuls that formed along the stage door wall, she won through to the shortlist of 12 for the afternoon’ s second session and was then picked for panto principal girl after a nervous wait.

Meet the Grand Opera House pantomime cast: Mark Little, left, Steve Wickenden, Martin Daniels, Louise Henry, Jonny Muir, and Vicki Michelle. Picture by David Harrison.

“The auditions were on the Wednesday, and they rang me just as I was setting off to work on the Friday afternoon,” Louise recalls. “I’d been refreshing my emails, hoping for news, and it was such a euphoric moment when the phone call came.      

“I’m so thankful to have been chosen. I’ve been beaming whenever I’m reminded that I’m signing my first professional contract. I’m really looking forward to getting into the theatre and putting the show together. Performing is all I have ever wanted to do and I feel so lucky that my Christmas this year will be doing just that.”

Although Louise has not studied at drama school since leaving school, “I’ve had acting and singing lessons for as long as I can remember and I’ve done lots of theatre work, like school plays when I was at King James’s in Knaresborough,” she says.

“From the age of nine to 17, I went to the ACTAcademy in Harrogate, run by Kelly Creates, when we took part in the Harrogate Festival of Speech and Drama and did The Big T talent show at Harrogate Theatre, and I’ve had singing tuition with Jacqueline Bell in Wetherby too.”

Louise impressed in Nik Briggs’s April production of The Sound Of Music, playing the eldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl. “I was 21 playing 16, and the next in age to me was 12, playing 15!” she says. “It’s such a nice show to do because it’s so honest, and it was sad when it came to an end as we all made such good friends.

Welcome to York: Louise Henry, from Knaresborough, is pictured by Clifford’s Tower after landing the role of Snow White in the Grand Opera House pantomime. Picture: David Harrison

“It was lovely to be able to become familiar with the Grand Opera House stage too before doing the panto.”

Since The Sound Of Music, Louise has appeared in two more York shows, the first being another Nik Briggs production, Joseph McNeice and Matthew Spalding’s new musical comedy, Twilight Robbery, at 41 Monkgate in May.

“I played Jane, the daughter, who’s 40 years old, so I went from one extreme, 16-year-old Liesl, to another…and now I’ll be playing Snow White!”

The nearest she has come to playing her own age was her most recent role, a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s debut production, Andrew Bovell’s apocalyptic family drama When The Rain Stops Falling, at 41 Monkgate in November.

Louise Henry, right, playing Gabrielle York in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling earlier this month. Picture: Michael J Oakes

Now her focus turns to her professional bow, billed as “York’s very own Louise Henry” in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

“I’ve done one panto before, Aladdin, an amateur one for the Pannal Players when I was maybe 14,” says Louise,

Looking forward to starting rehearsals on Monday, she says: “This opportunity is what I’ve been waiting for, and I’ve just got to have faith in my abilities.

“Snow White is on stage for most of the time, so I’ll always need to react in the moment, and that’s something that will add to my repertoire of skills, which I’m always working on.”

Imagine how Louise feels as the first night approaches, knowing she is taking on the title role in a star-laden show. “I know! It’s my show! How crazy is that!” she says. “When I rang my sister to tell her I’d got the part, she didn’t believe it…and when I rang my mum, I had to say, ‘no, I’m not kidding’. That was a really fantastic day!”

Louise Henry stars in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, December 13 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.

Charles Hutchinson