He’s Behind You. December 2016.

Dear Rowley,

When I heard pantomime was coming back to the London Palladium after a thirty-year hiatus, my mind wandered to the am dram Christmas shows put on by my cousin Charlotte’s dance school in Sheffield. The director would finagle as many dance numbers into the panto as possible with only the most tenuous of links to the plot: my favourite being a vigorous tap number in Aladdin danced to One Night in Bangkok.

My Auntie Lynda occasionally starred and gave pantomime comedy gold when, as the Wicked Stepmother in Snow White, she reminisced with the magic mirror about being young and beautiful while a chorus of chiffon-clad ballerinas wafted behind her to the strains of It’s That Old Devil Called Love. 

In the self-same pantomime, cousin Charlotte played the title role. My grandmother sat through two hours of the show looking in vain for Charlotte before someone told her she was the one in the black wig who had just bitten the Cox’s Pippin.

With Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary headlining the £1 million production of Cinderella at the London Palladium this year, I fully expected more arch than the Ribblehead Viaduct. From the moment Amanda Holden’s Fairy Godmother was hydraulically boosted beyond the proscenium arch looking like she’d been hosed-down with Swarovski crystal, you knew this Christmas panto was going to be unashamedly camp.

It wasn’t difficult to see where the £1 million budget had gone to. This was pantomime in glorious Technicolor swathed in enough diamante, ostrich feathers and stretch satin to upholster the O2. I expected to see ‘Gowns by Adrian’ in the programme next to Paul O’Grady’s picture as Baroness Hardup. Costume designer Hugh Durrant seemed to be competing with himself to make Julian Clary’s Dandini ever more Louis XIV-meets-Liberace.

As Dandini, Julian Clary steals the show. He gives himself the best lines while Durrant gave him the best costumes guaranteeing a warm hand on his every entrance. Some of Clary’s double entendres would make a docker blush – even I winced at the tattoo gag about wanting a Hell’s Angel on his back – but he gives a masterclass in getting away with it.

Many of the critics said this Cinderella was too blue for the children in the audience. Well, Julian Clary has built a career on innuendo and if he’s headlining a show it’s not going to be risqué free now is it. There was actually nothing in his script that you wouldn’t hear on Radio 4′s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue ‘.

Uptight adults always loathe the audience participation bit and my heart sank when ventriloquist Paul Zerdin bounced on stage with his puppet Sam asking us all to shout ‘Hello Buttons!’ whenever he appeared. But actually he was the saviour of this Cinderella as a traditional children’s pantomime. His work with adults and children in the audience was professional, well-judged and rarely lowered the tone.

Paul O’Grady is one of the fastest, most wickedly talented stand-up comedians of all time and Lily Savage is his greatest invention. His Baroness Hardup looked divine – Cruella de Vil meets Bette Davis in All About Eve – and he landed a lot of laughs particularly with Julian Clary. He isn’t going to trouble Hugh Jackman as a song-and-dance man but knows how to vamp through his big numbers. Still, I rather missed Lily.

Pantomime is always a delight when the stars are enjoying themselves and it was impossible not to smile at Nigel Havers who was having a ball: on the cusp of a corpse delivering every line. Lee Mead’s Prince Charming didn’t have enough to do though his Joseph number with Clary’s commentary – ‘he gets a walk-on in Casualty and thinks he’s Benedict Cumberbatch’ – was lovely.

I hadn’t seen Natasha J. Barnes triumphantly understudy Sheridan Smith in Fully Girl. She’s clearly a talented performer but the costume designers let her down. The transformation scene into the ball dress was muggle rather than magic and there was what Len Goodman would have called ‘an incident’ when the poor darling went wig over glass slipper and her crinoline shot over her shoulders like a barrage balloon.

But for all the spectacle, the number that got the biggest round of applause was If I Were Not in Pantomime in which Clary, Holden, Havers, Zerdin and Count Arthur Strong did a fast-paced, physical song and dance in a line at the front of the stage with props and prat falls. This act must be as old as pantomime itself but the silliness and skill is really the heart of what a Christmas show is all about.

I did agree with other critics who said the show was rather long. I can remember Ken Dodd joking with his audience that at least with his shows they will travel home in the light. Cinderella did feel a bit like that but I suppose going off script is irresistible and those ad libs are the lines that get the biggest laughs.

Still, there were a few musical numbers I think we could have done without and, in the first act, every star got his or her gratuitous entrance number while the plot was left tapping its heels and checking its watch in the wings. But it is churlish criticise performances that brought such Christmas cheer to a sell-out London Palladium audience.