I’ve recently started rehearsing for Beauty and The Beast, my 15th pantomime with my local group, the Ebor Players.
Panto is a bizarre tradition that has given me many fond memories, a great bunch of friends, and a number of surreal experiences that just couldn’t happen in any other setting. Here are five of the weirdest.
Doing a Ministry of Silly Walks dance to a Queen song
Fear makes you do strange things sometimes. In my first panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (1999) – I was playing a hugely unconvincing giant, who was several inches shorter than the dame, wearing a terrible fake beard and a flat cap. I had a scene with my magic harp, in which I said: “Harp! Play me some music. Something soothing.” The music in question ended up being ‘One Vision’ by Queen, as you’d expect. It was the week of the show, and we hadn’t really worked out what I would do while the music was playing. Left with a largely empty stage and a feeling of abject terror, I had to do something, so I did what any self-respecting giant would do in such a situation – a peculiar dance inspired by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
Singing as Elvis while dressed as a fairy
In my next panto, Dick Whittington, I was a vision in chiffon – a nightmarish vision, in a blonde wig, white dress and copious glitter. The good fairy had a spell put on her, and was turned into me, the Hairy Fairy. My role was largely to impart wisdom to the hero. There came a moment where I had to advise him to ‘turn again’ – the perfect time for a song. At the after-show party the year before, I’d ended up entertaining/boring the cast and crew in the pub with numerous Elvis songs, and that’s how the musical director and I came to write ‘London Town’. Loosely based on ‘The Wonder of You’, the song was a series of Elvis song puns, and I performed/murdered it in an Elvis wig and shades – still wearing my fairy dress.
Doing a workout with a dancing panda
You know how it is. You wake up after sleeping for 100 years and a panda turns up and makes you dance to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham. Towards the end of Sleeping Beauty (2006), this is exactly what happened. Brought to life by a kindly fairy (naturally), the panda was Princess Beauty’s favourite toy, and was there to lead an extremely invigorating workout when a palace full of drowsy guests, royals and servants (including me as Oddjob, the palace handyman) awoke from their century-long slumber.
Being Vanilla Ice, in beach wear
Nine years after playing the fairy in Dick Whittington, we performed a different version of the show. I played Silly Billy, and was joining the rest of the cast on a trip overseas. We were going to buy or sell spices, I think. Rapper Vanilla Ice had recently teamed up with Jedward for a new version of his hit Ice Ice Baby, and the comedy duo that year came up with the ingenious idea of doing ‘Spice Spice Baby’. But they needed someone to be Vanilla Ice, and that’s where I came in. My obvious rapper credentials were seriously compromised by my outrageously colourful Hawaiian beachwear, and adding a baseball cap just made it look sillier. But given that we were three men who couldn’t really dance or rap, doing a rap and a dance routine, my apparel was the least of my worries…
Dad dancing as Darth Vader
Our 2014 panto, a Long Time Ago, was a tribute to the science fiction greats, and so it came to pass that I was playing the villain’s psychiatrist, Dr Vader. I got to dress up in a proper Darth Vader costume, thus fulfilling a boyhood dream. But there was a catch. At the time, a popular YouTube clip featured Darth Vader busting some crazy dance moves with some Stormtroopers to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ – and yours truly was charged with recreating this in the panto. The result was an improvised dad-dancing masterclass. The mask was a blessing.
It’s ten years since I sat in a hospital room, cuddling my tiny newborn daughter, and a nurse asked me to be quiet because I was singing too loudly – probably the first time I showed ‘embarrassing dad’ potential.
Her tenth birthday, and my son’s seventh, have prompted me to ponder the ups and downs of my first decade of fatherhood.
There are moments with kids when you feel so proud you find yourself welling up. There are times you laugh so much you find yourself in tears again. There are teeth-clenching, knuckle-chewing moments when your children – or someone else’s – drive you up the wall. There are times of great elation and despair.
But, by and large, I think being a parent is often about the funny little things you find yourself doing every day – like having to protect a giant cookie in a rain storm.
Shortly before her tenth birthday, my daughter declared that she didn’t like cake, and my almost-hysterical response of “You don’t like CAKE?” couldn’t persuade her otherwise. Thankfully, somewhere in my brain a little light went on, and I remembered that Millie’s Cookies do giant, personalised cookies.
So, the Monday before her birthday, I marched into town at lunchtime, and ordered the cookie, with blue and white icing (everything used to be pink and purple…) and a suitable birthday greeting, and arranged to pick it up on Friday.
Friday came around, and I headed back into town, coat-free, sunglasses on and enjoying the sunshine. I examined the cookie, which looked very appetising, paid, and carried it off, packed in a cardboard box and a big paper carrier bag.
But there was trouble brewing. The skies were darkening above the city centre. Like a jeep fleeing a twister in a disaster movie, I tried to outrun the increasingly ominous clouds, but they were heading my way, and I was only five minutes into my twenty-minute walk back to the office when I felt the first spot of rain.
I cast a worried glance at the bag. It was gaping open at the top, and holding the handles wouldn’t do enough to stop the rain getting in and soaking the box – which could mean catastrophic cookie damage.
The rain was getting heavier. Storming ahead as quickly as I could, I was a rather tragic, desperate figure, both hands clutching the top of the bag, hell-bent on complete cookie protection.
Only halfway back, the sky burst all over me. Gritting my teeth and shielding my precious cargo, I marched tenaciously on.
By the time I’d arrived back at the office, I looked pretty pathetic – and the rain had almost stopped. Like a bald, bargain-basement Mr Darcy, I staggered inside with my shirt completely soaked through.
But the cookie box was perfectly dry. Dad mission accomplished. Later that day, a happy little girl was delighted with her surprise, and I enjoyed basking in the glow of one of those rare, special moments when I knew I’d got everything just right.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
- Five unexpected ways children change your life
- Wee dancing: why kids would rather jiggle than piddle
- The joy of dad jokes
Dads have a duty to embarrass their children, and I like to think I perform the role pretty well. But yesterday I was within a second of entering the dads’ hall of fame for excruciating embarrassment.
We’d gone out for lunch – my wife, nine-year-old daughter, six-year-old son and I – to an Italian restaurant, to celebrate my wife’s birthday.
It was all very enjoyable, and the only embarrassment I caused during the meal itself was for my wife, when she became the centre of attention for a rousing chorus of ‘happy birthday’.
My brush with notoriety came as we were leaving the restaurant. As we neared the door, I found the waiter standing in front of me, with his arms outstretched and a big, daft grin on his face.
I was struck by panic. What was happening? Did he really want to hug me? I mean, he was a nice man but I didn’t think we got on THAT well. I’ve never hugged waiters anywhere else. I wasn’t prepared for it.
He did seem very enthusiastic about it, though. I wondered if it was an Italian custom and didn’t want to cause offence by snubbing his warm gesture.
It was all a bit awkward, though. Why me? There didn’t seem to be any other hugging going on. And he was about a foot-and-a-half shorter than me, which would add an extra level of awkwardness to our impending embrace. I’d either have to stoop (ungainly) or pick him up (just weird).
Caught in a moment of indecision, I felt my arms rising into cuddle position. I was about to give him the most awkward hug ever, when I noticed he had a lollipop in each hand and was actually handing them to the kids, who were standing either side of me.
Breathing a sigh of relief, and thanking my unwitting would-be hugger, we left the restaurant, and I revealed to my unsuspecting family what had almost happened.
It would have been social awkwardness on a whole new level, and I’d have surely had to stay away from the restaurant and surrounding areas for at least five years.
A brush with infamy narrowly avoided, we drove off guffawing at my silliness.
I may have dodged the hall of fame, but I like to think my cringe-worthy near miss has at least given my children a glimpse of how humiliating their futures could be and scored me some bonus embarrassing dad points.
Once upon a time, there was a little chap called Paul who loved books.
The pudgy-faced young lad, with his tufty blonde hair, would carry a new Mr Men book in his chubby hands for a whole day before allowing someone to read it to him.
As he grew older, slightly less tubby and slightly less blonde, the lad discovered Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Michael Bond’s Paddington books, Norman Hunter’s Professor Brainstawm stories, then progressed to adventures with the Hardy Boys and Swallows and Amazons, and mysteries with Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators.
That fiction-loving young whippersnapper was, of course, me, and, since my teens or possibly even earlier, I’ve wanted to write my own books for children. My fondness for my own childhood favourites has never gone away, and these days I read them to my own children. My daughter has just peered over my shoulder to see what I’m writing, having just enjoyed a chapter of Paddington Helps Out.
I wrote my first children’s book – Splot (a story about an alien who crash-lands in a garden pond) -as an assignment for my English language A Level, and revived it for a publishing assignment as part of my degree. I still have copies of it, and for several years have planned to re-work it.
Other stories have languished somewhere either in the back of my mind, partly sketched out in a notepad somewhere or lurking on my laptop, or long forgotten in a drawer or a box, and it occurred to me last week that I’d given up too easily on my ambition. I’ve entered some competitions, got nowhere, and admitted defeat.
Although all my jobs since I left college have involved writing and publishing to some extent, they haven’t allowed me to make things up using what my teacher at infant school called my ‘vivid imagination’.
I do, however, enjoy the freedom of writing this blog. Sometimes the story is sad, sometimes funny, but it’s my story, and I’m telling it my way.
So the former pudgy-faced, tufty-haired youngster, now bald, 37 and a father of two, sat up in bed one night and thought: “I know what – I’ll dig out a story I’ve written for children, and post it on this blog so that other people can read it to their children.” And that’s exactly what he did.
This is a short story I wrote fairly recently about a monkey toddler who has an unexpected adventure on the way to the banana shop. Tell me what you think, and, more importantly, what your children think.
Scampy Monk and the Bus Full of Babbits
It was the middle of a morning in May and Scampy Monk was bouncing on his bed, bellowing for bananas.
“Bla bla!” he shouted. “Bla bla!”
“A banana?” replied Mumsy Monk. “But you’ve eaten them all! We’ll have to go to the shop.”
Scampy Monk bounced with a big boing off his bed, bumped down the stairs on his bottom and gave his mum a big hug. “Bla bla,” he said, with a cheeky grin on his little monkey face.
He grabbed his yellow bus, put on his blue shoes and stood by the door of Monkey Treehouse.
“Bla bla,” he said again.
Five minutes later, Mumsy Monk, Dadsy Monk and Scampy Monk were swinging down the tree trunk and on their way to the banana shop.
Scampy Monk went bounding down the lane, busily brumming his bus.
He stopped, as he always did, by the broken bench, where he liked to peek at the sheep through the old, wooden fence.
“Zeep!” he said, pointing happily.
“Yes, a sheep,” said Dadsy Monk.
“Two zeep!” said Scampy Monk.
“That’s right, two sheep! Good counting!” said Dadsy Monk.
“Babbits!” squealed Scampy Monk suddenly. “Two babbits! More babbits!”
“Ooh yes, lots of rabbits,” said Mumsy Monk.
“Babbits go lellow bus?” asked Scampy Monk.
“I’m sure the rabbits would love a ride in your bus,” said Mumsy Monk, “but I think they’re a bit big. Let’s go and get you a banana.”
Scampy Monk called out “Bye bye, zeep! Bye bye, babbits!” and with a friendly wave he was off, carrying his yellow bus above his head as if it could fly.
They were just down the road from the banana shop when they heard the loud but cheerful “BEEP BEEP!” of a horn behind them.
As they turned round, Scampy Monk was surprised but thrilled to see a big, yellow bus.
“Lellow bus!” he cried in delight.
“That driver,” said Dadsy Monk, “looks just like a sheep.”
“It is a sheep!” gasped Mumsy Monk. “But sheep can’t drive buses!”
“Zeep!” squeaked Scampy Monk, bouncing with excitement.
The sheepy driver was not the only strange thing about the bus. Scampy Monk noticed something funny about the passengers too.
“Babbits!” he shrieked. “Babbits on lellow bus!”
All the passengers were rabbits. Some were brown, some were grey, some were black and some were white. Some were a mixture of colours. Some were chatting to each other. Some were playing games. Some were looking out of the window. Quite a lot of them were eating carrot crisps, and one or two were having a nap.
The sheepy driver leaned out of the open window.
“Would you like to join us?” she asked.
Scampy Monk had jumped onto the bus before his mum and dad could answer, so they followed him.
“Seatbelts on!” called the driver.
Everyone quickly fastened their seatbelts. Scampy Monk was extremely excited, especially when he heard the bus engine start.
He had a huge surprise when he looked out of the window.
“Bus flying!” he cheered.
“Oh!” said Dadsy Monk. “I wasn’t expecting that!”
Scampy Monk was amazed to see clouds drifting past the window as the bus flew higher and higher, and the sheep and rabbits he had seen in the field below got smaller and smaller. An owl looked in through the window and hooted.
The rabbits on the bus chattered loudly. Scampy Monk turned round and waved at them.
“Hello babbits!” he said.
The rabbits waved back and made rabbity noises.
“Hold on tight!” bleated the bus driver. “We’re going up!”
The bus engine made a loud, grumbling, rumbling sound – more like an aeroplane, or even a rocket, than a bus.
Then WHOOSH! The bus went zooming straight up through the clouds.
“Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” squeaked Scampy Monk.
For a few moments, the monkey family and the rabbits were in clear, blue sky, looking down on a bed of snowy white clouds. Then the sky became dark.
“Time for bed?” asked Scampy Monk.
“No, sweet pea,” said Mumsy Monk. “I think we’re in space.” And they were.
As they left Earth, looking like a green and blue bouncy ball far below them, Scampy Monk spotted something ahead of them that made his eyes goggle.
It was the Moon, and it looked just like a…
“Bla bla!” whooped Scampy Monk. “Big bla bla!”
“That’s not a banana, dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “It’s the Moon. It does look like a banana though, doesn’t it?”
“Moooooooon,” said Scampy Monk. He sat up as high as he could in his seat to get a better view.
“I wasn’t expecting this either,” said Dadsy Monk.
As the bus got closer and closer to the Moon, it slowed down. Slower and slower it crept, until it had pulled up next to the Moon.
“Everybody off!” called the driver.
Scampy Monk bounced up and down on his seat, waiting to walk on the Moon.
The sheep driver gave each passenger a space helmet to wear as they got off the yellow bus. Scampy Monk felt like his little head was in a great big bubble – but it was fun.
There were some steps on the banana-shaped Moon, which everyone climbed to the top. The sheep led the way, and handed out slippery mats. It was a giant slide! Scampy Monk watched the rabbits whizzing down.
“Me! Me!” he yelled, tugging on Mumsy and Dadsy Monk’s arm.
“Let’s all go together!” said Dadsy Monk, who was nearly as excited as his son.
Scampy Monk sat at the front of the mat, holding on to Mumsy Monk’s legs. Dadsy Monk, who had the longest legs, sat at the back.
“Are you ready?” asked the sheep.
“Yes!” shouted all three monkeys at the same time.
The sheep gave them a gentle push, and they were off, speeding down the steep slope.
“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” cried Scampy Monk, loving the ride.
When they got to the bottom, the three monkeys rolled off their mat onto a big, flat rock, laughing merrily.
“Again!” said Scampy Monk, straight away. “Again!”
They went on the slide another ten times, going faster each time.
“BEEP BEEP!” The sheep was sounding the horn.
“Everybody back on the bus please!” she called, as she drove the bus round to the end of the slide. “One last ride!”
Scampy Monk, Mumsy Monk and Dadsy Monk took their slippery mat to the top of the slide for the last time and went zipping down to the bottom, flying through the open bus door. The sheep took their space helmets and the rabbits all got on board.
“Off we go!” shouted the sheep, turning the bus round and driving off into space.
“Bye bye, Moon,” said Scampy Monk, waving as the Moon got smaller and smaller.
“Ball!” he chattered, looking at the Earth.
“No dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “That’s the Earth. That’s where we live.”
Soon the sky was blue again and Scampy Monk could see the clouds, then the fields and the trees.
“I wasn’t expecting any of that,” said Dadsy Monk, as the bus landed at the bus stop.
The bus door opened and the sheep stood up.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said, smiling. “I hope you enjoyed your trip.”
The passengers unfastened their seatbelts and, one by one, walked to the front of the bus and thanked the driver.
“Bye bye, zeep,” said Scampy Monk, hopping down the bus step. “Bye bye, babbits!”
“I bet you weren’t expecting that,” said the sheep to Dadsy Monk, with a wink.
Once everyone was off the bus, the driver closed the door, and with a wave of her hoof she was off down the lane.
“Right,” said Mumsy Monk. “What shall we do now?”
“Bla bla!” chirped Scampy Monk, with a big grin.
“Good idea,” said Dadsy Monk. “I’m a bit hungry after all that sliding.”
If you’ve been missing extreme sports like ski cross, slopestyle and snowboard halfpipe since the Winter Olympics finished, here’s something you might enjoy.
These ten new sports – yet to be formally approved by the Olympic Committee but it’s surely only a matter of time – are well established on the children’s extreme sports scene, but have not hit the mainstream until now.
Could your toddler win gold? Is your baby a future Olympian? Is your five-year-old on the way to sporting greatness? Find out with this guide to ten new events that will have you on the edge of your seat.
There are medals in several categories of food splatting, awarded for distance, coverage (of people, carpet, walls and furniture) and quality of mess created (is the resultant staining beyond the capability of all good stain removers?).
A favourite among younger competitors, this event pits infants against each other in a bid to keep a judging panel awake for as many hours as possible. The judges will be looking for a combination of extended periods of awakeness and shorter bursts of sleep interruption. The first child to cause a judge to sob, scream or collapse is the winner.
An extremely popular event, which is likely to prove highly competitive. Contestants will be judged on the volume of tears and wailing, the duration and persistence of the tantrum, and on physical manoeuvres such as the face-first lunge onto a bed, chair or floor. Bonus points are awarded to the child whose tantrum is most irrational.
This fiercely fought sport sees children begging, harassing, haggling and haranguing for a range of items, starting at worthless plastic tat and working up through ‘Stuff seen in advert breaks on telly’ to something completely unattainable, like a fairy castle. Attempts to ban ‘puppy dog eyes’ have proved futile.
Another multi-disciplinary event, in which children must devise cunning ways of delaying bedtime, going to school, leaving playgrounds and finishing meals.
Inappropriate talk of poo
Children love to talk, joke and sing about poo, and it’s never more entertaining than when discussed in an inappropriate setting (a café, for example) or with the wrong people. In this event, kids score points for embarrassing their parents and upsetting guests and bystanders with loud, graphic and inventive descriptions of – and/or songs about – poo.
Doing a runner
A sport that requires daring and stamina. Competitors have to run as far away as they can when called by a parent, and can win extra points by dashing out of doors into a dangerous environment, like a busy main road.
It’s extreme, it’s perilous and it’s one of the most celebrated of children’s sports. Olympic wee dancing glory awaits the contender who can jig, wiggle and hop most frenziedly without actually wetting themselves.
The kids who make it onto the Olympic podium in this sport will be those who can most convincingly and consistently deny having heard a clear instruction.
Gangnam Style dancing
Children are now born knowing Gangnam Style, and get frequent opportunities to perfect their dance techniques at parties and school discos. The winners will be those who show greatest enthusiasm, have the reddest and sweatiest faces, and deliver the loudest cry of ‘Heeeeeey, sexy lady’.
In more than eight years of parenting, one thing has baffled me more than anything else – the wee dance.
This curious phenomenon seems to exist primarily among small boys, who seem to be in permanent denial about needing a wee.
Wee dancers perform their high-energy jig in the moments when they are most desperate for the toilet. Rather than making the logical decision to go to the toilet, they push that urge to the backs of their minds and go jumping and leaping.
The wee dance is a tell-tale sign that the child needs to get to the loo, and quickly. Parents need to recognise this as soon as possible to avoid potentially dire consequences.
Early warning signs include an inability to sit still and even greater distraction than usual. Given that small boys rarely sit still and can get distracted by anything from the TV to a breath of air or speck of dust, these can be difficult to detect. Extra grouchiness is another sign but again this is not unusual in small boys, who are prone to irrational outbursts at the best of times.
So why perform a wee dance?
I was a small boy once but even so I cannot get inside the mind of the wee dancer. I don’t know if I did the wee dance myself but it is entirely possible. What I can see, though, is that for children, going to the toilet is boring and everything else is far more exciting and crucial, no matter how full their bladders are.
The wee dance seems to be the final stage of wee denial – a way of expressing pent-up wee desperation and postponing a toilet trip for a few more seconds. Wee dancers even convince themselves they don’t need to go.
Often the only way to stop the wee dance is to take the child to the toilet yourself. Even under direct interrogation, wee dancers deny needing a wee until they cannot stand it any more.
A typical conversation with a wee dancer goes as follows:
Parent: Do you need the toilet?
Wee dancer (through clenched teeth): No.
Parent: Are you sure you don’t need a wee?
Wee dancer (frowning): Yes.
Parent: Are you totally sure?
Wee dancer: I really need a wee!
There then follows a ludicrous sprint to the loo. The dance is not over, however. My five-year-old wee dancer will dance in front of the toilet, jigging so frenetically he is unable to lift the seat or pull his pants down.
The helpless parent just has to hope that the wee itself can be unleashed accurately into the bowl with minimal impact on clothing, the floor or the walls.
Wee dancers live life on the edge. Not for them, this boring ‘I need the toilet so I will go now’ logic. No, they will face great discomfort and peril to keep dancing. And why not? After all, it’s their hapless mums and dads who have to deal with the consequences.