As families take their seats to watch their local pantomime this Christmas, they will be watching a show which has taken more than a year to prepare and cost thousands to make.
With livelihoods riding on their success, Chris Price was given an exclusive glimpse at the books of the production companies and theatres which depend on one of Britain’s greatest festive traditions.
Unsurprisingly, pinning down pantomime producer Emily Wood is very difficult at this time of year.
Emily Wood talks to Samantha Womack during rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Having spent the day before our interview at rehearsals for Jack in the Beanstalk at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, today the mum-of-three is at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre to see how preparations are going there.
Her company Evolution Productions, which she runs with husband and former Wheel of Fortune presenter Paul Hendy, will stage eight pantomimes across the UK, including Canterbury’s show and Snow White at Chatham’s Central Theatre.
It is a multimillion pound business and Emily is flat out driving more than 2,000 miles a week in the hectic run-up to the first performances.
She often finds herself visiting three different productions a day at this time of year as she ensures Evolution covers its costs of about £750,000 and reaches its ticket sales target of 90,000.
Paul Hendy talks panto in rehearsals stage with Samantha Womack at the Marlowe Theatre
But all the effort is worthwhile. Last year, the company turned over £2,096,000 and £2,026,000 the year before.
“The pressure’s on,” said Emily, who lives in Eastry, near Sandwich, with Paul and their children Freddie, Poppy and Jago.
“We are talking about big bucks here. It is a big business.
“Once you’ve taken off VAT and credit card commission on ticket prices, you’ve then got to cover all of our production costs and running the theatre.
“There’s an awful lot of costs that have got to come out before you can make profit. But we will definitely be making a profit this year.”
EastEnders star Samantha Womack plays the good fairy in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Marlowe Theatre
One of the many pitfalls of running a pantomime is managing one of its biggest costs: the big star’s fee.
Emily and Paul have paid £100,000 on more than one occasion for a show-stopping lead actor, which is the kind of fee commanded by the likes of David Hasselhoff or Henry Winkler, aka the Fonze.
Yet many smaller stars often think they should be in line for stellar payouts and it is Emily’s job to bring them back down to earth.
“Lots of people want too much money and you just say no,” she said matter of factly, remembering a piece of advice given by her father Kevin Wood, whose career has also been in pantomime production.
She said: “His advice was ‘don’t let the profits walk out the stage door’.
Paul Hendy and Emily Wood run Evolution Productions, which is producing pantomimes at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre and Chatham's Central Theatre
“It is very easy to agree to pay the star name an awful lot of money, but producing pantomimes is a risky business.
“There’s a good chance we will walk away with not much money but if the star takes home a fortune, you’ve missed your opportunity. That just doesn’t make good business sense.
“The basic question you ask yourself is ‘will this person earn us back that much in ticket sales?’
“I don’t know if people are always worth the large amounts that we pay them. That’s why we pick our people very carefully. It’s gut instinct really.”
In general, the theatres are the main benefactors from panto season.
It is one of the few times of the year they can really make some money. Over the last three years, the panto runs at Maidstone’s Hazlitt Arts Centre have made up 12%, 14% and 18% of its yearly turnover.
Keith Jack and Cerrie Burnell in Dick Whittington at the Hazlitt Theatre, Maidstone
When it comes to dividing up the profits, various types of deals can be put in place between pantomime companies and venues.
Most producers want a fee to run a show and often there are negotiations about whether that is paid up front or once tickets have been sold, or
possibly a split between the two.
Some production companies will simply pay to hire the venue and keep proceeds from ticket sales. Others split the ticket revenues by a certain percentage throughout the run.
The Hazlitt Theatre has an unusual agreement whereby it front loads its ticket revenues.
It will take all the revenue up to a certain threshold and once that has been met, the production company Blue Genie Entertainment gets all the revenues from then on.
Hazlitt Theatre manager Mandy Hare
After that reaches a certain point, any other revenues on this year’s production of Dick Whittington will be split on a percentage basis.
Theatre manager Mandy Hare said: “The way our deal is structured, all the risk is with the producer.
“If we didn’t sell a single ticket, we wouldn’t do any shows, so I wouldn’t spend any money on staff.
“There would be a financial hit for money spent on promotion and there would be a colossal reputational hit, but it wouldn’t take us down, whereas it could do that with the producer.”
Getting people to come to a pantomime is a huge operation involving media partnerships, public appearances and getting the right cast.
Designing impressive props are also aimed at winning repeat customers for the following year.
“A lot of people think it starts in October but we often start casting in December for the following year,” said Emily.
“We tend to take August off as actor’s agents and theatres are quiet around then but other than that it is full time.”
Tarryn Gee as Snow White at Chatham's Central Theatre, with Steve Hewlett and his Simon Cowell puppet.
Yet the difference between being successful and hugely successful is often down to luck.
Mandy Hare, theatre manager, said: “In a good year, someone comes along in January who the production company thinks is quite a good performer.
“He’s a half-decent looking fella who can sing a bit and we decide to put him in alongside a semi-name for the love interest.
“Then in June he gets a gig in EastEnders and by September he is massive and everyone adores him.
“Then your panto season is going to be great because we couldn’t have afforded him if he had already got the soap part before we had done the deal.
“If we sign him up in January and he gets an EastEnders job in June, then we are in a very good place.”
Getting bums on seats during panto season has a massive impact on what a theatre can do for the rest of the year.
It is no secret that many theatres would not survive without the “it’s behind yous” of the festive period.
The Hazlitt Theatre plays to more than 80% capacity at this time of year, which is more achievable than some Kent theatres, given its capacity of 347.
Yet to make the money, that means they often run three shows a day, rather than two at bigger venues.
Panto money made at the Marlowe, above, for example, generates income needed to stage its ballet, orchestral and dramatic shows, which do not always guarantee the same revenues.
The Hazlitt’s Mandy Hare said: “There is an expectation we will make a certain amount of money from pantomime and we need to make sure we make it.
“If a show we are running for one night doesn’t do particularly well, then we are looking at a couple of hundred quid we didn’t get.
“If panto doesn’t go very well we could be looking at losing £20,000. The stakes are much higher.”