Christmas, so it’s said, is a time for giving. And that’s certainly the case in showbiz. Actors may spend the rest of the year willing the phone to ring and laughing derisively at final demand letters plopping through our letter box, but come December, whether it’s doing pantomime, playing Santa Claus or merely reading out Nine Lessons and Carols in our church, someone, somewhere, wants us. I should know, for during my 30 years in the business of show, I’ve tried them all.

Panto is, of course, the stock-in-trade of any jobbing actor at this time, and there are hundreds of productions up and down the country, ranging from ornate spectacles starring half the cast of Coronation Street, right down to more homespun offerings at your local leisure centre with a couple of professionals supported by children from the local dance academy.

It might look like fun up there under the lights, but in reality it’s back-breaking work, especially when you’re doing two (or three) shows a day to hundreds of screaming children. And they’re not cheap to stage. In one production of Snow White I witnessed a few years back, the producers couldn’t even afford a looking glass for the wicked stepmother, leading to her declaiming: “Mirror, mirror, down the hall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

In another production I heard about, the management could only afford three dwarfs, with the remaining four created out of hardboard mannequins on tiny wheels. The result was dialogue such as Doc announcing: “Us three will go on ahead, you four stay here and guard the camp…”

A sub-genre of this species is the Nativity musical. Nowadays they’re less fashionable than once upon a time, but in the 1970s and 80s anyone who was anyone in the business was writing their own version of how the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ might have looked and sounded had the Three Wise Men comprised David Essex, Cliff Richard and Tony Hatch.

In many ways Nativities are the ideal festive entertainment, combining jollity and drama with a genuine attempt to convey something of the real Christian message. But unlike pantomimes, they are not so easy to ad lib your way out of when (as inevitably occurs) things go wrong.

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