Reel out the sparkling costumes, dust off the dreadful gags, clear your throats to cheer the winsome heroine and handsome principal boy. Another incomparable Devonshire Park Theatre pantomime – this year, Dick Whittington – is taking shape. And hiss, boo, lurking in the wings is Todd Carty’s King Rat.
It’s a truth universally recognised that pantomime villains are, off stage, the nicest and most sociable of people. Witch Queens may shimmer with evil, and Abanazars may growl with menace. But track down a Todd Carty, as I did at the recent Eastbourne Theatres panto launch, and he is genial, very normal and a pleasure to interview.
Todd is no stranger to the Eastbourne stage. “I’ve been here in The Business Of Murder, and in Spamalot. I surprised Eastbourne’s own Tucker here last year, on that infamous last night of the panto when anarchic things happen, and I did the same two years ago to Brian Capron, who had been my teacher from Grange Hill – and now here I am two years later doing a full run!
“The theatre is lovely, a unique place. What I noticed when I did those pop-up guest appearances was how knowledgeable your panto audience is. There were quite evidently a huge proportion of regulars, and I gather very many of them actually book their seats a year ahead! For the actors, that’s brilliant because the audience engages with you and gives you so much back. I’m sure the intimacy of the theatre helps, compared with perhaps a larger, more modern arena which might feel a bit sterile. The Devonshire Park audiences won’t let you off the hook! And nor should they!”
A new role for you, Todd? “I’ve been a King Rat three times before – I played him two years ago in Fareham, one of the other venues where Chris Jordan stages panto. Abanazar, Fleshcreep, King Rat are the three best baddies, and I love to be deliciously bad.” Have you ever played a nice character? “Well, maybe when I was a bit younger! And yes, you could include Patsy in Spamalot. But in the Business of Murder I was a hard-nosed copper, and I played the bad boy in The Bill. Now I seem to slot into these panto villain roles!”
It depends how you define nasty and nice, of course. “I’ve often been the cheeky chappie, and that must spring from the Tucker character in Grange Hill.” Ah, Tucker Jenkins. In the 1980s millions of young viewers – now all rather middle-aged, of course – grew up with the twice-weekly fix of mischief and misdemeanours of Tucker, Benny, Cathy Hargreaves and company. No hint of nastiness there, though: it was simply a time when children could be mischievous without being psychoanalysed for it.
And the real Todd Carty is an absolute gent. “Actually I’m kind to my kids, I’m very polite to my elders, I don’t go home and kick the cat – but get me on stage with my Rat’s tail and twirly moustache and I do enjoy it!”
Todd, let’s briefly track back. Stage school education? “Yes, I was at the Wendy Wisby stage school in Chiswick – part-time from the age of four! It doesn’t get much younger! And my school headmaster was very good with giving me time off – I think he’d decided I knew what I wanted to do. Then at eleven I decided, with my Mum, that I’d go full-time to stage school, where time off is less of a problem because you have tutors and work around the commitments.
I got small speaking parts on Z Cars and Softly Softly, and then all of a sudden this series came along called Grange Hill. About 500 kids at audition, then steadily narrowed down. I still remember, it was a Friday night and I wanted to go home for my tea, so with about thirty kids in front of me I thought, I’ll push in here! Which of course was quite in character for a Tucker Jenkins, and apparently the director spotted me and said – there’s our Tucker!”
And the rest is television history, but with several chapters. “It’s a generational thing. People of, shall we politely say, over forty will instantly remember Tucker, and then probably The Bill. Slightly younger people will identify me with EastEnders, which was thirteen years of my life. And the best fun now is when the 12 or 13 year old comes over and you say, oh, did you see me in EastEnders then? And they’ll glance across to their red-faced mum, who has sent them over for the autograph!
“Most people in the public eye accept it and after all, we are lucky in this business if we have reached that level of recognition. It’s been work!”
The curve-ball question: what’s the part that you haven’t yet played? “Hmmm, not sure. I don’t think it would be anything too heavy. And you don’t play Lear until you’re seventy! Maybe a road movie. My Mum actually named me after Tod Stiles in the classic Route 66 series. So I’d love to do the Robert De Niro, get a big old Cadillac or Mercedes – but not the Arizona Desert, we’d go around the British Isles!” A very British road movie – and a very British panto villain. Thanks, Todd, and we’ll be booing you loudly in December. By Kevin Anderson.
Tickets are priced from £14.50, the advice from the box office is to book now as it’s already selling faster than last year’s smash hit Snow White. To book call on 01323 412000 or online eastbournetheatres.co.uk.