News of Christmas pantomime brings cheer to Britain’s entertainment industry

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Britain’s beleaguered entertainment industry got a small dose of Christmas cheer on Friday with news that at least one pantomime production will go ahead in London.

Most British theatres have stayed shut since a national coronavirus lockdown took effect in March, unable to afford the overheads of reopening with the drastically smaller audiences required by government rules on social distancing.

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The pantomime season -- with stage performances featuring corny catchphrases and male actors dressed in grand frocks and gaudy make-up -- generates up to 40 percent of some British theatres’ annual revenue, according to the acting union Equity.

But the London Palladium owned by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber said it would mount a production from December 12 with a cast of comedians and stage stars, after receiving a subsidy.

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Lloyd Webber, whose hit productions include “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” said Christmas needed a pantomime, and this year’s season “has never meant so much to our industry and our audiences.”

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“Opening ‘Pantoland at The Palladium’ will provide crucial support to struggling restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses across the West End, leading to thousands of vital jobs on stage, off stage and backstage,” he said.

Performers featuring in the new production include actor Nigel Havers, singer Beverley Knight and comedian Julian Clary.

Dozens of pantomime “dames” took part in a colorful protest march to parliament last month to highlight the plight of the coronavirus-ravaged arts sector.

“There is no doubt producing a show of this size and scale is a risk -- but it is a risk we have to take,” said Michael Harrison, director and producer of “Pantoland at The Palladium.”

“This is not a long-term fix, nor a solution to the tragic situation our industry is in, it simply provides a sticking plaster on a very big theatrical wound as we hopefully prepare for full openings in 2021.”

The entertainment industry reacted furiously this week to finance minister Rishi Sunak’s failure to offer more help to struggling artists and backstage staff.

The minister said all workers needed to adapt to a new climate of job losses caused by the virus, but insisted he was misquoted in reports that had called on actors and musicians to retrain.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the government was pushing ahead with “Operation Sleeping Beauty” to try to reopen more theatres by Christmas, pointing to a support fund of £1.57 billion ($2 billion) for the entertainment industry.

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