A brief history of the beginnings of the group from one of the founder Members, George Hopkins.

George Hopkins

The present Panto Group started life as Brightlingsea Junior School PTA when in around 1977 (just three years into the life of the school) a suggestion was put forward at a PTA Meeting that a Panto could be a potential fund-raiser. This was the idea of a young parent on the committee (Ron Atkinson) who must have been very naive . I don’t think any of us had any real experience of such an undertaking but innocence was bliss and we set about looking for possible scripts. At that time we discovered that the County Library did have in its possession several sets of panto scripts (Samuel French were the publishers?). A few of these were read through by the PTA Committee and eventually settled on Jack & the Beanstalk. We then found out that the Seaview Players were also putting on a pantomime of their own just before Christmas. Had we not had a “captive” audience it is possible the group may not have made it past those first few years. Auditions and then rehearsals for jack and the Beanstalk were held at school in the hall during the Autumn Term of 1977 where a full size stage area was marked out. Remember we were going to use the old stage at the Community Centre and this was long before the current configuration of this building and was often referred to as the “letterbox” stage by those who used it. One important fact  at that time was that we didn’t realise the true length of the panto as written. we didn’t think of leaving anything out so many of those early shows went on quite late. (Good value for money)

I believe that early scenery could not exceed about seven feet in height and had to be manipulated off the stage down some steps and through a single door one at the rear each side of the stage to be stored where we were getting changed. This scenery was constructed and painted at a variety of locations around the town and brought into the building (after trialling first at school) over that now infamous “set up” weekend before panto week!. The first backcloth was purchased to be used in Jack & the Beanstalk and I have vivid memories/ impressions of this as it was painted with aniline dyes for strength of colour (we understood that this was the medium used in the professional theatre!) Even then sights were set quite high. However no one had discovered that it should have been “fixed” and for several years afterwards folks were getting a yellowish tan whenever it was moved or used.

As productions progressed through the years not only did our cast increase but so also did our construction crew and “acquirers” who were able to put their hands on a considerable range of items. These ranged from materials, artefacts and fabrics of varying kinds to the concrete building that I believe still stands at the bottom of the playing field (this was primarily our scenery store that was officially storage for sports equipment)

The early days of the panto were fabulous fun, packing the Centre with excited audiences each night of production. Stage crews expanded the stage into the auditorium to create more space for ever ambitious ideas but they never were able to really resolve the shortage of space backstage where we had a narrow corridor that seemed to be only about three feet wide running around three sides of the small stage. This was storage for the scenery, props cupboard and changing room for the cast. Everyone mucked in and there was no room for shyness! Having one leg in a pair of tights as the scenery gang came through was a nightmare. This was improved eventually when we had the luxury of a caravan and garden marquee with assorted heaters outside the back door for the many children in the show. Later still there was the sheer bliss of the multipurpose room at the back. What is now the family room at the Centre was the total area of stage, scenery storage and changing accomodation.  Luxury changing accommodation at last!  

Who from that first production can forget the sheer terror of the children sitting in the front row when the giant came on stage. Patrick had combed his hair so that it stood on end (I don’t know whether gel was about then) but this made him about seven feet tall (Stage height!) and as he came to the front they all ran! Plus the first of the panto animals, Daisy the Cow. Expertise from Sailcraft made the head and some very warm material was used for the body, where did Dick Grudzinski find that?

Ali Baba brought “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble right! as the stone covering the cave entrance rolled into place(Sound effects were really basic in those days) and for me the worry of the band  (well pianist!) not arriving until the moment we were due to start the intro.

Effects were ingenious, I can remember the another amazing sight in one of those early panto’s of a space ship flying over the audience from one end of the hall to the other (Lighting tower was just that, scaffold tower with school curtains draped around it and able to conceal the space ship when it arrived. No mean feat as it must have been about two to three feet in length)) No health and safety legislation in those early days.

Also the snake that came out of a basket as the charmer piped ( a hole in the apron stage needed for that to succeed with I think Paul Dines underneath).

So many very happy memories from those early Panto days both on stage and off.

Well done to Ron for making it possible in the first place.