Step forward then, John Bishop, whose ubiquity over the festive period might have caused the younger generation to believe that Father Christmas is actually a floppy-haired Scouser with suspiciously dazzling teeth.
ITV’s ‘Panto!’ marked something of a departure for Bishop as it was a comedy-drama, co-written by the man himself, that drew upon his own experiences of working in pantomime and allowed him to flex his acting chops.
Bishop played radio DJ Lewis Loud (yes, really), a character with hints of Alan Partridge, but who mostly reminded me of Brian Conley (remember him?).
Loud is a cliché, obsessed with spouting his own irritating catchphrases and with a huge capacity for self-promotion. He decides to take on the role of ‘Jack the Lad’ in a Morecambe production of Dick Whittington, primarily for the ‘banter’ but also to successfully cop off with the actress playing the lead, Z-list celebrity and local strumpet, Tamsin Taylor (Sheridan Smith).
However, Lewis’ plans are compromised when his ex-wife turns up with their teenage son, Paul. Lewis quickly realises that he has to take his fatherly duties seriously as well as negotiate the car crash that is the pantomime itself.
The majority of the characters involved in the production mistakenly believe that they are producing Shakespeare; none more so than Johnny Darby, a RADA graduate turned panto dame who once played King Lear in a Channel 5 production. He spends his time constantly name-dropping the likes of Gielgud and Olivier, despite sporting a pink fright-wig and plastic blue nipple covers.
We’re also introduced to fiercely ambitious actress/producer/pushy mother Di, veteran director Francis, Di’s talent-deficient daughter Chantelle as well as the one and only Chesney Hawkes (sorry), playing himself as an accident-prone washout desperate to prove he’s more than a one-hit wonder.
After a disastrous dress-rehearsal, the opening night doesn’t get much better with missed cues, bad acting and a fantastically inappropriate interpretation of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, complete with uncomfortable gyrating and dancers dressed in bondage gear, much to the horror of the parents and children in the audience.
Things go from bad to worse during the interval when Tamsin’s agent pops up to inform her that she has to leave the production immediately to take part in a reality show called ‘Celebrity Sleigh Ride’ – a programme which deliberately sounds ridiculous, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is actually on our screens by this time next year.
Not wishing to be parted from her new man, Tamsin cajoles the agent into booking Lewis for the show as well. So, our hero has to choose either romance and pseudo-fame or fatherhood and panto.
Of course, everything falls into place, Lewis rejects the offer and Paul saves the day in terms of the pantomime itself, stepping into the part of Dick Whittington’s cat, whilst the previous ‘cat’ takes the part of Dick that had been vacated by Tamsin. The final shot showed father and son enjoying a game of football in a field, whilst surrounded by falling snow that was so obviously blown in that it could have been a 1970s music video.
And that was it. Panto! did initially feel like a bit of self-indulgence from Bishop, but it was to his credit that he didn’t necessarily dominate the running time, allowing the other sub-plots their (albeit brief) moment to shine.
The main problem though, was that it was very predictable and one-dimensional. All of the characters were obvious stereotypes and none of the main ones were especially likeable, whilst some of the minor ones would have had more appeal if they had been allowed more screen time. Even Paul was a sulky little sod whose sudden transformation into proud offspring watching his Dad on stage seemed forced and unnatural. Ultimately, it was hard to care about what would happen to them all in the end.
The time-length didn’t help either. Whilst trying to crowbar so many characters into one 90-minute drama (well, 90 minutes with considerable advert time – this is ITV, after all), it just felt rather hurried. Therefore, any flow was lost as the conclusion of (mostly) everyone learning valuable lessons was pushed through.
Panto! did have its moments, with some neat one-liners as well as a couple of admittedly very funny scenes, most notably the aforementioned ‘Like a Virgin’ segment. Ultimately though, it was rather rushed, clumsy and uneven with the end result being instantly forgettable. A shame, but it won’t stop the John Bishop juggernaut.
He’s not just behind you – he’s everywhere.