Arts Culture

Allan Stewart interview: “Andy Gray and I cried together”

Brig caught up with Allan before the panto begins in Edinburgh.

Feet crunching through autumn leaves and speaking between quick breaths as he walks in London, this is entertainer and panto star Allan Stewart at work.

Just weeks before Goldilocks and the Three Bears begins its 82-show run in Edinburgh, he is getting ready to reprise a role synonymous with him – the King’s pantomime dame.

Rehearsals begin only two weeks before the opening performance, but Stewart’s preparations start on daily strolls through a quiet part of Maida Vale, his home of 32 years.

“As I do this walk, I actually learn the songs and the lines because I’m the worst at remembering lines. I always have been, even as a kid,” he says.

If line-learning is something Stewart has always struggled with, performance is not. Born in Glasgow in 1950, his path was in little doubt even at Garrowhill Primary School.

The first break came at age ten, winning a talent show at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.  There is a photo on his website of the young Stewart performing to a roomful of Glaswegian revellers. The guitar in his hands looks enormous.

From then there was no looking back. Thanks to dad turned manager Alec, he made a record at Abbey Road with George Martin. Then he turned to impressions, teenage summers spent in Blackpool clubs, before a long stint on TV in the ’70s and ’80s.

The panto career soon followed. And yet before 1975, ‘pantomime’ was scarcely in Stewart’s vocabulary, let alone his CV.

“Not only was it my first panto, I’d never even seen a panto,” he says.

“The [Glasgow] Pavilion came along and wanted me to come in as top of the bill. They said, ‘we want you to change the whole face of panto. We think it’s getting old-fashioned and staid, and we want you to give it a different feel.’”

The Glasgow Pavilion’s gamble on Stewart paid off.

“So I came in not knowing any of the traditions – I didn’t know ‘it’s behind you!’, I didn’t know the shout-outs, the silly panto jokes you did, and I came in with this completely different modern look.

“They didn’t like it at first, but it turned out to be the most successful panto they’d ever had,” he laughs.

Appearances in English panto followed – itself a distinct beast, he says. “These were, again, another learning curve because English panto at that time was different from Scottish panto and had a different feel to it.”

Like for panto itself, when he was first cast as the dame he had his own, “slightly different” take on the part, based on ‘Aunty May’ – a character he created for TV.

“In England a dame is a man in a frock. He acts like a man, walks like a man, talks like a man, whereas Aunty May was a woman, to all intents and purposes,” he explains. “So again I like to think I found a slightly different way of playing a dame.

Stewart (left), Grant Stott (middle) and Andy Gray will star in Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Edinburgh King’s. Credit: Capital Theatres

“I knew when I changed over [to playing the dame], that was me – ‘I’m in a frock for the rest of my life now.’ And that’s the way it’s been.”

The dame is a panto staple played by the greats of Scottish comedy. Stewart checks off Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy as dames he admired but believes his style is distinct.

But what of the dame’s place in contemporary culture? The dame was around when society was far less accepting of gender fluidity and cross-dressing.

Was the dame, in a sense, ahead of its time?

“Listen, I know the world is changing, it’s changing as far as comedy goes and changing in how being PC goes,” he says after a pause.

“Even I know, with my old-fashioned thoughts on those things, that I don’t even dream of going down the roads that I did in the 80s.

“But I do believe that the one thing that will go right through this whole thing – and I don’t think anyone will even try to stop it – is the dame.

“I don’t even think the purest of young, transgender people would say that we’re doing anything wrong. We are merely dressing up, as many men do at Halloween, in a ladies’ dress and go out and have a bit of fun.

“So I don’t think it’ll ever change – but who knows. Stranger things have happened.”

What is unchanged is a King’s panto partnership with Andy Gray and Grant Stott dating back to 1998. The trio take their customary place at the top of the bill for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but this year there is particular significance to Gray’s name on the poster.

In summer 2018, Gray was diagnosed with blood cancer and was forced to pull out of Beauty and the Beast at the King’s. For the panto, it meant a script rewrite and roles changed. When the news reached Stewart as he holidayed in Los Angeles, the impact went far beyond the show.

“It was a terrible three weeks,” he says. “I remember phoning Andy as I was walking down the street in Santa Monica and the two of us crying.

“His positiveness has been unbelievable. When I saw him at the hospital one time, his mouth was covered in ulcers. He couldn’t speak properly, and he was still cracking jokes.”

Gray was given the all-clear this year and returns to the King’s cast for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Stewart says everything is back to normal, the “family” as tight as ever on and off the stage, even if he has had to reign in some aspects.

“I just can’t do 12 shows a week and go out and drink as well, so I’ve become a bit of a party pooper,” the 69-year-old admits, laughing.

Stewart both wrote and illustrated his new book, Dear Aunty May. Credit: Wee Book Company

I’ve found the only way to get through such a gruelling schedule is to go home at least five nights a week. In the past, when we were sleeping was the only time we weren’t together.”

He might not be playing hard, but he is working harder than ever and the irons in his fire go beyond the theatre. He has written and illustrated an Aunty May book set to come out for Christmas.

“That was a whole string to my bow that I didn’t know I had,” he says. “So I’m looking forward to that as something completely different from anything I’ve done before.”

But even with new ventures ahead, he says there are “definitely” no plans to stop performing any time soon. He touches upon “a big show” in the works for next year, adding: “I can’t say anything yet, because it’s still in the early stages.”

For now though, panto takes centre-stage in Stewart’s life for the 22nd year running. He brushes off my apology for postponing his line-learning.

“You’ve got no problem there,” he chuckles. “I love talking about myself.”

Goldilocks and the Three Bears runs at the Edinburgh King’s Theatre from November 30 to January 19

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