Christopher Biggins is, without doubt, a legend.
He represents a wonderfully rich, over-the-top theatricality, a direct descendent of Victorian music hall and an unusually generous brand of showbusiness. A kind of ongoing pantomime that knows how ridiculous it is, unlike the modern consumerist panto with its sports personalities and stars from Eastenders. Biggins comes from a far more honest tradition; a world away from mainstream celebrity culture (for more than one reason), you may not actually want to see him in anything but you get the idea that if you met him in a lift he’d greet you like an old friend and help you carry your shopping. Such is the unique spirit of generosity embodied by Biggins, I feel sure that he genuinely enjoys the panto tradition and everything it entails – it is not just a job, for him it is a lifestyle, and one that he embraces in its entirety.
This is never more evident than in the Cambridge Arts Theatre Carol Service. Every year, just before the Arts Theatre panto opens, its cast joins forces with a hastily assembled and under-rehearsed choir for a service of carols and readings. By all accounts this tradition was started by a panto dame many decades ago, and was recently resurrected by Biggins and friends. The event (broadcast on radio Cambridgeshire on Christmas Eve at 6pm, for people with a complete lack of discernment) is in many ways an awful assault on all the senses, but it seems to me to have a traditional Britishness about it that we are in danger of losing as society turns towards a new, clinical kind of awfulness, completely lacking in character (compare recent bland Christmas singles to the sheer outrageousness of Cliff Richard’s seminal Mistletoe and Wine).
I don’t know anything about this year’s production of Aladdin, but I do know that it’ll be hard pushed to reach the levels of ludicrous hilarity achieved in St Edward’s Church last night. I was in the hastily assembled choir, which was performing some of the worst Christmas music ever written (John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol for instance, and an unbelievably incompetent arrangement of Joys Seven, the work of Stephen Cleobury who clearly has even less idea of how to write choral music than he does of how to conduct it.) This music had been cleverly chosen to rival the campness of the panto cast, and the choir was encouraged to throw itself into the spirit of thing with as little taste as possible. This was a challenge that I eagerly met, aided by a brief stop in a public house just prior to the service.
Choir and congregation assembled, candles were lit; only then did the great man himself enter the church, resplendent in his red-faced, beaming glory, a huge red scarf around his neck and an irrepressible stage presence surrounding him like a cloak. He greeted the choir like old friends. He performed a sound check, explaining to everyone that he wasn’t going to do any of his reading because he didn’t want to spoil it for us. And there we sat, a slightly inebriated choir facing a front pew full of old queens, both giggling and whispering and openly pulling silly faces at each other.
Choirs are of course notoriously badly behaved. So are actors. We laughed at their readings, they practised their readings out loud during our carols. Highlights included Aladdin singing a horrendously kitsch song from the show; trying to beef up Good King Wenceslas by singing “like a cross between Bryn Terfel and Alan Rickman” (heat was in the very SODDDDDD); the evil Abanazer reading Dylan Thomas; a tenor singing “seven” when we got to the sixth joy of Mary (oh, how we laughed!); a different tenor singing “the sixth good joy that Mary had, it was the joy of sex”; a Vicar dressed as an Easter Egg.
But the most splendid performance of all was reserved for Christopher Biggins and his reading of The Night Before Christmas. My father used to read this to my brother and me each Christmas Eve, but the excitement of those nostalgic winter evenings was far superseded by the thrill of hearing the great Biggins deliver those immortal words. He even did a different voice for Saint Nicholas, making him sound like a randy cockney market stall holder from a Carry On film. “ ’appy Chrrrristmas to orl, an’ to orl a good-naaaht!” A good night indeed.
Today I am back in the Blairite quango and the events of yesterday evening seem like a distant, magical dream. Like the Darlings, I have returned from Neverland and adulthood awaits. And having just come across a company called “Incentivate” I’m somehow losing the will to live.