BARELY an hour into Treasure Island at the Pavilion a fire alarm brings the show abruptly to a halt and we’ve all taken to the street. The audience gathers outside, wondering how long to permit this delay. The pantomime cast – still in their costumes – head for the lane across the road.  

Shellsuit Bob (River City) and Grado (everywhere) are clad in the Rubenesque blue and white livery that comes with being pirates Pilchard and Pucklebum. A boisterous caravan of young women is making picking its uncertain way towards Sauchiehall Street’s 24-hour, open-air cabaret. They barely glance at the cast sheltering from the rain. Within a few hours they’ll be dealing with a much more grotesque assortment of stripey chancers.  

A River City fan sees Shellsuit Bob. A familiar interaction ensues full of ‘hehs’ and ‘haws’. The boys are well up for it.  

“Haw, Bob; love the outfit.” 

“Och, it’s yourself. How’s it gaun, my man?” 

“Am still watching you in that River City.” 

“Thank you. All the best, big man.”  The fan, pleased as punch, turns to Grado. “You look after yourself, Grado. Lookin’ good by the way.” There’s a big thumbs-up and an extravagant wink.  

The panto hasn’t really stopped at all: it’s just gone al fresco with a fresh supporting cast.  I’m feeling slightly nervous. “Has the fire alarm gone off before,” I ask Nicola, one of the sound engineers.

The Herald: The panto is part of Christmas for many peopleThe panto is part of Christmas for many people (Image: free)


“Nope, this is the first time,” she says. Perhaps I’ve jinxed it.   No matter, the show must go and, 20 minutes later, the lights are up once more and they’re all in position. The audience are back in their seats and Pilchard and Pucklebum continue their routine. Not a beat’s been missed or a line fluffed. Later, when I tell my costume-designer daughter about the incident, she laughs. “Those live stage performers are different gravy,” she says. “They just get on with it.” 

An hour before the show, I’m with Shellsuit Bob and Grado, aka Stephen Purdon and Graeme Stevely in their dressing-room. They’ve been a panto couple for nine years at The Pavilion and are carving out their own place in a pantheon stretching back nine decades ythat includes Jack Milroy, Jimmy Logan, Stanley Baxter and Gerard Kelly.  Stephen (sarcastically): “Grado saved my career, know what I mean. I first met him on River City when he played the unforgettable (more sarcasm) part of Buster in eight episodes. He walks in and I’m thinking: ‘I’ve never met anyone like him. But we just kinda clicked, didn’t we?” 

Grado: “I remember going into the studios and thinking: there’s Shellsuit Bob. Cannae believe I’m just about to do a scene with him.” 

Stephen: “We’re just about to start the scene and I’m very OCD about doing everything right. And he suddenly looks at me and says: ‘Do you like vol au vents?’ And I’m thinking: ‘who is this guy’. Plus, he calls me Bob all the time. We’ve become best pals doing panto. I probably talk to him more than I talk to my wife.” 

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Grado: “It’s hard work. You’re pretty much cramming everything into two and a half weeks. It’s like cramming Les Mis.”  

Stephen: “I knew you were gonnae say that.”  Grado: “It’s full pelt. It just doesn’t stop. Christmas is Christmas morning and that’s it. It consumes you. But the benefits are great. You get to look into the audience and see the delight on weans’ faces. Now that I’ve become a father I appreciate how much people love coming here as part of their Christmas. It feels like you’re part of their Christmas.”  

Stephen: “Most of that audience would have been taken to panto here as children and they’re passing it on to their own children because of the joy it once brought them and especially in the Pavilion. We’ve got die-hard punters who’ll come back constantly and it’s a part of their Christmas tradition. Being part of that is special.  

Grado: “There are so many similarities to the wrestling, which is great for working the audience. Sometimes you’ll get a reaction just with a turn of the head. We’re lucky with the crowds here because they’re always right up for it.  Plus, you can’t not do a show. Even if you’re not well, you just can’t let that get in the way. The show has to go on. You’re aware of your duty to those families, who might have been looking forward to this night for months and seeing you. You owe it to them not to let anything stop you from going on to that stage. It’s their night.”  

Grado is from Stevenson in Ayrshire “the tap end” and made his name in pro wrestling. Stephen’s from Carntyne in Glasgow’s East End. They both hail from communities similar to those in which most of their audience lives.

The show will speak directly to them and in their own language. Each performance is different, being constantly updated to include references to politics and popular culture: I’m a Celeb; political events, scandals.  

In the first couple of shows they’ll throw everything at it to see what works and what doesn’t work; what sticks and what doesn’t. They recount all of their Panto suite: Wizard of Oz; Cinderella, Pinnochio, Aladdin.   

“Being the Ugly Sisters is best,” says Bob. “You get away with everything. You’re two goals up before the start: the outrageous dresses; the big chests, the make-up. You can have a lot of fun with it.” 

The Herald: Sword fight rehearsalsSword fight rehearsals (Image: free)

You can’t really overstate how much Glasgow loves The Pavilion theatre. On February 29, next year it will be 100 years to the day since it first opened and since then it has remained faithful to the calling of providing generations of ordinary Glaswegians with shows they can attend with their children and grandchildren. In some other places Variety has been replaced by Edgy and Challenging, but in Glasgow it will always find a home at The Pavilion and pantomime is its main conduit.  

For many people, this provided their first taste of the theatre. Children who were taken to see the panto are much more likely to attend the theatre as adults. To those arbiters of what is most socially relevant and culturally important Panto might be regarded as a dinosaur form providing safe, Blackpool Tower entertainment for mass consumption.   Treasure Island at the Pavilion on Friday night though, was hoaching with sly and subtle references to the affairs of the day and those ‘adult themes’ in the trigger warnings about post-watershed television dramas. The panto script-writers are just clever about it.  

At the back of the Pavilion stalls on Friday night I was eventually shouting and booing with everyone else. All around me there were shrieks and squeals as each new character appeared on stage. Their children were excited too.   

Pantomime sustains a sprawling community of actors, singers, dancers and all those skilled trades that maintain the entertainment industry: writers, sound engineers, lighting technicians, stage and costume designers, theatre staff and repair technicians.  

It’s probably more vital to the day-to-day health of Scotland’s cultural sector than the Edinburgh Festival and those Hollywood productions which now routinely annexe these streets virtually rent-free. The Pavilion receives none of the government funding streams that flow towards companies deemed to be politically chi-chi and boutique.  

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They've permitted me to watch from the wings as the technicians and floor assistants go about their business. As the cast exit and re-emerge there are high fives and hugs of encouragement. Shellsuit Bob edges past me looking like the Teletubbies’ delinquent cousin. Grado follows him. “Are you enjoying yourself, big man,” he asks. “You’ll have plenty to write about tonight.” 

Onstage, the cast are singing We Are Family; in the wings everyone’s jigging along. Sea-legs Senga (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) tells me to get over myself and get with the shimmying too. She’s not in the mood for taking any of my nonsense.   

On stage, Henrietta is jousting with Long John Silver. “I had a German boyfriend once: Big Hans.”  “He’d need big Hans because you’re a big wumman.” I’m sniggering like a schoolboy and so is everyone else.  

People will always associate these talented men and women with those times when they were at their happiest and most carefree. Because of this they will never forfeit their loyalty or their affection. Oh no they won’t.    

Treasure Island runs until Sunday January 14 at the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow