Meet the stars appearing in Beauty and the Beast at the Derby Arena
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 December 2017
Nigel Powlson talks to Derby's Gwen Taylor and Morgan Brind who are starring in Beauty and the Beast this Christmas at Derby Arena
Photography: Robert Day
Gwen Taylor’s professional debut was in Jack and the Beanstalk at the old Derby Playhouse. Now, after enjoying an illustrious acting career, she’s aiming to recreate the magic of those old Playhouse pantomimes this Christmas at Derby Arena. The Derby-born stage and TV star returns to her home city to play the Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast.
Gwen is famous for her sitcom roles in shows like Duty Free, Only When I Laugh and Barbara. She also earned a BAFTA TV Award nomination for Best Actress for her role opposite Sir David Jason in A Bit of a Do. She was a regular in the hit TV production Heartbeat and more recently joined the cast of Coronation Street.
She has come a long way since that first professional acting job, which she fondly recalls when she takes time out to talk to Derbyshire Life. ‘I was a jumping bean back then,’ she says. ‘But not just a jumping bean, I was part of the chorus and I remember it went rather well, although my family will not let me forget I was a bit ungainly as a jumping bean.’
Prior to attending drama school in 1965, Gwen had cut her teeth in Derby’s amateur dramatic groups, including pantos for The Marlowe Players and Derby Theatre in the Round – which made up a little for the fact that she only ever saw one panto as a child.
‘It was at the old Derby Hippodrome, that sad old building that has become impossible to save. We weren’t very well off so we couldn’t go every year but I remember being there with my parents and my dad catching the sausages that were thrown into the audience and being quite proud of that because he was in the show and had to take them back.
‘Over the years I have seen some awful pantos and some very good ones. It’s nothing to do with the stars or how much money is spent on it, I think it’s down to the commitment and I’m hoping I can do that, involve the children and be believable in the panto and not just float about. One of the best pantos I ever saw was in Leeds and the children were carried away to a world they will never forget as it was so wonderfully done. That’s how it should be really – an old fashioned style panto.’
Beauty and the Beast is a story very much in the hearts and minds of children after the lavish Disney film version starring Emma Watson took the box office by storm earlier this year.
Gwen says that the title will undoubtedly help draw youngsters in but the film may be a hindrance as much as a help. ‘Some people will love going to the theatre and the difference it makes, some people will be disappointed it doesn’t have the things they see in the film. It is interesting to see how young people will react and I’m hoping to meet them when I do this and find out, which will be fun.’
Panto is a big contrast from a career that has seen her become a TV regular. Gwen says: ‘In pure economic terms TV pays much better. The rehearsals are the same and it takes the same commitment. When you get in front of the camera it’s completely different. On stage you are on your own, trying to recreate what you have rehearsed, while on TV you are a slave to the technical side of it. Sometimes it can be annoying to have to deliver again because the sound wasn’t right, or the lighting was off and you wish they could use that first take that you were so pleased with.
‘The theatre is more exhausting for me now, as when you do television you are very well looked after. I haven’t done two shows a day for a long time so I will have to be careful about harnessing my energy, making the show the thing for those four weeks.’
Looking back on that debut in Jack and the Beanstalk and how her career has panned out over the five decades since, Gwen still has to pinch herself.
‘I’m absolutely gobsmacked really,’ she says. ‘When I look at my CV that my agent sends out I find it rather incredible that I have done so much and a lot of it is wonderful stuff that I have been so proud of. There is some that maybe wasn’t up to scratch but that happens in any walk of life – when I was a bank clerk there were days when I made mistakes. But on the whole it’s been terrific.’
Gwen has never lost touch with her home city and she always receives a warm reception from Derby audiences whenever she returns.
She says: ‘That’s one of the reasons I didn’t hesitate to do Beauty and the Beast – it’s such a pleasure that people come out to see me. It makes such a difference to believe they are on my side. Sometimes audiences sit there and say “entertain us” but in Derby they say “it’s Gwen Taylor, we know her”.’
She now can’t wait to step out in front of a Derby audience again when Beauty and the Beast opens in December. She says: ‘We are so lucky we have panto. The Americans don’t understand it at all – they think we are mad. It’s very British and we have a duty to keep it going.’
And what for Gwen is the secret of a good pantomime? ‘There has to be a good script, of course, but it’s also about loving the genre, having up-to-date jokes that kids and parents can appreciate, the right music – but it’s still about passing on the traditions we all love. What I hope is that with Beauty and the Beast we create memories like I had when those sausages came flying at my dad. Memories that will really nurture a love that will last a lifetime.’
DAME BETTY BRIOCHE
As writer, co-producer, designer and dame, Derby’s Morgan Brind is taking on the brunt of responsibility for Beauty and the Beast, but he’s confident in putting on a great show having already established an enviable track record in panto.
Morgan cut his teeth with Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre and performed with Derby Opera Company and Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company prior to training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In 2009, he co-founded Little Wolf Entertainment Ltd, and this Christmas the company partners with Derby LIVE on Beauty and the Beast.
It’s the twelfth pantomime he has written, designed and co-produced. His credits as writer/dame include Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk and Robin Hood. Based in Little Eaton, Little Wolf Entertainment has quickly become noticed as one the most exciting and innovative pantomime producers to have emerged in the UK in recent years.
The cast is all in costume for a publicity photo shoot when Derbyshire Life catches up with Morgan and he’s looking resplendent in one of Dame Betty Brioche’s outrageous outfits.
He says: ‘It’s the first time the cast has all come together and it’s a nice way to break the ice ready for rehearsals by getting together for some jolly photos. Betty Brioche runs the local bakery with Idle Jacques, called Le Birds in traditional Derby fashion, based in a Parisian suburb called Spondon-on-the-Seine. It’s half of the fun of panto connecting it with your location, plus all the messy, slushy stuff as well.’
He’s the dame today, but with so many hats to wear how does he cope juggling all of his roles?
‘There’s a little bit of schizophrenia,’ he laughs. ‘But generally it works well. All of the design gets done earlier in the year. The script is written and once you go into rehearsal you become an actor. Each job knocks on to the next with co-producer going over all of them.’
It’s very unusual for the writing and design jobs to be undertaken by one person but Morgan says that it has its advantages.
‘It means they are done in tandem so they can be integrated and I can make sure the costumes and sets come together with the writing and it all really works. A lot of panto is bought in with a set from here, costumes from there but ours is all being made and designed from scratch so we are creating this whole world and it will all belong together.
‘It’s all really come about by accident. Ten years ago I started designing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company when the sets we had were quite complicated and needed taking up and down in one day. The producer said to me that if I thought I could do better I should have a go. That’s how I fell into it so it became a logical part of what we do and this year I have ended up designing four pantos.
‘I love the idea of creating these fun worlds and having all these things you can’t do in a normal play, like having a flying horse.’
And as the writer as well, does that mean that Morgan’s dame gets all the best lines?
‘I’d like to think that I’m fair,’ he laughs. ‘There is an expectation that the dame will be funny but what I quite like is making sure everyone gets a few gags and that the principal boy and girl aren’t just there to be the love interest, otherwise they can be quite dull people.
‘Belle needs to be a strong, independent woman not a wet put-upon princess. She has to have a spark to her.’
Morgan is delighted that Gwen Taylor has agreed to join the cast.
‘She was absolutely top of our list,’ he says. ‘She’s a Derby acting legend. Sometimes people think that panto isn’t quite proper, not like real, legit theatre so we are really pleased she’s happy to come and have some fun and that she adds to that Derby stamp.
‘The company we have got is so good and experienced that putting them in front of an audience takes away all my worries as they will soar above expectations and give us a cracking show. My job is to give them the tools they need to do their jobs and that allows everyone to have a brilliant Christmas.’
Morgan has come a long way since his Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre days and is now delighted to be doing the biggest show of the year in his home city. He’s also hoping that it’s the start of a long-term partnership with Derby LIVE.
‘I hope it’s something we can build on. Being at the Arena, there’s scope for it to grow. We want to build a destination panto. One producer always used to say “don’t give them what they want, give them something better”. We will give people all the familiar things from Beauty and the Beast but some surprises as well.
‘Doing this show is a huge privilege. It’s a pleasant responsibility. I grew up here on the old pantos at the Derby Playhouse and loved those shows as they were so well put together – classy kids’ theatre – and that’s what I’m determined to bring back.’
Beauty and the Beast will be on stage at Derby Arena from Tuesday 5th until Sunday 31st December, tickets priced from £11.50 with concessions, group, school and family tickets available.
There are a limited number of VIP tickets for Friday 15th December, 7pm performance.
VIP tickets include a top price seat, complimentary programme and your chance to meet the cast in an after-show drinks reception. Tickets are £45.50 (£35.50 for concessions and under 16s) or £43.50 (£33.50 concessions and under 16s).
To purchase tickets, call the Sales and Information Centre on 01332 255800, select seats online at derbylive.co.uk, or book in person at the Assembly Rooms, Market Place, Derby.