Copyright 2001

[ November 25th 2001 ]

In just over a week, the curtain will rise on one of Scotland's top pantomimes - Babes In The Wood. A star-studded cast, led by Elaine C Smith, is set to tread the boards of Glasgow's King's Theatre in more than 70 performances in five weeks.

Elaine first did panto five years ago. Now she is back after a two-year break and feeling right at home as Aunt Polly. She'll wear eight costumes, all specially made for her. In just two of them, she plans to do a unique version of Britney Spears' hit, Baby One More Time, and she'll appear as Lara Croft, complete with flashing belly-button. "That'll keep the band awake at least,"she says.

But joking aside, Elaine revealed that it was her mother's serious illness which persuaded her to get back up on the panto stage. She said: "My daughters dragged me to the King's last year to see Cinderella. My mother had breast cancer at the time, and it was the last thing I felt like doing. But I actually laughed out loud. I thought: 'This is what it's all about, uplifting people.'"

Her voice breaking, Elaine, 42, went on: "It was a very difficult time and the last thing on Earth I felt like doing was going to a pantomime, let alone starring in one. It's not much fun seeing your mum with an oxygen mask on. "Honestly, the trip to the King's was almost therapeutic. For two and a half hours, I was able to relax and, if not forget my troubles, certainly take my mind off them. It was sheer escapism." Her mum, Stella, has now been given the all-clear and Elaine is delighted to be back in pantoland.

But it's hard going, balancing day-long rehearsals followed by twice-daily panto and being a wife to Bob Morton and mum to Katie, 12, and Hannah, six. She says: "It's a lot of work. When I was approached earlier this year, I had to sit them all down and ask if they minded. They're sacrificing their mother over the entire Christmas period. I'll be rushing around John Lewis on Christmas Eve with fire coming out of my backside. They were great about it, though Katie is a bit embarrassed about the Britney Spears sketch. She just said: 'Aw, mum.'"

But Elaine, chat show host and Rab C Nesbitt's beloved Mary Doll, loves panto and all it means to Scottish people. She said: "It makes me mad when people say it's dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Yes, I am Scotland's top female star at the moment and yes, we have the cream of directors and producers. But why not? I think the people of Glasgow deserve the best."

With just a week to go, the cast will have to work extra hard in rehearsals at Glasgow's Woodside Halls to deliver Elaine's promise. Elaine, Casualty heart-throb Ronnie McCann and Chewin' The Fat boys Paul Riley and Mark Cox are rehearsing in the sort of place more used to seeing tea dances and weddings. Rehearsals started just six days ago, giving the cast a frantic fortnight to get their act together. "Right now we're at the organised chaos stage," said Elaine.

But a winter morning was somehow transformed by a group of actors who wouldn't look out of place in your local supermarket - oh no they wouldn't!

As top West End director Nigel West tried to stage-manage a custard pie sketch, Elaine couldn't help but put him straight. She was scripted to land a pie on one of the two baddies and then stand still. She said: "Well I'm sorry, but I think I should be slapping the pie and running. It's instinct to run, certainly in my experience of custard pie-ing that's how it works. You wouldn't just stand there. I've only once in my life thrown a drink over somebody - long story but a good one. I certainly legged it then. There's no point in slapstick unless it's done properly."

And of course, she won, muttering something about teaching grannies and sucking eggs - she is, after all, Scotland's panto queen. Humour was everywhere, though. It was as if Elaine and her cohorts just couldn't help themselves. At one stage, the former school teacher recounted a particularly fruity tale which had the group in stitches. "I can't believe I've just told you that. And without a drink as well," she said.

Elaine's script is peppered with bread jokes like "What kind of shoes are those - loafers?" and "My entire loaf passed before my eyes." Son Wesley McCann is referred to as "Mother's Pride". But her show-stopper is certain to be a rendition of Robbie William's chart topper, Rock DJ, an idea Elaine herself dreamed up.

She said: "I was never a huge Robbie fan, but I took my daughter to see him in concert at Hampden and he blew the roof off. I just thought this was a song we could adapt." Her nervous understudy was the only one in the room not swept up by her infectious laughter. "If she's sick or anything, it's those shoes I've got to fill," whispered actress Beth Marshall, from Glasgow. "Can you imagine? They'll be throwing sweeties at me, shouting: 'Get off, we want Elaine.'" Sorry Beth, but who could blame them? The woman could make a funeral procession laugh and that's no joke. Gags aside, Elaine knows there is a serious job of work to do.

From opening night on December 6, they'll perform twice a day most days right through the festive period, in front of 1785 fans at a time. Elaine does not mind the hours. It's the show that counts. And, by the looks of things, that's exactly what the paying customers are going to get. "We all remember the panto outings of our youth," she says. "Our children should be able to do the same."

Judging from rehearsals, the kids lucky enough to see the show will remember Aunt Polly for a long, long time.

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