When Jimmy Chisholm was asked to direct Aladdin, this year's top of the range pantomime at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, it was a marriage made in back-stage heaven. Chisholm, after all, is an actor who, over some forty years experience, has done pretty much every Christmas show going. Not only has he written and directed his own pantomimes in Stirling and, with Ian Grieve, in Perth, but he has played dame on the stage of the King's itself.
The King's is the big one, after all, with great expectations from all involved. As such a seasoned performer, Chisholm will understand only too well what his starry cast have to deal with in their efforts to make Aladdin the biggest and brightest show in town. It will have helped too that an actors short-hand will already exist between him and the likes of TV favourites Karen Dunbar, who plays the Genie of the Ring, Still Game's Gavin Mitchell, as the evil Abanazar, and Widow Twankey herself, played by Gordon Cooper.
Cooper's appearance marks a return to the traditional panto dame at the King's, a festive stalwart that hasn't been seen onstage there since 2006, when Aladdin's writer, Eric Potts, played dame. This year will also be the first production of Aladdin at the Kings since the late Gerard Kelly – the undisputed king of King's pantos for two decades – appeared in it in the 2009/10 season. If these are big boots to fill, Chisholm has the pedigree to try them on for size more than most.
“This is the first time I've directed one that I haven't been in,” says the man who played dame as Sarah the Cook opposite Christoper Biggins' Idle Jack in Dick Whittington, and Baron Hardup opposite Elaine C Smith in Mother Goose. “By being an actor, I've seen pretty much every problem that comes up, so there's not much in that way that's a surprise. I suppose I've also worked as an actor with all sorts of different styles of directors, so I think I probably understand what the quickest route might be to get to where you want a scene to be. After that, it's about confidence. Once the actors are confident in what they're doing, they can have fun with it, which is great for me, because I get to sit back and watch.”
One suspects Chisholm contributes a whole lot more to a show, whichever side of the auditorium he's on. In Stirling, Chisholm wrote and directed his own takes on Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, while at Perth Theatre he worked with Ian Grieve on Sinbad, as well as versions of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. This time last year, Chisholm was appearing at the Pavilion, just down the road from the King's, in a Glasgow take on The Wizard of Oz, reimagined as The Wizard of Never Woz. Chisholm played one of the henchmen of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Joyce Falconer. At Oran Mor, Chisholm directed A Play, A Pie and A Pint's even more irreverent summer show, Alice in Pantoland.
Anyone who has seen Chisholm onstage this year alone will recognise a virtuosity that has seen him capture the pathos of a past his best debt collector in Mike Cullen's play, The Collection, as well as revelling in being able to play the fool in an epic outdoor version of The Thrie Estaites. Such a range has been honed over many years, ever since he first became a familiar face as Jimmy Blair in STV soap, Take The High Road, right through to playing opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart and beyond.
Yet, for all his natural comedic flair, Inverness-born Chisholm had never even seen a pantomime until he moved to Edinburgh to study drama at what was then Queen Margaret College, now Queen Margaret University. Despite this, he arrived in the capital with experience of the greats of Scottish comedy performers that was particularly close to home.
“I remember being in a pantomime as a child,” Chisholm says of his early days doing amateur dramatics with his parents, “but in Inverness at the time there wasn't a theatre like there is now. Yet I knew all the old Variety performers, Andy Stewart, Russell Hunter, all these people stayed at my mum and dad's place, and variety was really important for panto. Then things moved away from Variety, which means you simply don't have that style of performers anymore.”
Chisholm blames television for this.
“TV killed it,” he says. “These guys used to have their own routines they could taker round the country with them for years, but once everyone saw them do it on TV, it was gone.”
Despite this, the stars of Aladdin represent a newer generation of panto performers, who, while immersed in contemporary pop culture, are also influenced by the same comic heroes that Chisholm grew up with. In this way, Aladdin both respects and refreshes the tradition it was sired in.
“Panto is important in everyone's psyche,” says Chisholm. “It's probably the one time of year that an entire family will go to the theatre together, and if they have a good time, chances are they might come back, so it's my job to make their experience the best it can be.
“What I believe I've brought to this is keeping the integrity of the story. Sometimes you see things where the story comes second, and you forget which fairytale you're watching. Obviously people come to Aladdin to see their favourites, whether it's Karen, Gavin, Steve McNicoll or one of the others, but everyone is loyal to the story, and nothing is compromised for the sake of a song or something. This is the King's, and every bit of glitter and tinsel in panto-land gets thrown at this show, and for me, watching that cast do what they do with all that is an absolute joy.”
Aladdin, King's Theatre, Glasgow, until January 12th 2014
Jimmy Chisholm – A Life Onstage
Jimmy Chisholm was born in Inverness, where he appeared in amateur dramatics with his parents, who knew many of the great Scottish variety performers.
Inspired by 7:84's legendary Highland tour of The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil, Chisholm decided to take up acting professionally, and studied drama in Edinburgh.
Chisholm first came to prominence during a five year stint on STV soap, Take The High Road. Since then he has worked with every major theatre company in Scotland, as well as appearing opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart and in numerous film and TV dramas.
This year Chisholm appeared in a five hour open-air staging of Sir David Lyndsey's sixteenth century play, A Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, returning to a play he first appeared in in 1986 with the Scottish Theatre Company.
Aladdin marks Chisholm's directorial debut at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, where he previously appeared in Dick Whittington and Mother Goose.
The Herald, December 17th 2013