Scotland’s First Lady of Pantomime Elaine C Smith has enjoyed decades of success, from the long-suffering Mary Doll, wife of Rab C Nesbitt, to the insufferable neighbour Christine in BBC smash hit Two Doors Down. Returning to Glasgow’s King’s Theatre in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Elaine popped out of rehearsals to speak to Braw Theatre editor Fraser MacDonald.
Elaine starts by introducing her character, Nurse Bella Houston. She played the baddie in Snow White in Aberdeen a few years ago but says this time her character had to be different. “People want me to be good. Audiences didn’t know what to do when I was the baddie because they wanted to laugh, not boo!”
The whole process begins in January, when Elaine sits down with co-star Johnny Mac and Kathryn Harrison, the director, to pitch the idea.
“I’m Snow White’s nurse – her parents have passed away and the Wicked Queen hates her, so we keep key elements of the story but tweak others.”
When it comes to pantomime, story is hugely important to Smith. She sets out where the story is set (Glaswegia, of course!) and then works around her character, her interaction with other key people and – crucially – the emotional relationships they share.
This attention to detail is what gives the story credibility. And after decades in the business, Elaine knows this painstaking effort is worth it.
She credits Holywood star Robin Williams for her pedantry, saying watching the comedian play the Genie in Aladdin was like turning on a light switch. “You can stick to the magic and the story but also have hilarious routines and brilliant music and keep it relevant – that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Of course, Elaine has flexed her pantomime muscles all over the country. After a five year hiatus from a mammoth stint at the King’s in Glasgow to pursue other projects, including touring the UK with Calendar Girls, she returned to pantomime in Aberdeen.
“I was made so welcome”, she says. “I thought I’d last a year but they really took me to their heart and Aberdeen will always have a really special place in my own heart.”
Now back in Glasgow, she says audiences north of the Border are pretty particular. “In Scotland, it’s not enough to just put a name in a show – it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be able to do the job – and do it well.”
The King’s, she says, has become a home for her. It’s her 26th year doing pantomime and “never thought” she would become so well known for it.
A fierce feminist, Elaine is “proud to be flying the flag for women” in a principal comedy role, especially because there are still so few in pantomime across the UK.
That flag has been flying for decades now, but progress is slow. Seeing Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders enjoy top billing in London is encouraging but the work, she says, is far from over.
Elaine views herself part of the “panto revolution”, challenging the view that only big men in a frock could bring in the laughs. From her earliest days doing subversive pantomime at Glasgow’s Tron, she feels she’s still trying to do that today – on bigger stages.
The technical spectacle that Crossroads, producers of this year’s show, has become so synonymous with might be seen as a gimmick to some, but she disagrees. “Look down and see the faces of the kids – and the dads – trying to find out how a car is flying above them. You can’t argue that isn’t part of the magic.”
Teasing her grand entrance to stage this year – because no panto dame can enter without spectacle – it seems that audiences will be in for a thrilling treat too!
After all these years, then, is panto easy to get right? Pah! “When I was in drama school, you looked down your nose at panto! Then you see it and realise how few people have the skills to do it right – and the King’s has the link to people like Rikki [Fulton] and Jack [Milroy] that generations will remember.”
Having the show firmly rooted in Scotland is a non-negotiable for Smith. The Dwarfs in this production are based in a pit outside Coatbridge, digging tunnels for wind farms.
Weaving in everything from the Time Capsule to the big Asda, Elaine is clear that people should be able to relate to what they’re seeing on stage.
“Gerard Kelly said all those years ago that pantomime is a celebration of local culture. Make it about this place and these people.”
Pantomime is a “gateway drug” for theatre, so she feels a heavy weight of responsibility to get it right. When writers like Andrew O’Hagan write about pantomime in the London Review of Booke, she says, you see the power it wields.
From the backing of a full ensemble with dazzling set and costumes, Elaine will be back on the King’s stage solo for the Glasgow Comedy Festival in March, with her show 65 (which she assures us is not a typo!).
So how does she cope with the nerves? “A lot of people find it terrifying. But it’s not like I’m going to do 10 minutes at The Stand and hope that they like me. People know what they’re coming for.”
It’s not all laughs, though. During Covid, Elaine says the collapse of her industry was initially a massive relief to her but, as time passed, she began to question her whole identity without the thing that has defined her whole life.
“I got terrible anxiety and I think a lot of people haven’t yet fully recovered from the impact” she says.
Elaine credits her daughter Hannah, also performing at the Comedy Festival with Sad Girls Club, for coaxing her back on stage for her one woman show.
This self-doubt will inform a reflective part of her show and that new perspective on life is ideal for her stand-up, she says with a cheeky grin.
With the show now close to selling out, she has nothing to worry about drawing the crowds in her hometown. And she wants to challenge the idea that women should quietly retire to an armchair.
“When I was young, 65 meant staying at home knitting – but I thought ‘fuck off, I’m still here!’ There’s a real level of misogyny out there about the behaviour of women – whether that’s in the theatre or on a night out, just enjoying themselves. I want to challenge that in this show too.”
Fans of her loveable character in the smash hit BBC comedy Two Doors Down, Christine O’Neill, are also in for a treat. The show returns to TV screens on Friday for its seventh series, highly-anticipated by audiences across the UK.
She puts the success of the show down to the writing. “There’s nothing that we did or said that the writers hadn’t created”.
To say the show is a success is an understatement. The programme has hit 40 million streams on iPlayer and rising, airing on BBC One.
She calls her character “a gift”, but says filming is gruelling in ensuring every reaction is caught on camera. The end result, of course, makes it all worth it.
Christine’s charm with audiences is down to her having no filter, Elaine says – “probably because she doesn’t have a man to tell her to be quiet.”
Which is maybe why this tireless feminist campaigner does it so well.
Photo Credit: Richard Campbell