James Holmes on the making of a panto dame

James Holmes in last year's production of Aladdin at Buxton Opera House.
James Holmes in last year's production of Aladdin at Buxton Opera House.

TV actor James Holmes from Miranda will be back to play the dame in this year’s panto at Buxton Opera House.

He is cast as Dame Brenda Bakewell in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Between rehearsals, he took time out to answer the following questions:

Q: Thinking back to last year, what were your expectations of playing Dame and did your views change at all once you’d done it?

A: When I arrived in Buxton to rehearse “Aladdin” last year, I was quite nervous. I hadn’t done panto before and wasn’t sure what to expect. One of my main concerns was what to say at those times when the Dame is supposed to talk direct to the audience, unscripted. I’d done stand-up about ten years earlier, when I was just starting out as an actor, but that was so long ago I didn’t think I would remember anything useful. Fortunately, as soon as I got in front of an audience, it all came back: it was like putting on an old pair of shoes. I had expected the other cast members to be quite theatrical, but most of them were just normal lads and lasses – really nice, and with a passion for the traditions of musical theatre and pantomime. I may have been older, but they knew a lot more about those traditions than I did, so I was happy to just tag along and learn from them.

Q: This year you are playing Dame Brenda Bakewell in “Snow White” and there are – inevitably - some references to The Great British Bake Off in the script. What’s your take on recent Bake Off developments?

A: I know Bake Off’s got millions of fans, but I’ve never actually watched it. Despite that, I actually felt quite sad for the BBC when I heard that the show was going to Channel 4. I’m glad that Mary Berry, Mel and Sue didn’t go with it: I think that was the right decision. I’m wearing a Mary Berry-inspired costume this year so I’d better watch the show in the interests of research!

Q: What are you doing at the moment?

A: I’m in a revival of The Boys in the Band, with Mark Gatiss. We opened at the Park Theatre in London and we’ll go on to play Salford, Brighton and Leeds. The Boys in the Band appealed to me because it’s funny and dark. It was the first ever gay play, written in the late ‘Sixties. It’s an interesting period piece that very much belongs in that era – in those days it wouldn’t have been called a “gay play” and there wouldn’t have been a specifically gay audience for it, but the world has moved on.

My character is a flamboyant exhibitionist who is also a bit of a nightmare! The action takes place in a New York flat during a birthday celebration. It’s been a good experience to work on a play where the storyline runs continuously, throughout the course of a single evening.

Q: You appeared as Clive the bar owner in the BBC comedy series “Miranda”. Although the show has now ended you still get a lot of public recognition from that role. Why do you think “Miranda” was so popular?

A: Miranda Hart, who created the series, has a very good understanding of her own persona and knows how to get the most out of every line. The Guardian described Miranda as a “post Bridget Jones” character. Audiences hadn’t seen anyone quite like her before – a modern, individual and independent woman who didn’t just want to settle down and have babies. Although it was a contemporary sitcom, Miranda Hart managed to include a nod to tradition, putting in slapstick gags she had enjoyed as a child, watching shows like Morecambe and Wise. I think that broadened the show’s appeal.

Q: Did you always want to become an actor? What was your first theatre job?

A: When I was young I didn’t realise how easy it was to pay money and go to the theatre, in the same way you might go to the cinema. Mum and dad talked about seeing musicals when they were young, but we never went to the theatre as a family. I think I remember seeing a panto once, as a very young child, but after that my main experience of comedy performance was watching Laurel and Hardy films screened on a projector at my dad’s Gas Board works Christmas party. I didn’t always want to be an actor, but knew I didn’t want a “normal” job. When I was 18 I went up to Edinburgh to be in a play. I did it to avoid having to take up a boring job, but once I started acting, I discovered I had an actual passion for it.

Q: What are you looking forward to this year when you return to Buxton for “Snow White”?

A: I’ve got the same digs as last time, really close to the theatre so all I have to do is cross the road. There are some good pubs and Indian restaurants in Buxton: there’s also a really great fish and chip shop.

Q: What will you do on Christmas Day, when there are no performances?

A: My brother might be over from Australia this year, so I’m hoping he’ll be able to stay in Buxton at Christmas. If not, I’ll be making my own dinner again. I did it last year and, against all expectations, I quite enjoyed cooking Christmas dinner for one.

l Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs at Buxton Opera House from December 10 to January 1. Tickets from £15.50. Contact 01209 72190 or www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk