Dame Jeffrey takes to the stage!

Shane Richie as Robin Hood and Jeffrey Holland as The Nurse
Shane Richie as Robin Hood and Jeffrey Holland as The Nurse

It’s an impressive 44th panto for Jeffrey Holland at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre this Christmas – and his 27th as dame.

“I started doing dame purely by accident really”, reminisces Jeffrey who shares the stage withEastEnders stars Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace in Robin Hood until January 8.

“I had been booked by (panto producer) Paul Elliott to play Muddles, the comic role, in Sleeping Beauty in Plymouth. I was doing Run for Your Wife in the West End, and we had an end-of-season party. I asked Paul who was playing the dame in Plymouth, and he said he hadn’t been able to get anyone. He said the stars were Hinge & Bracket, and people were saying they didn’t want to be a dame if there were going to be three dames on stage.

“But Hinge & Bracket absolutely weren’t dames. Their characters were 100 per cent female, and so I heard myself say those three fateful words – “I’ll do it!”

“Dame is completely different. I did it, and it worked wonderfully well. It was a superb production. We had a young Bobby Crush as the Prince, and we had a beautiful Sleeping Beauty, and Hinge & Bracket were sensational.”

For Jeffrey, the essence of the dame is that she has got to be “a bloke in a frock”: “You are playing a character. You are playing a caricature of a woman. I am not a clothes-horse dame coming on in a different frock every time. That’s more of a transvestite, female-impersonator type thing. I am just playing the character I am given.

“And I love doing it for the stories. I love the fact that it is the children’s first visit to the theatre most of the time, and I love seeing their faces. It’s a wonderful part of the year. And we have got a wonderful show with this one. My wife saw it last night, and she said it really zips along with some sensational performances.”

Inevitably, pantomimes haven’t been unchanging down the decades since Jeffrey first started with them: “It depends on the production company. Qdos are the best. They throw money at it. You can’t stint.

“But pantomime has evolved over the years. The world has changed since I did my first pantomime in 1968 in rep.”

Babes in the Wood, for instance, is a pantomime you simply wouldn’t see nowadays, with its tale of the Sheriff of Nottingham hiring two robbers to kidnap and kill two children: “You get too much of that kind of thing in real life. Now you get the story of Robin Hood.”

Other changes are that principal boys are now boys. Gone are the days – and Jeffrey laments this – when principal boys were girls. He recalls Anita Harris as one of the finest.

“I guess it is just political correctness. The only thing they could do was hold hands. You never had real contact – apart from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and so things changed. And I miss that as a red-blooded male – the principal boy as a long-legged girl!”

Tickets for Robin Hood (Saturday 17 December 2016 – Sunday 8 January 2017) are on sale from Mayflower Theatre Box Office tel: 02380 711811 or online at mayflower.org.uk.