Interview by Nicola Miller;
Mumsnet Local Editor Suffolk and Norfolk
If you wanted to guarantee a happy and engaged Pantomime audience, then casting CBeebies Sid Sloane as ‘Dame’ is a master stroke and this is indeed the sensible decision made by The Theatre Royal in Norwich who have announced that Sid will be performing in this Winter’s ‘Peter Pan’ alongside Ben Langley’s ‘Starkey’.
Sid is no stranger to the unique rigours and pleasures of Panto having starred in over a dozen of them as well as working extensively as an actor and performer in a host of productions including Franco Zefferelli’s Il Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden alongside many other productions.
We spoke with Sid during his press day at the theatre and one in which he had been trying on costumes for size, yielding to the often hours required to transform actors into these much loved and recognised figures, Sid describes the process as one of “total immersion. Once that costume goes on, I just change”. The Theatre Royal in Norwich has itself a long and successful pedigree for excellent and sophisticated Pantomine with spectacular costumes and set design. Given Sid’s self declared penchant for using costume to story tell “There is nothing I haven’t dressed up as”, this is set to be one genius collision between two experts in their field. Or should that be collaboration?
Sid’s Dame will reflect his own Caribbean heritage and he has previously talked about how his Guyanese roots have informed his work as storyteller and performer. Growing up as a South London Lad, Sid connected with his roots after a trip to Guyana where he married family reunion with fact and story gathering, recording family stories via oral history and comparing Guyanese media with that of Britain. “My Mum is the family storyteller and growing up I took from this, to be that way”. Certainly Guyana has a rich source of stories for him to mine should he decide to incorporate some of these into the story boarding for his shows and the poetry he writes. Take for example, ‘The Old Higue’(Hag), an old soul or witch who lives on the edge of the villages in the day and becomes a ball of fire at night, flying through the air and seeking out babies to take nourishment from. Whilst appearing decidedly scary (an understatement) and certainly originating as a way of explaining the depridation and loss that befell families, if Tim Burton can do it with Skeletons and Corpse Brides, then this folk belief most definitely has Sid like possibilities. The re-popularisation and regard for Oral History and testimony as both art form and common to all cultures means that initiatives such as that newly developed by Sid in his home town of Brighton can thrive. Tapping into his now home town of Brighton’s blend of classic English seaside and Caribbean culture has led to Sid creating his own Empowerment Programme where storytelling and the arts will be used to create opportunities for local people.
The nomadic life of a Pantomime star is one that Sid is accustomed to and indeed it is really challenging, requiring performers to relocate for the duration of the Season (Christmas in Norwich for Sid and we’re sure there’ll be NO shortage of invites for that one) performing a gruelling programme of matinees and evening shows. Peak condition is a given and certainly Sid has spoken in the past of the need for good diet, decent sleep and a healthy mind. With his ‘Sid’s Show’ currently touring the UK, an attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and an upcoming new series of ‘Let’s Play’ to be filmed, the peripatetic life is one that Sid has already found a home within. Approaching a Pantomime season means being in tip top physical condition and organising your off duty life so as to provide much needed R&R. “I expect (something) to be difficult but it is not because the biggest obstacle can be your own way of looking at things” . The message that what “what goes on in your own head can be the challenge” and of being comfortable in your own skin and role is one that Sid consistently refers to and is of course, an important one for his audiences. Being relaxed in a role requires authenticity; you need to know yourself before you step into the shoes of another and no sterner critic than a child exists. To be such a successful children’s presenter and entertainer you need to truly enjoy what you do and respect your audience, providing them with material that clearly shows you have understood what they want and respond to.
Within all TV presenting there have been accusations of a pretty uneven playing field. From the lack of older Female presenters to the inherent bias towards White Middle Class Males it would seem that things are far from reflecting our dynamic, fluid and multi cultural society. With regards to Children’s television this seems especially damaging in that the child who finds himself unrepresented on a TV screen receives overt (and cruel) messages about his own value and visibility. Children’s television has had some vibrant and stereotype breaking presenters even at a time (70′s) when female or non white TV personalities were overtly marginalised and made the butt of jokes through discriminatory programming. From dynamic and clever female presenters such as Helen Skelton and Floella Benjamin to the skilled Andy Peters, Sid Sloane and Derek Griffiths we have had some great role models but Sid describes recent programming from both a production and presenting level as having taken a bit of a ‘backwards step’ “I am holding it together for the ‘Ethnics’”, he says, laughing. The presenting teams appear to lack that mix that truly represents life in Britain today. Citing the great Derek Griffiths (former ‘Play School’ presenter and now actor) as both role model and ‘hero’ for his comic and presenting genius, Sid recalled meeting the man himself at a formative time for him in his career and identity as a young man. “Derek Griffiths- He’s the Man. He did a panto in Brighton and after I contacted him, he called me and invited me to his dressing room. I got advice, how to handle the work amid my laughing for the whole half an hour at the anecdotes he told. He did ‘Scrooge’ for CBeebies last year, twelve years to the day I first met him. I still have the photo from that day and it is the best thing ever”. If children lack a role model that they can relate to, then getting on is that much harder it would seem.
The collaborative process behind ‘Let’s Play’ and CBeebies productions in general appears pretty democratic as described by Sid, partly because that is how it is done and partly because having been there at the beginning “The format was based around me and nobody at the production company (Foundation TV) got in the way of collaboration”. Storyboarding involves script writers working with Sid and Rebecca to identify themes and from there, scripts are drafted, rehearsed and adapted through mine and Rebecca’s (Sid’s co-presenter) rehearsals – “we had a LOT of involvement last year and there will be a new series of ‘Let’s Play’ this year too”; an answer to the prayers of every parent who sits through endless repeats of the much loved previous series!
Finally…… we asked Sid some of the questions posed by Mumsnetters and their children and this is what he had to say-
5 year old Emilia asks “What makes Sid so happy?” “What makes me happy is getting up early and having my breakfast”.
“Do you like Cats?” “Love them. Especially a cat called Boo that jumps on the table to get attention”.
“What children’s TV show would you resurrect?” ” That’s a hard one…Ohhh. Have you heard of ‘Why Don’t You?’ and ‘How?’. Those”. <Yes we are old enough to remember those>
“What naughty things did you do as a child?” ” Well (pauses) As a child I used to greet my Mothers friends by lifting up their skirt and looking underneath” We both pause to laugh and consider how this might come across. We are tempted to frame it in the context of a born actor seeking to understand everything about the human condition and bringing down the artificial barriers humans establish to set themselves apart from others. But maybe he was just a VERY naughty little boy who has now grown out of this habit, you will be reassured to know…..
“What is the oddest place you have been recognised?” “Probably in the loo” At this point Sid embarks upon a long account of meeting the footballer Ian Wright in a toilet at a BBC Talent party in which the conversation segued from general presenting chit chat to discussing the Sean Wright incident. At which both parties realised that they might look a little odd standing chatting in a toilet for twenty minutes….
“Do you have a portrait of Dorian Gray in your attic because you look so young?” Cue gales of laughter and an exhortation to look after yourself and a a brief acknowledgement of the gift of good genes.
“What’s your favourite Biscuit?” THAT question. It has to be asked. “My whole career is going to ride upon how I answer this question isn’t it?” He says plaintively and a tad apprehensively. I remind him that the response to this interview has been 100% positive including some appreciation of his physical attributes by the more adult fans and he begins to form an answer ” I don’t eat biscuits….This is impossible to answer. My palate as a kid…Was what your family could afford. I was a sugar fiend and favourites changed by week. Milkmaid biscuits- those. And as an adult? I could be a cookie monster. Chocolate chip cookies”. Quite possibly the most considered response to the biscuit question Ever. Reader- he agonised over it.
With thanks to Mr John Bultitude, Press Officer at Theatre Royal Norwich and of course Mr Sid Sloane himself for being such a good sport and answering questions that must have appeared, quite frankly odd at times.
and check out Sid Sloane’s website