William Caulfield is to panto in Derry what turkey is to your Christmas dinner - the two just go hand in hand.
And this year the first ‘lady’ of the Millennium Forum is celebrating 10 years of panto madness, which has seen him perform in more than 400 shows, dig through 400 handbags of unsuspecting audience members and wear a selection of the loudest, brightest and maddest frocks possible.
On Wednesday William Caulfied took time out from day three of this year’s panto rehearsals to talk to the ‘Journal’ and reflect on his tenth anniversary of bringing some Christmas magic to the Millennium Forum.
It’s a tough schedule for the seasoned performer - with just two weeks of rehearsals leading up for 40 shows (including matinees) where he must be on top form at all times.
You would wonder, after all these years, would he not be suffering from a touch of festive fatigue? But the answer is no - panto season, here in Derry, is the highlight of his annual calender.
“I think you could get bored of it, if it wasn’t so much fun - but it really is the best thing to be a part of.
“It’s kept fresh, in that we have a cycle of five or six pantos that we run so you aren’t doing the same thing two years in a row - but the real draw is working in the Forum.
“The crew and the marketing department are brilliant - but even more than that, the audiences in Derry are genuinely brilliant. I did panto in Belfast for five years before I came to Derry and yes, I would go so far as to say that the Derry audiences are better than the Belfast audiences.
“I think that during the Troubles, the people of Derry probably got it tougher than even Belfast. I don’t want to make a big political statement on that - but I think people here have been through a lot.
“So when they come to something funny, come to see some comedy, they find it a release and they really get into the spirit of it. People here have endured a lot and seen a lot - you definitely see how they embrace the lighter side of life too, perhaps because of that.”
And that, for William is the most rewarding thing about getting on stage night in and night out to play the role of the dame.
“You never know what people have going on in their lives - what troubles they have, be it big or small, be it worrying about how much oil is in the tank. But when they come to panto they can let go of their worries for two hours and just enjoy good, innocent fun.
“There is no bigger compliment to me that when someone comes up afterwards and tells me that they enjoyed the show and that it made them laugh out loud.”
Comedy is the key to the panto - and William is careful that it works on a few different levels. “I say panto is a three generation show. Grannies can come with their grandchildren, mums with their daughters, kids can come as school groups - and they will get something different from it. The kids get the silly humour - the slapstick and for the older audience members there are those carefully placed lines which work on a more adult level.”
One of the most talked about moments of panto every year is that moment when William gets off the stage and chooses an audience member to have a bit of fun with.
“People ask who will I pick on, but it’s not picking on someone. It’s choosing someone to have a bit of banter with - and it’s always in good fun.”
The “good fun” can involve a rifle through a woman’s handbag - but only once in 10 years has William found something a little delicate in there.
“I won’t reveal what it was - but that woman looked at me with sheer terror in her eyes. I gave her a little wink to let her know her secret was safe with me.”
Of course, no dame is complete with an array of fabulous frocks - and William admits when it comes to panto time, the bigger the better!
“I don’t enjoy dressing as a woman - which I do sometimes when I’m doing the James Young show - but when it comes to panto, I turn into a bit of a diva.
“I will tell them the dress isn’t big enough - or flamboyant enough. I suppose it is the comedian in me, I want that laugh as soon as I get on stage - before I have even opened my mouth.
“Especially at the end, when I come out for the finale - I want to be wearing the biggest frock on stage and hear that roar of laughter.”
This year William is taking on the role of the most famous dame of all - Widow Twankey, in this year’s production of Aladdin.
“Everyone loves Aladdin,” he said, “And the big question everyone asks if he is going to fly around the stage on a magic carpet - well he is.”
Although only a few days into rehearsals, William said this year’s show is already shaping up to be something special - with music, magic, a 12-foot genie and a spectacular magic trick all in the mix.
And for the all-important comedy factor, Widow Twankey will be accompanied by Wishy Washy and PC Pong.
“It’s a great night out - and something really special this year,” William said.
Aladdin performs at the Millennium Forum from Friday, December 4 until Sunday, January 3. Tickets are now available from the box office. Telephone 71 264455 or visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk for bookings.
For a chance to win tickets, see tomorrow’s Journal