Viv Hardwick talks to show producer Leah Bell about winning the pantomime contract for the Consett Empire.

WINNING the contract to put on pantomime at the Consett Empire is a massive thing for touring show producer/ performer Leah Bell and she jokes about her mum’s first reaction “does that mean you’ll be out most of the time over Christmas?”

The woman who will be creating Dick Whittington for the County Durham venue calls her mum “one in a million. I once came in and said ‘mam, one of my shows has been cancelled’ and she replied ‘oh that’s good’. I don’t think she’s got the gist of what I do.”

Bell is not unfamiliar with starring in panto and recalls being on the bill at Newcastle Theatre Royal with David Jason playing Buttons to her Cinderella. “Sadly, that’s a role which, at my time of life, I won’t be recapping, but I’ve done panto a lot.

“Then I moved on to the Silver Bells Christmas Show which we based on the Andy Williams Show which used to run on TV, and that became really popular with older people because they could come and join in with songs they remembered. This year, we’re still running Silver Bells up to the end of November and then going straight into pantomime... then I’ll probably be off to the RVI,” she jokes.

“I’m not sure we should be singing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day in November, but we will be and I’m almost going to be Christmassed to death by the time December 25 comes along. We close on January 2 and then I’ll take a couple of months break and then do a show called A Right Royal Knees-up for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,” Bell says.

For Dick Whittington (played by David Ducasse of Scooch), Bell will take on the role of Dame Nelly Bellly, alongside dance duo Bionik Funk, from Britain’s Got Talent.

“I like people like Sheila Bernette because she always played Dame in panto. I thought there wasn’t really a part in the show for me because I’m quite an aggressive worker on stage and I’m busy and energetic and I can hardly be Alice or Dick would have to be as old as Methuselah. So I needed a part I could be myself in and I realised that I didn’t have to have a guy playing dame,” she says.

However, this did put TV filming to promote the show in difficulties when Bell dreamed up the idea of using Sadie the Bra Lady’s shop as a backdrop.

“She was going to be in it as our sponsor and I said I’d walk up Consett High Street with my dame costume on and King Rat would blow up my fake boobs with a bomb, then I’d go into Sadie’s shop to regain my shape.

The director said ‘you can’t do that’. I said ‘because of the bomb?’, but he replied ‘no, because you’re a woman, if you were a man you could do it.

You’ve really got boobs’. So I wasn’t allowed to blow my own breasts up,” says Bell.

THE producer has kept to the story of the legendary Mayor of London, but is keen on interactive sections with children from the audience dressing up and joining in some of the scenes.

“I’m also hoping there will be a snowstorm over the audience, but we might have to bill it as a snowfall if the machine gets clogged a bit... or if it gets stuck it will be a snowball,” Bell says.

She doesn’t feel under pressure to raise the game of her touring company because Bell thinks she already has a reputation for being a stickler about performing standards.

“The odd thing is that I auditioned a young lad who is studying at the Sage Academy in Byker and I thought he was wonderful and it turned out he was from Consett. I had decided not to audition just in the theatre area because I wanted to throw the net a bit wider. So that just shows me,” she says.

Christmas for Bell will be celebrated at her sister’s hotel-restaurant, the Elephant on the Tyne, in Gateshead.

“So I won’t be attempting to cook anything, but I’m really looking forward to this pantomime... and it’s a long time since I was excited,” Bell adds.

She feels that she’ll see how the contract pans out before deciding whether or not it will be time to move on. “It may be different if we’re a resounding success like Michael Harrison, who seems to have been at the Theatre Royal forever. His show is being talked about as Britain’s best regional panto, but that’s before mine goes on.

“Chris Hayward (the dame at Newcastle Theatre Royal) is a great friend of mine and he said ‘eeh, you know you are limited at Consett about doing things like flying?’. So I said ‘well, we’ll just have to rely on talent’.”

The jokes continue to flow over her script. “The first person who did a read-through from my hand-picked cast said ‘eeh, I’m surprised, I didn’t think it was going to be that good’. So it was nice to know my team are right behind me.”

Dick Whittington, Empire Theatre, Consett, December 7- January 2. Tickets: Adults £13 (£11 concessions). Box Office: 01207- 218171 or Group bookings: 01207-218899 (Mon-Fri, 10am-3pm)