Former 'Silly Billy' Adam Stafford tells Steve Pratt why he's more than happy to have come of age as Mother Goose.

ADAM Stafford knows only too well what getting older does to an actor in pantomime. "They stop seeing you as a young idiot and see you as a woman," he says.

He's gone from lovable buffoon - the Silly Billy part as he calls it - to outrageous dame and the title role in Mother Goose at Harrogate Theatre this Christmas. "I tend to do comedy and character roles and dame combines them both," he says.

This marks his debut in the Yorkshire theatre, taking over from Alan McMahon after his six-year stint as dame at the venue. "People say Mother Goose is the best pantomime for dame but what it doesn't have is a strong storyline like Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstalk and Aladdin. They're classic fairy stories," says Stafford.

Writer Nicholas Pegg has put his own mark on the tale, with Lennox Greaves directing as he has done in recent years. "It's lovely and a little daunting," says Stafford.

"It's a good ensemble. Three or four of them have done panto together before. In a way, I'm going into a team. Alan played here for many years and you feel a responsibility. I was ringing up for digs before I came for rehearsals and someone said, 'You're the new Alan'."

As for the look and style of his Mother Goose, he points out that doing Ugly Sister is very different to being Sarah the cook in Jack And The Beanstalk. "I suppose she's quite mumsy and has to appeal to everyone," he says.

In the past he's worked, as associate director, with children's dramatist David Wood on productions of Roald Dahl stories including The Witches, The BFG and The Ideal Gnome Exhibition, on national tour and in London's West End. The experience of working with young audiences is invaluable when doing panto. "The philosophy and tradition of panto at Harrogate is that it has to be completely accessible to all levels but you can never talk over the heads of the children," says Stafford.

"In the big commercial pantos there's nothing worse than a celebrity or blue comedian who's just there to do his turn and do gags that go completely above the kids' heads.

"There's an element that you have to appeal to everyone, but what I learnt from David Wood is you have to have a story and character-driven piece. You have to remember that with panto, nine out of ten times it's going to be a child's first trip to the theatre.

"You open the script at the read-through, look at a joke and everyone will groan and roll their eyes heaven-wards. But it's like watching Blackadder or Morecambe and Wise, classic jokes that are done well play live again and again. That's one of the joys of panto."

As well as telling old gags, he'll be kept busy changing outfits. He has nine costume changes meaning that "if I'm not on stage, I'm being shoved into a frock".

Stafford has been acting since he was six - and he's now 38 - after being cast in a primary school Christmas play. "I was twelfth shepherd from the back or something and had the audacity to demand to know why I wasn't playing the baby Jesus or something more substantial," he recalls.

As a result, he began attending Redroofs drama school, near Maidenhead, and, through that, he began getting work in TV, film and theatre. At 14, he became the youngest member of the National Theatre, appearing with Michael Gambon in Galileo. "It really mucked up my school work because I hardly went as I was working," he says.

He wonders how the new generation of actors is going to get that all-important break into the business. "There are so many drama schools now and this whole reality show thing, which is fair enough but there are so many people who just want to be a celebrity and every year there are thousands of kids coming out of drama school. Nowadays people get cast from reality rather than those who've been trained," he says.

His recent appearances have included The Basil Brush Show on BBC1 and co-presenting The History Of Electricity with Johnny Ball. He's also involved, as producer, in One Night In Vegas, an Elvis Presley tribute show starring Suspiciously Elvis that plays all over the world. In fact, if he wasn't appearing in Harrogate this Christmas he'd be with the show for its dates in Dubai.

After Mother Goose, he'll be swapping one costume for another as he's been cast as Cogsworth, the singing clock, in a tour of Disney's Beauty And The Beast musical. "I don't do much musical work but I do character work which shows in the way you put over a song," he says.

* Mother Goose is at Harrogate Theatre from November 26 to January 8. Tickets (01423) 502 116.

Published: 16/11/2004