From Dick to Jack, a potted history of Ilford theatre’s pantomimes

For many people, one of the most important things about this time of year is the old-fashioned Christmas pantomime.

And in Ilford, as council chiefs finalise the terms of another lease for the Kenneth More Theatre (KMT), its 37th panto is in full swing.

The curtain was raised on the playhouse’s first ever, Dick Whittington, in 1975, and so the theatre’s great tradition was born.

Every year since crowds have flocked to Oakfield Road – its modest auditorium packed with heroes and villains of all ages.

Until this year the man behind every one was theatre manager Vivyan Ellacott.

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Mr Ellacott has also been helped with the writing by his brother, Nigel, recently described as the Queen Mother of pantomime dames.

The Christmas production at the KMT has had its fair share of legends. Until this year, former assistant manager Robert Quarry had appeared in every single panto.

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“Rob is the only artist in the country to have appeared in panto in the same theatre for 35 years,” said Mr Ellacott.

A couple of national treasures have also trodden the KMT boards at Christmas-time, including Olivier award-winning Desmond Barritt, who played the dame twice, and renowned producer David Ian, who starred in Puss in Boots.

Another important tradition was started in 1995 by Redbridge Mayor and KMT board chairman Cllr Ronnie Barden, who wanted to make a mark on that year’s production of Dick Whittington.

He told the Recorder at the time: “The Kenneth More is one of the jewels in the borough and I felt it would be ideal to put Redbridge on the map during my mayoralty.

“With the panto itself focusing on mayors it seemed an excellent idea to invite mayors from across London to come to Redbridge.”

No one is safe during the panto from the heartbroken dame desperately searching the audience for her next boyfriend – or victim.

Mr Ellacott recalls: “One year the mayor had visitors from Germany, and one guy was called Helmut.

“The dame took him for her boyfriend, and it became a series of increasingly inappropriate double entendres.”

This year, for the first time, Mr Ellacott handed the reins to current manager Steven Day, and the curtain was raised on Jack and the Beanstalk on December 12.

“It is very daunting,” said Mr Day, “but really exciting and the good thing is all the same team is still in place.

“It is going really well so far, and the feedback has been brilliant.”

With a little luck, and the overdue renewal of the building’s lease, the theatre’s panto will be around for another 37 years.

For tickets to Jack and the Beanstalk,which is on at the KMT until January 22, call the box office on 020 8553 4466.

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