(Updated) Pantodrome owes us an explanation

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UPDATE 18/12/07: I’m putting an update at the top of an article because I confess I missed one important detail. It doesn’t make anything I said below wrong as such, but it does change the emphasis quite a bit, and arguably answers the questions, at least the important ones. My partial excuse for missing this is that when I’m dealing with unreliable sensationalist publications, I skim though the opening paragraphs until I reach the quotes to find out exactly who said what. On this occasion, by doing that, I missed an important detail in the heading. I said that there was an claim (unverified) that cast weren’t being paid. However, the opener to the article is more specific. That says Denise Welch herself wasn’t paid.

An important difference here is that this claim is not quoted as an anonymous source: The Sun has stated it as fact. In this turns out to be a lie, it’s unlikely The Sun can weasel out by saying they were only reporting what an unnamed source said. My reading of the article is that it’s reporting as fact that Welch wasn’t paid, and an anonymous source alleges (unverified) that other people weren’t paid too. However, there is a possibility that when they say “cast were paid late or not at all”, by “cast” they mean Denise Welch only. It would be incredibly dishonest if they were misleading readers by passing off a personal pay dispute between Welch and Pantodrome as something wider, beyond the pale by any journalistic standards. There again, this is The Sun, so who knows?

However, this does give Times Square Panto a legit reason to avoid addressing allegations over pay. As it now looks that a pay dispute would be a major factor in any upcoming legal scuffles, you probably don’t want to undermine your own case by talking about the alleged disputes with the rest of the cast. It doesn’t get them off the hook on the issue of payment itself, but it does at least explain why this has been left off the public statements so far.

I’m done asking questions, I’m not going to ask any more. My advice for Times Square Panto would be as follows: in order, settle up any pay grievances with the rest of the cast ASAP, then resolve matters with Denise Welch, then come clean over what went wrong. Doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list of faults, but it’s in their interests to convince us that lessons are learnt and it won’t happen again. Because whatever the truth is about the pay allegations, it’s going to come out anyway – if not in the press or in court, it surely will on the actors’ grapevine. It won’t pay to ignore this indefinitely.

UPDATE #2 (30/12/07): Oh dear. Not looking good. According to the Evening Chronicle, the last two performances were cancelled due to a walkout over pay. And there was me starting to think I’d been too harsh on Times Square Panto.

Original article follows; please read it in context of this above …

COMMENT: We don’t know who is at fault for the fiasco surrounding Denise Welch’s departure from Times Square Panto. But staying silent over the allegations is not an acceptable response.

Panto is the last thing I’d expect to cover here. In general, I avoid them like the plague, because – with a few honorable exceptions – I find most of them to be predictable and formulaic. If anything, my favourite memories of panto are the ones I used to watch in Saltburn. They were sometimes great, sometimes abominable, but they were always different. Certainly not like the big-budget professional ones where, I have to say, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Another thing that’s a big turn-off for me is celebrity names. I look at all these big names on posters and usually go “Who? … Who? …  Who?” Theatre outside of London is largely spared the marking based on who’s been in which soap and who’s appearing in I’m a Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing on Ice Factor, but I don’t see why a show is going to be any better just because the principals are famous for things other than theatre. At least when the leads are played by unknowns you’re giving someone a chance for their big break instead someone who’s already got theirs.

However, I accept that panto-haters like me are the minority, and I accept that pantomimes make a lot of money so that theatres can afford to run the rest of the year. And if casting soap stars and reality stars means they make even more money, so be it. As such, it’s not really my business to comment on how pantomimes should be run, and if what happened at Times Square Panto was just another celebrity strop, I would take no notice.

But this goes deeper than whether Denise Welch plays Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk. This is a potentially a matter of employment rights of actors. So I’m going to stick in my oar whether I’m welcome or not. I want some answers, and at the moment we’re not getting any.

What we know so far

Before we go any further, I should declare here that I’m not impartial in this matter. A lot of the details have come from an “anonymous source” as reported by The Sun, and those of you who know me will know that I have a personal grudge against The Sun and a pretty low opinion of them. However, my deepest contempt is reserved for evasive corporate bullshitting, especially when the questions being evading concern flouted employment rights – again, my vendetta against that practice is personal.

That declared, let’s start with a recap of everything that’s come to light so far. So, the Pantodrome is a 900-seat temporary structure in Times Square, Newcastle, outside Centre for Life. Until last week, they were just another big-budget big-name panto, nothing out of the ordinary until the first two performances were cancelled at very short notice. Then the bombshell dropped on Wednesday that headline start Denise Welch had pulled out, whilst at the same time all sorts of allegations were reported in The Sun and picked out by other papers. This is now going ahead with an understudy.

Since I can’t bring myself to link to The Sun, here’s a link to another site that sums up the allegations fairly comprehensively. One important clarification is that there are two separate statements in play here. There is the on-the-record statement from Denise Welch herself says she’s pulling out “with a heavy heart” but without saying why. The other one is an anonymous source giving a far more damning indictment of how things were going. According to that, the reason for the delay is that sets weren’t finished, a technical rehearsal had to be cancelled because the production wasn’t ready, and – of most concern – actors were being paid paid late or not at all.

For Times Square Panto’s part, we have heard very little of their side of the story. Most of their response has been announcing the fact that the run was going ahead with an understudy. There were only two reference addressing the allegations, one from the website/marketing people say the news stories are unhelpful and potentially misleading, another from a spokesperson to The Sun who said the following:

“Equity visited the Pantodrome earlier in the week at Denise’s request, to assess the safety of the building and the facilities provided and no issues were outlined from this.”

That’s all we know for certain. Only a few basic details have been confirmed; other than that, it’s a long list of claims and counter-claims that are neither proven nor disproven. It could be that they are blameless and the allegations are malicious. Or it could be that the allegations are the tip of the iceberg and the real situation is even worse.

Facts established, now let’s move on to what to make of it.

Why this is concerning

There are some arguments to be made in defence of Times Square Panto. The Sun isn’t exactly a paragon of accuracy when it comes to investigative reporting. We don’t know whether this unnamed source is being quoted fairly and accurately, or selectively and sensationally – I wouldn’t even put it past them to fabricate the source completely. True, the story has been picked up by other papers, but mostly only with a reputation for lifting stories from other rags without fact-checking.

I do also have to say that I’ve heard from multiple independent sources the Denise Welch has a reputation for being difficult to work with. We do therefore have to consider the possibility that she wanted out for different reasons to the ones she’s given, and this story provided a convenient excuse to walk.

However, those arguments against Denise Welch’s side of the story are only speculation and hearsay. The arguments against Pantodrome have a bit more substance. There is no smoking gun that proves the claims, but there are some details that are, at best, questionable, and, at worst, suspicious.

There are three things I’d say are red flags:

1) Lack of explicit denial: You can’t pin much reliability on anonymous allegations, but the problem here is that neither Times Square Panto nor its affiliates have actually denied them. They are described as “unhelpful” and “misleading” – but not as false.* One would have thought that if these allegations were untrue (and there were some pretty specific claims that are either objectively truthful or objectively lies), they would have said so. This inevitably raises the suspicion that if they’re not outright denying the allegations, it’s because there’s some truth to them. The cynic in me would suggest that the words “unhelpful” and “misleading” are handy PR-speak: it enables you to insinuate a claim is false without actually saying so, protecting you from the consequences if (when?) the claim is later proven true.

(*: These words came from their creative partner Jonarc rather than Times Square Panto themselves, but I can’t believe that statement would have gone out without their approval.)

2) Lack of openness: The one thing that Denise Welch and Times Square Panto both have in common is a refusal to substantiate their side of the story in any detail. Times Square Panto’s statement on their own website finishes with “No further comments will be made”, without saying why. Welch’s own statement is slightly more informative: “Legally, I can say no more …” Okay, so presumably it’s legal reason, what sort of legal reasons? It might be that the two sides are about to go into a legal row over breach of contract – in that case, fair enough, we’ll find out when this goes to court. However, there is also the possibility that there are gagging clauses in play here. That would be far more suspicious. I don’t anyone thinks you should be able to badmouth a show you’re in and expect to keep your job, but stopping ex-employees from speaking out is a different matter. We don’t know if gagging clauses are the reason for this silence – but until this is expressly refuted, we must consider the possibility that someone wants to stop us hearing the other side of the story.

3) Selective addressing of criticism: The last thing that looks suspiciously evasive is their statement about Equity. Now, I suppose I should be thankful that for a change Times Square Panto actually said something about an issue, but that raises more questions than it answers. So, according to them, an Equity rep visited at Welch’s request and said there were no issues with the safety of the building or facilities. But, hey, wait a second, that’s not the reason Equity was called in according to these claims. That says Equity was called in to mediate over actors being paid on time. Why no mention of that? Again, there’s a lot of different possible reasons here, but the one that springs to might is a classic tactic of corporate evasion: ignore the real allegation, rebut a similar-sounding allegation, and try to pass that off a rebuttal the actual allegation.

To be honest, it is this final issue that prompted me to write this. I don’t care for arguments between celebrities and producers, and if rehearsals descended into chaos, well, that could happen to anyone. But I look far more dimly on allegations of not paying your cast, especially after you had a chance to answer and apparently side-stepped it. Sure, I’m making a big deal of this when no-one else is, but having been on the receiving end of flouted employment rights myself, I’d say I have a better radar than most for spotting this kind of evasive tactics.

However, all of these red flags could be resolved with a little more openness, and it’s not too late to allay my suspicions. Here’s how.

Questions that needs answers

I’m now going to be a little more benevolent and consider the scenario that The Sun has written a hit piece, and that the picture painted of Times Square Panto is unfair and inaccurate. In this case, here’s the root problem. It’s not that anyone thinks these anonymous allegations are reliable or credible – remember we’re talking about The Sun here. It’s that these allegations have, so far, not been denied.

So, I’ve gone through the claims and I’ve ignored all the subjective ones. I won’t, for example, ask whether it’s true that rehearsals were “chaotic”, because we don’t know what anon thinks constitutes a chaotic rehearsal. Instead, I’m sticking to factual allegations which Times Square Panto has the power to confirm, deny, or ignore. They are:

1) Is it true that a technical rehearsal had to be cancelled because the show was running behind? It’s okay if the answer’s yes. Even the best producers and directors run into this when minor errors of judgement coincide with bad luck, and no-one should judge the competence of a company just because one show ran into problems. But I have a lot more respect for a theatre company that admits its mistakes than one that behaves like it didn’t happen and doesn’t matter.

2) Was Equity called in to mediate on the matter of pay? Times Square Panto says they were cleared by Equity on the matter of safety, but that neither proves nor disproves the allegations over late pay. I don’t expect to know the outcome of mediation – that may well be confidential – but they can surely confirm or deny if the mediation happened.

3) What is stopping Denise Welch from commenting further about her departure? If there’s a pending legal case over breach of contract or whatever, fair enough – we can learn the truth as and when the case comes to light. But please tell me it’s not a gagging clause. And related to this question …

4) Will cast and crew be free to say what happened when they employment is complete? I can understand why you don’t want anyone badmouthing the play whilst the run is still on, but if you public trust, you should allow ex-employees to publicly say anything they like about management, good or bad – and make that clear.

That does not cover all the issues, but it should at least cover the main ones. Perhaps they will say their priority is to deliver a pantomime that the actors have worked hard for and the audience wants to see. I’ll be prepared to accept that, provided they tell us when we can expect an answer to these questions, after the run is finished.

If Times Square Panto outright denies the claims in The Sun, fair enough. If it comes down to one person’s work against another’s, I’ll usually trust a named source over an unnamed one. (And if a denied claim turns out to be true, I expect the truth will emerge before too long.) If any claims are true, then own up, say sorry, put things right, then move on. I’ll accept either of those as the right answer.

And the wrong answer? Dismissing criticism or questions as an attack on the hard-working cast and crew. Or accusing critics of wanting to spoil family fun. The management of Times Square Panto are capable of defending themselves – they should not be using cast, crew or children as shields. So far, I haven’t seen them try to deflect criticism this way (at least, not obviously). I will be disappointed if they start doing that now.

No more questions. Ball’s in their court now.

And some positive things …

Since I’ve spent must of this being critical of Times Square Panto, it is only fair to acknowledge the good things. Audience reaction on social media seems to be holding up, and whilst some technical problems were evident on the press night, the reviews seem to have held up too. Tom Whalley’s script has been particularly praised in the reviews – I get the impression that this is what saved the production.

The most interesting observation, however, is Peter Lathan’s review from British Theatre Guide, where is he particularly praiseful of understudy Karleigh Wright who stepped in to Denise Welch’s part with only a few hours’ notice before the first performance. He stopped short of saying she’d be as good as Denise Welch by the time she was off-book, but he came close.

I hope she does turn out to be as good as the star she replaced, because we need to challenge the mindset that leading roles in high-budget pantomime have to be done by celebs. With the exception of children’s TV presenters and the odd family-friendly comedian, I’ve never understood why someone you’ve seen on the telly makes a panto any more enjoyable that a good unknown. The only advantage of casting a soap star or whatever is to up the ticket sales, but only as long as the mindset persists that we should pick pantos based on celebrity names. I want that attitude to change, and if Karleigh Wright steals the show, maybe that will help. If we’re going to invest so much into pantos I’d rather the parts went to unknown actor who need the exposure than TV stars who don’t.

But the last-minute success does not excuse the management of Times Square Panto from accountability. Some things can be forgiven and forgotten, but payment of actors isn’t one of them. There’s already enough companies (mostly retail) who get away with casual disregard of employment conditions this time of year because Christmas.  I really hope panto isn’t going to join the list.

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2 thoughts on “(Updated) Pantodrome owes us an explanation

  1. Richard Stamp December 18, 2017 / 2:44 pm

    Chris – on your first question, you’re an actor, a director and (I think) a producer. If one of your shows was going embarrassingly wrong and I demanded you told me what had happened at a particular rehearsal, would you think I had a right to know? After all, this isn’t an allegation of sexual harassment or backstage racism or bullying – it’s just gossip about alleged chaos behind the scenes.

    On the second question, read the quote from the anonymous source carefully. Aside from the fact it’s unattributed, it doesn’t actually say that the Equity mediation was to do with pay. It lists several claims, and then, at the end of them all, says that Equity were called in to mediate (on something). So the theatre have issued a non-denial denial in response to a non-allegation allegation.

    And on the third question… I think both sides say that Denise Welch left the production unilaterally, so OF COURSE there is a contract dispute. How couldn’t there be? It might or might not end up in court, but if I were either party I’d be being very careful what I said in public right now.

    You know that the two of us usually agree on most things, but I honestly think you’re going overboard on this one.

    • chrisontheatre December 18, 2017 / 3:28 pm

      For the first point, it might just be me, but I’ve just done a production with difficulties (albeit not as spectacular as this), and I have no problem being open about what didn’t go to plan.

      On the second point, yes, it is possible this is a bit of cunning weasel-wording to make it looks like Equity was mediating on a pay dispute when that was something different, but there’s still the issue of actors not being paid. I picked Equity mediation as the question at that can have a straight answer without compromising due confidentiality over individual pay disputes.

      Third point I’ll concede that this is the more likely explanation, and if was just that I wouldn’t be pursuing this. As I said, it’s the pay issue that’s prompted me to ask questions.

      A straight answer of “Equity was not called to mediate on the issue of pay” will shut me up.

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