UPDATE: Most of you looking for this article will know this already: but there is one small but important clarification to make. This story, along with everything else written at the time, said Denise Welch quit the show. We now know this is disputed: Denise Welch has since said she was sacked after threatening to speak out. Doesn’t change what I wrote, but something to bear in mind. Will update on all the shennagins soon.
Sorry to burden you with another Pantogate article. I wrote one, and thought that would be enough. But that was before the shit really hit the fan. Oh boy. Just when everyone thought things had settled down at Times Square Panto after the celebrity walkout, it came to a head on the last day with another walkout, only this time, it was enough to get the last two performances cancelled. It would be extremely tempting at this stage for me to say “I told you this would happen,” but that wouldn’t be truthful. In all honesty, I never for a moment imagined things would get this bad.
I have a rule on this blog (indeed with life in general) that I don’t kick public figures when they’re down. For reason I’ll come on to in a moment, I think the game is up for Times Square Panto, so there’s little point dogpiling any further. All it’s fair to do now is sum up what happened and ask what lessons can be learned. However, some questions need asking over how this was allowed to get to this point. Had there been some more vigilance, I have doubts it would ever have had to come to this.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Oh boy.
So, Times Square Panto was a venture to construct a temporary building, known as the Pantodrome, in the square outside the Centre for Life. This was a large-scale venture, with two big-name celebrities topping the bill. I must say, I’ve never subscribed to this theory that pantomime get better just because they have celebrities in the cast. Children’s TV presenters or family-friendly comedians maybe, but I don’t see why an actor from a soap makes a better lead than a competent unknown from the chorus. However, I accept I’m in the minority here and the fact is people do choose them based on which soap actor they want to see – and as someone with no interest in panto it’s not really my business to say how they should be cast. And so Denise Welch and Adam Thomas were top of the bill. Two names I would be hearing of again for the wrong reasons.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened until the start of the run. The opening night was delayed. Not a major issue in itself, the same happened to some other north-east pantos too. Then the bombshell dropped that Denise Welch was pulling out, whilst at the same time unnamed sources made various allegations about what was going on behind the scenes. Both Welch’s statement and the unnamed source went via The Sun, so everyone was at best cautious over this information, but amongst the various allegations was the one that actors weren’t being paid. That was what grabbed my interest. Large-scale productions frequently bite off more than they chew, and that’s an easy mistake, but not paying people is something I find less forgivable. And the response from Times Square Panto and their publicist saying the show must go on looked suspiciously evasive. I wrote my first article asking for a better explanation. You can read it if you like, but most of the observations and questions are now moot points.
After that, things got better. The press was generally kind in the reviews, even though there were clearly problems in the early performances. (The review in The Stage gives a good summary of what went right and wrong, but paywall.) I get the impression that it was the script that saved the panto more than anything, but it also looks like the cast did a good job, even if it was in spite of management than because of them. I even started to think I’d been too harsh on Times Square Panto. If there had been problems over paying cast and crew, I started to believe, it was probably cash flow problems that would be rectified once the ticket money came in. (Paying people late is still not okay, but I was starting to think they’d got into this situation out of carelessness rather than greed.)
And then, with one day’s worth of performances to go, shit hit the fan. Firstly came a tweet from remaining headliner Adam Thomas (archive):
That didn’t explicitly refer to Pantodrome, but it would have been a steep coincidence to mean anything else. Especially as we now know that the decision had been made to cancel the last two performances because several members of the cast refused to perform over lack of pay.
Exactly what the extent was of the late payments is shrouded in a little more mystery. By this time, several publications were in on the story, each quoting their own sources, but the details were contradictory, and since all the sources were unnamed, we have no way of knowing who’s correct. According to the source in the papers on the day of the cancellation, there was only a problem with the final week’s payment being delayed. However, when the news broke that Denise Welch had pulled out, there was another source claiming back then that people weren’t being paid (and I’ve seen a reasonably credible claim on Twitter that at least one member of staff had not been paid at all). For what it’s worth, my guess is that it was over more than just a delay to the final week’s pay for two reasons: firstly, I have doubts that that thing alone would have been enough to provoke a walkout, and secondly, I can’t believe Denise Welch could pull out of a production without consequences for future hirings unless she had a good reason ready for future producers. But that’s just speculation.
What we know beyond reasonable doubt, however, is that Times Square Panto were staggeringly dishonest to their would-be audience. The notice on the door said it was cancelled because of a heating problem, even though an e-mail had already been sent to staff giving the real reason for the cancellation. It frankly beggars belief that a company of this standing thought they could tell a lie that magnitude and not be found out, but believe we must. Nor did it help that they didn’t bother telling anyone prior to turning up. I haven’t confirmed this myself, but I am told by someone I trust that, on the booking system they were using, it would have been a five-minute job to send an e-mail to everyone who booked online. The website went into maintenance mode. Nothing was communicated through social media. And since then, we have not heard one single peep from Times Square Panto.
Well, not quite. We did hear one single peep. A tweet from some anon rudely berating a customer having the temerity to complain about poor service got liked by Times Square Panto (archive):
However, it was a bit ironic that Times Square Panto chose to back this statement, because since then there have been a lot of complaints that people aren’t getting refunds. I’ve observed this myself, so has the local media. Also of note was that the Chronicle said on the record they had tried repeatedly to contact Times Square Panto and got no response.
The last I heard, someone did manage to get a refund, although it was from third-party Wowcher rather than Times Square Panto themselves. It’s not clear whether Times Square have finally coughed up or if Wowcher opted to refund themselves and maybe chase Times Square Panto later, but there is a little bit of hope that money may eventually be settled up. But that is a scant consolation for a sorry state of affairs and a farcical aftermath. The credibility of this venture has now surely been shattered beyond repair.
What can we learn?
As I said, I don’t want this post to be a kicking of this production. It doesn’t matter now. In all probability, Times Square Panto is finished. It won’t be back next Christmas. few families are going to want to make this their Christmas treat if they’re liable to cancel on you. And I strongly suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. The radio silence we’ve witnessed is very different to their response to Denise Welch’s walkout when they said their priority was to give the pantomime people deserve. Back then it was a good shot at damage control. Now they’re not even trying. This strongly suggest they know themselves they can’t recover from this.
So why does this story still matter? Because, according to at least one source this is not the first time a north-east theatre has failed to pay actors when they were supposed to, other north-east theatres are guilty of this too. That is really concerning. Now, the issue of paying actors is a thorny subject, and there’s a big discussion on whether it’s ever acceptable to work for free, but that can wait for another day. Where I’m sure we’re all agreed is that when you say you will pay your actors, keeping your promise is not optional. One would think that theatres that don’t ought to be named and shamed.
And yet the observation from Pantodrome is that the issue of not paying actors gets barely any attention from the local arts media. Where it was reported, it was only in conjunction with something else: first the walkout of Denise Welch, and then with the cancellations on the last day. Never was this a story in its own right. I am glad the papers picked up on the shennagins eventually, but after allegations emerged earlier and Times Square responded by addressing anything but pay, I can’t understand why alarm bells weren’t ringing sooner.
Part of the problem, I feel, is too much local loyalty. In London, theatres are routinely savaged by the arts press and social media for lesser transgressions, but it is very rare for anything remotely critical to be written about theatres in the north-east. All too often the coverage of theatre may as well have been written by the PR teams of the theatres themselves. Sure, we all want to be positive about the cultural achievements of the north-east, but sacrificing scrutiny is a high price to pay when this sort of thing happens under your nose.
The other problem, I feel, is that we let people get away with too much at Christmas. Retail is notorious for shitty working conditions over Christmas, and yet this time of year, no-one seems to want to know. People who complain come across as spoiling everyone else’s Christmas cheer. Combine this with the effect of anyone complaining about a panto coming across as talking down north-east culture, and you can start to see why something this serious went unchallenged for so long. And if it is true that this has happened before, this means employers with few scruples have done it knowing they can get away with it.
We need to ask some difficult questions. In particular: should we refuse to review theatres who behave this badly? Yes, the cast probably did pull off a great achievement against the odds, and it would be a shame not to acknowledge this, but is this simply playing into the hands of bad employers? I honestly don’t know what the right answer is, but if you carry on with supportive coverage as if nothing’s happened, that could be taken as validation of how they’re behaving. That is a high price to pay.
It’s bad enough what happened at Times, both for the actors and employees affected and all the families caught up with it. But it’s worse to think this sort of thing has gone on before. And if we don’t learn lessons from this, it will carry on happening. We must not squander our chance to put an end to this.