Here's the latest extract from my Diaries. Rather different from parliamentary days, you might think. In practice, however, appearing on stage in Britain's oldest participatory entertainment is not so different from PMQs, and is a great deal livelier than the 52 late night Adjournment Debates I responded to in my days as a government Minister. And as one who believes that getting older should be no bar to accepting a challenge, here goes:
December 14th 2015, Northwich, Cheshire
The panto season is upon us. Oh yes it is! After my third performance in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I can attest that it's the most tiring but exhilarating thing I've done for years.
There's something remarkable about hundreds of people crammed into one large area, mobile phones off (mostly), concentrating on one thing and doing it together. The gales of mirth, the ooohs and aahs and children yelling "It's behind you!": who can resist? This magical wave of happy emotion bears up cast and crew as they struggle to change scenes in pitch dark, as mikes fail and actors trip over the set, when the musical director is stuck in traffic and the pyrotechnics create so much smoke that the Fairy can't be seen at all.
Panto has a long history. The word "pantomime" is Greek, meaning roughly "imitates all" - anything or anyone could be a target. Usually, it was politicians: so what's new? The Romans loved it, so did Queen Elizabeth I - Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" is really a 400-year-old jolly seasonal offering.
The traditional version always has a sweet young heroine, a handsome (if slightly dim) Prince, a cross-dressing Dame, a bumbling servant, a Wicked Stepmother, much topical send-up, loads of songs, slapstick and a transformation scene. And an ending in which true love conquers all. What's not to like?
Hubby is supportive. "Who's the star?" he asked. "Me, of course!" I replied. "Are you Snow White?" he asked, innocently. Far from it: Morgana the Wicked Queen, complete with a Margaret Thatcher voice. That turned out to be the easy bit.
In Northwich, our transformation scene hasn't gone to plan. These days scenery is ordered online from a website. It arrived but is 5 ft too short, so two days' rehearsal time is lost as the drapes are hung on poles and checked by Elfen Safety. We're not allowed on stage till they're done. The Magic Mirror turned out to be as big as the Titanic and twice as heavy; it takes two men to shift on and off stage, and then leaves barely a ledge between it and the pit. So I can belt out Rise Like Phoenix on how I'm to change from a Queen into an apple-selling crone, but there's no room to do it. The crone wig looks like something Lady Colin Campbell might appreciate and the warty prosthetic nose would bat for England. But when I do appear in the kit, it's spectacular.
Modern life intrudes in unplanned ways. The famously gay American Austin Armacost makes a splendid Prince; in rehearsal, when told to give Snowy a proper smacker, he said, "But she's a girl!!" In the show the line gets hoots of approval from adults; perhaps we should be glad that the kids don't bat an eyelid. And Snow White begged me not to use a real apple: "I'm seriously allergic to them." You couldn't make it up.
I've never seen people work so hard as they do on stage. Ryan Greaves (Wally) and Steve Moorewood (Dame Winnie, his mother) along with Bruce Jones (ex-Corrie, who plays my henchman Hubert) create heroically comic mayhem with Twelve Days of Christmas. Peeping from the wings I can see members of the audience crying with laughter, and wish I was out there with them instead of desperately trying to remember my next lines. I'm very conscious that these are professionals and I'm not; when I get lost, a despairing look comes into their eyes, but they just ham it up till I find my way again. As long as the punters are happy, who cares?
So at the end of the run I'll have crossed a new Rubicon, added something fresh to my CV and worked with some lovely people. And I shall need a holiday. Oh yes I will!! As for next year, who knows ....