David Leonard - Yorkshire’s evergreen pantomime villain
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 December 2017
Actor David Leonard has made an art form out of being villainous in Berwick Kaler’s annual pantomime at the York Theatre Royal. Tony Greenway meets him
‘This really is no way for a grown man to behave,’ agrees actor David Leonard, tutting at himself. ‘It’s a weird way to make a living.’ The thing is Leonard is very, very good at it. Because — boo and, indeed, hiss — he isn’t just any pantomime villain. He’s the pantomime villain at the heart of the most popular panto in the country: the annual Berwick Kaler extravaganza.
Naturally, Kaler, who writes the script and famously plays the dame, is a big draw (with, aptly enough, big drawers) but his stalwart supporting cast — Leonard, principal boy Suzy Cooper, sidekick Martin Barrass and AJ ‘luvverly’ Powell — are regular crowd-pleasers who have become central to the success of the show.
This time they’ll be performing Jack and the Beanstalk and, as usual, Leonard will enter from stage left to ominous music, audience jeers and a puff of smoke, while wearing an outrageous costume and luxurious fright-wig. Once in the spotlight he’ll be ludicrously and gloriously over-the-top, squeezing the comic potential out of each line and relishing every second he’s on stage. Consequently, so does the audience. He gives a tour de force every time.
Yet it’s somehow reassuring to know that Leonard — a West End star who’s appeared in the Kaler panto for around 30 years, on and off — realises the full-on absurdity of his job. And he’s not the only one. ‘When my son was about 14 or 15, I was on stage in the panto and noticed him sitting in the stalls doing this,’ he says, putting his head in his hands and groaning. ‘Because he was suddenly thinking: that’s my dad up there, gyrating in Lycra.’ He guffaws at the thought.
Some actors may disparage panto acting, but it isn’t as easy as Leonard and co make it look. Apart from the insane costumes and frenetic songs and dances, you have to be comfortable interacting with the paying public who are actively encouraged to scream at you at the top of their lungs. It’s wildly physical, too, so you have to keep your energy levels up at all times (and Kaler will notice if you start to flag and single you out, laughs Leonard). ‘It’s the only theatre show where you have collusion with the audience,’ he says. ‘They’ll shout at you and boo and hiss you — so some actors hate doing it. I’ve seen really good ones fail miserably at panto, and maybe that’s because they don’t get the trick of it. Or maybe it’s because the material isn’t good enough. Either way, you do have to be willing to put yourself out there.’
And Leonard puts himself so far out there you sometimes wonder if he’ll ever manage to reel himself back. And his villains are always madly grandiose and genuinely, exuberantly funny which undercuts any threat that younger members of the audience may feel. That’s important because, in my experience as a ticket-buying parent, the scariness of a panto baddy can make or break an evening. I’ve been to other pantos with my kids when they were younger, and they’ve actually asked to leave when the villain turned up. Leonard looks genuinely concerned about that. ‘Is it because they were frightened?’ he says. ‘If the entrance is noisy and there’s lots of smoke, some young children will automatically cry... and there’s nothing you can do about that. But the villains in Berwick’s shows have these world-dominating delusions of grandeur which all the other characters can puncture. It makes them ridiculous.’
In his very first Kaler panto, Leonard wasn’t sure how to tackle his role. ‘I’d never played a villain before,’ he says. ‘Then I thought about Kenneth Williams’ — and he does an owwwwwww-noooo Williams voice — ‘and also Donald Sinden, for some reason. So I did a combination of both because of the lines Berwick had written. I’d seen the comedy potential in his script, and my immediate instinct is always to go for that.’
Leonard missed the 2012 pantomime when he took on another villainous role: Agatha Trunchbull in the West End musical hit, Matilda. ‘That’s a great show,’ he says. ‘The audience is on their feet at the end. It’s genius. Tim Minchin’s music is amazing, as is the choreography. It’s like a machine now. I was the second ‘Trunch’ — and they’re currently on their fifth.’
But, even then, with the West End at his feet, Leonard missed Kaler and the crew come December. ‘I remember sitting in my dressing room in London, looking in the mirror and thinking: “hmmm. They’ll be getting ready about now...” I had withdrawal symptoms for York. I’d also meet people at the Matilda stage door who asked: ‘You are going back to the panto, aren’t you?”’
It took a while, though, because the next year Leonard was offered another unmissable role as Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago, the part Richard Gere played in the glossy movie version. ‘It was a great West End cast and fantastic songs,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t turn it down.’ Over the years, Leonard’s stage career has included A Man for All Seasons, Pygmalion, Hay Fever, Richard III, The Elephant Man and Private Lives and playing Sky Masterson in a national tour of Guys and Dolls. As a jobbing actor he’s also worked in radio and TV, including a ‘cough and a spit’ in Danish TV drama phenomenon, Borgen.
Leonard had always dreamed of being an actor, ever since he was a boy. ‘You hear of people who fall into acting. That wasn’t me. I wanted to be a performer. I dropped out of art school because I wanted to earn some money and worked for a pot ash mine as a junior estimator... and I’m innumerate, so I don’t know how I got that job. Then I worked for a shipping agency until one of the managing directors said: “You don’t really want to do this, do you, David? You seem to be going around all the departments doing impressions of people. You did a lot of acting as a kid, didn’t you? What are you doing here? Go to drama school.” And the whole office went: “Yeah! Get out!”’
Leonard has since passed the creative gene onto his children. His daughter, Hermione, played the principal boy in last year’s York panto and is now working in LA, while his son, Laurie, is a director. ‘They both know the reality of this job,’ he says. ‘It’s really interesting to see young people today who only want to be famous. As a young man, I just only ever wanted to stand up and show off... which is what acting is, really.’ And he gives a big villainous laugh.
Getting the 2017 production on stage has required a massive effort from all concerned. Kaler has been recovering after heart surgery, while Barrass is back after a near fatal motorbike accident that caused him to miss last year’s show. But despite its institution-like status and national profile, the York panto cast isn’t presuming the goodwill of the public will be there for them unconditionally. ‘We do this every year,’ says Leonard. ‘And every year we ask ourselves: “Will they come? Will they like it? Will they laugh?” So you never get big-headed. It’s always a worry — and so it should be, because you can never take your audience for granted.’
Jack and the Beanstalk, York Theatre Royal, December 14th-February 3rd.