Clive Rowe, 57, has become a living legend as a pantomime dame. A star of musical theatre (as well as being known for his performance as Norman “Duke” Ellington in The Story of Tracy Beaker), he is on his 14th panto at Hackney Empire, London, as Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk, and with his tremendous singing voice, high-pitched innuendoes and generous personality is reaffirming faith in a Christmas institution. He is also, for the first time, with Tony Whittle, co-directing the show.
Do you, as King of Panto, get a tremor of anticipation as the season gets under way?
While I might love that “King of Panto” accolade, there is an incredible tradition of panto across this country: we’ve so many great dames who are equally wonderful. I just get up there and have fun and am pleased if people have fun too. As to the tremors, I’ve had to quiver for two years as Jack and the Beanstalk was put off because of the pandemic.
What makes Jack and the Beanstalk so beguiling as a story?
It’s the idea that evil can be beaten by a pure heart. It’s about the joining together of friends. The message is that if you persevere, you can win in the end. That’s a beautiful message. And it’s great to let kids understand that friendship and love are the most powerful things and are still out there.
Do you ever feel you’ve had enough of panto and wish you could put it… behind you!
Stop it! Stop it! No! I said to one of the company the other day: “I can’t do it if I don’t enjoy it.” Pantomime would be one of the worst things to do if you didn’t enjoy it.
How conscious are you, when performing, of Hackney Empire’s extraordinary history? The theatre is now celebrating its 120th birthday.
I’m a great believer that energy doesn’t die. I’m not spiritual but the energy that has been in this building vibrates through the brickwork… There have been some great performers at Hackney Empire and we become part of that legacy. It’s such a beautiful theatre – you get out on to that stage and it’s gorgeous. In spite of its size, it feels intimate, you feel very close to the people.
Do you live in the borough?
I live in south-east London, close to Crystal Palace. I’m not a Hackney man but hope they’ve adopted me by now.
What’s your favourite panto costume?
My “bags for life” costume this year – it’s so witty and clever – designed by Cleo Pettitt, constructed out of bags. Marks & Spencer has become “Marks and Dentures”, New Look is “Old Look”, Burger King is “Burper King”.
You’re definitely a bag lady with a difference. How did co-directing with Tony Whittle (who also plays Councillor Higginbottom, your love interest) work out?
When I was first approached, I said: “It’s too big for me as a first-time director.” But I knew Tony and I would get on – we trust each other. My biggest learning curve was people management. I learned there are certain ways to talk to performers to get the best out of them – you can’t approach every actor the same way.
As Dame Trot, you pick a male admirer every night from the audience. I’ve always wanted to ask: how do you judge who to pick?
It’s completely and utterly random. Some shows are easy, you know who you want and get it absolutely right. There might be a glint in their eye or they might look away. But you want that little bit of shyness. They shouldn’t be scared, but if you see that little blush when you’re talking to them, you know they’re game but not used to it. But you won’t know whether you’ve got it right until you’ve got them stood up.
Where were you born? What did your parents do?
I was born in Hope hospital in Oldham, Greater Manchester. My mother worked in an Osram lightbulb factory. She left my father when I was very young. There were seven of us – I’m the youngest. I’ve no idea what my father did. I only met him two or three times in my life so I didn’t know him at all.
How did your theatre career come about?
I went to Oldham College because my mother wanted me to be an intellect – but failed my exams, apart from art. At 17, I’d been doing amateur theatre and told myself if I’d not passed the exams by the time I was 19, I’d apply to drama school, not because I wanted to be a professional actor but because it would give me time to work out what proper job I could do. My plan was to do amateur theatre, then work in a factory or as an electrician.
But you got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Was that fun?
It was fantastic – it wasn’t heavy, because acting was my hobby. They asked me to be an animal in a zoo. Lots of students complained but I was like: “Absolutely, I’ll be whatever animal you want – I could be working in Warburtons bakery.” I chose a Thornback ray, a little pink fish. All it does is it lies down, then swims a bit, then lies down. I did that for three hours. It was fantastic.
You once joked: “My workout routine is getting up from my couch to answer the door to pick up the food that has been delivered.” What will your Christmas dinner consist of?
I’ve been invited to a friend’s house and his family lays on a fantastic Christmas dinner. They live about five minutes away. Last time, there were three different types of stuffing.
What would you like as a Christmas present?
Apart from all the big things such as world peace and the end of Covid – and I’d love those things – I don’t know. I’m incredibly happy and don’t know what I would get that could make me happier. Maybe a promise that I’ll be allowed to work until the day I drop – that’s what I’d like for Christmas.