A tale of two dames: John Linehan and William Caulfield on missing panto
Jenny Lee chats to Northern Ireland's two longest-serving pantomime dames, John Linehan and William Caulfield, about how their lives have been affected by the pandemic and spending the festive season off stage this year
A VISIT to the pantomime is as much a part of Christmas as decorating the tree and giving presents but sadly as the theatre doors remain closed this festive season due to Covid-19 restrictions, the sounds of children's laughter at the on-stage pantomime antics won't be heard this year.
Two men who are particularly missing the panto seasons are John Linehan, aka May McFettridge, resident panto dame at Belfast's Grand Opera House (GOH) for the past 30 years, and William Caulfield, who has been the panto Dame at Derry's Millennium Forum for the past 14 years.
Used to having just Christmas Day off over the festive period, they will both being experiencing a much quieter Christmas.
As well as the interaction with the audience, what both agree they will miss most is the camaraderie with their fellow cast and crew.
“As I spend all year performing alone, I really enjoying working as part of a team. I've been going to the Forum for so long now and the musicians, crew and front-of-house staff are like a family and I'm really going to miss them this Christmas,” says 61-year-old Lurgan-born comedian Caulfield.
“Pantomimes are so important for the income of theatres. Fingers and toes crossed, that this vaccine comes in, Covid goes out and we move on, and in next year's panto we can make jokes about it all."
His thoughts are echoed by Belfast comic Linehan, who is best known for portraying the character of May McFettridge.
“When you do 85 shows in six weeks, as well as two weeks of rehearsals, the cast become friends for life. I did a panto a number of years ago with Ray Meagher, who is Alf from Home and Away, and I would still chat on the phone to him on a regular basis,” he says.
“[GOH panto co-star] Paddy Jenkins, myself and whoever the principles were would have regularly gone over to The Crown for a pint after the performances. Even going into town and walking by the theatre is going to be strange this year.”
But two health scares earlier this year put things into perspective for Linehan.
“It's the first time in 31 years I will have missed a show," he says. "But it's better not going to theatre than ending up in Milltown cemetery or somewhere like that.
“The NHS do a superb job. They were there for me when I needed them, and we all need to obey the rules to keep everyone safe,” says the 69-year-old.
Linehan admits that 2020 has “been an absolute nightmare” for him. In February, shortly after the end of the pantomime run he suffered a TIA (mini stroke).
“I was watching telly and went to stand up and couldn't move my leg. Then the other leg wouldn't move.”
Although he regained feeling again shortly afterwards, he rang a medical friend for advice and was encouraged to make his way to the hospital emergency department as soon as possible.
Thankfully the quick treatment and ongoing medication has led to him having no further problems since.
However, this summer both Linehan and his wife developed Covid-19.
“I was just so tired and had no appetite. I would have had 10 hours sound sleep, but by 11in the morning I was ready for my bed again, totally exhausted. I came out of my quarantine on the Wednesday and they shut the bars on the Friday,” he laughs.
Thankful to be back to full health, Linehan is preparing for a very different Christmas, one in which he hopes to simply spend more time with his family, including his three grandchildren Johnny (21), Eve (4) and Paul (2).
“During lockdown and when we were ill we were obviously shielding from them, so after 30 years of doing two shows on Christmas Eve and two shows on Boxing Day, I'm just going to try and enjoy our time together.”
Linehan hasn't been tempted to take his comedy online.
“There are comedians who can do stand-up online, but I have to see and respond to the faces of my audiences,” he says.
Local politicians often provide fuel for Linehan's panto one-liners.
“There is stuff happening at the moment I'd love to get on stage and comment on, but we will wait until next year and then the politicians will all get their comeuppance," he jokes.
In 2021 he hopes to take to the stage in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – a first for him and one that both himself and his granddaughter Eve are looking forward to.
“She goes to drama club on a Saturday and is a wee drama queen,” he boasts proudly, adding he can't wait to perform in the Grand Opera House's newly restored auditorium, after being invited for a sneak preview.
“I went up on the scaffolding to the ceiling and was touching the ornamental elephant just by the gods. The place is shining bright, with the decorative features repainted, new seating and carpet.”
And what of May's plans this Christmas?
“Big Patricia is coming to me this year. Her and me are going to form our own bubble – you should see the size of that bubble...”
Caulfield too is looking forward to 2021, when he will take on the role of Nanny Cranny in the Millennium Forum's pantomime Snow White.
“All my Dame characters are based on the original Lily O' Chondriac from The James Young era. She'll have a twinkle in her eye, so if there is an unattached male in the show she will become very interested,” laughs the actor, whose other work as a performing stand-up on cruise ships all over the world has also been scuppered by Coronavirus since spring.
“2020 was to be a great year. I embarked on an eight-night tour with my new Our Jimmy Show and then headed to Barbados to start my shows on the cruise ships. I had 25 contracts booked to take me all over the world and right up to panto rehearsals again.
“We were told the world was being put on pause for four weeks. And here we are nine months later and I haven't a clue what bubble is what bubble.”
While he will miss the festive atmosphere in Derry, Caulfield has decided to make the most of being at home this Christmas.
“I've been watching Christmas movies and decided to turn my house into one of those American homes, so I went out and bought extra lights and decorations and am going to put them outside on the trees in the garden and around the wall,” he enthuses.
He is also looking forward to spending more time with his three young grandchildren and to having a warmer winter by not having to shave his beard.
And this Christmas Eve he will continue the tradition of delivering his annual Christmas speech: “If it's good enough for her majesty, then it's good enough for me.”
:: There are no live pantos this season but, looking to next year, Goldilocks and the Three Bears runs at Belfast's Grand Opera House from November 27 2021-January 9 2022 – book now at Goh.co.uk; while Snow White is at Derry's Millennium Forum from November 27 2021 – book now at Millenniumforum.co.uk