Peter Duncan: the planet-saving panto in Poole
PUBLISHED: 00:03 26 November 2019 | UPDATED: 00:03 26 November 2019
Hattie Miles 07907 645897
Stepping into the role of Dame Trott, Peter Duncan has put a mega-green spin on his latest pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk at Lighthouse Poole, says Jeremy Miles
Actor and presenter Peter Duncan says that young climate change activist Greta Thunberg was the inspiration behind this year's Poole pantomime. As the former BBC Blue Peter man prepared to bring his new version of Jack and the Beanstalk to the town's Lighthouse Centre for the Arts, he told me: "I've always been eco-friendly. I became a member of Green Peace and Friends of the Earth decades ago, it's sort of in my makeup."
Now Peter, a committed supporter of environmental activism, says he has decided to make the production, which opens on 12th December, Dorset's "greenest ever pantomime." As writer, co-producer and star of the show - playing Dame Trott - he is planning to maximise its environmentally responsible theme, portraying Blunderbore the man-eating giant as greedy and wasteful. "I suppose he represents the evil corporate, gas-guzzlers," says Peter, adding that travelling to remote countries for television has made him acutely aware of the impact of the changing climate. Twenty years ago he made a series of major travelogues in which he backpacked around the world with his wife Annie and their four children Lucy, Katie, Georgia and Arthur.
The former Chief Scout also filmed an Everest expedition and interviewed the then 88-year-old Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary shortly before his death. Despite the clearly visible impact of plastic pollution, melting ice¬caps and rising global temperatures there are still those who deny that we are facing a man-made catastrophe.
"The deniers are struggling for credibility," says Peter. "Even in industry people have woken up to the fact that we have to do something about this. Then someone like Greta turns up and it captures the imagination of youth around the world. I've been tremendously inspired by her. She's a real force to be reckoned with." He's even put the 16-year-old Swedish activist into the show featuring her character in a school strike scene.
Another inspiration he says is James Lovelock, the 100-year-old Dorset-based environmentalist and scientist who proposed the Gaia Theory and believes that Earth is a self-healing living organism. "I think he's amazing but I'm not entirely sure the planet can actually sort itself out. People behave so badly. I've just been down to the dump with my bags of garden waste and frankly based on my observation of human behaviour there you really wouldn't have us down as caring very much about the planet. We have to encourage behaviour change."
So it is that Jack and the Beanstalk - the fourth annual pantomime staged at Lighthouse by Peter and his company Duncan Reeves Productions - will go all out to promote green living. He stars alongside former Sugababes singer Amelle Berrabah as the Fairy, Connor Byrne from the Tracy Beaker and The Dumping Ground TV series, as Squire Longshanks and Alex Lodge as Jack Trott. The show's director, Jay Worthy, plays evil henchman Fleshcreep.
Pantomime is a subject that Peter has known all his life. He grew up in a theatrical household and his parents wrote and produced pantos every year. "My father's old pantomime scripts are full of references to Mr Macmillan or the issues of the day. Pantomimes have always addressed topical issues and we're really having a field day for that now.
"But it's not easy writing a panto three or four months in advance, especially at the moment, as everything is changing so fast. My script is full of notes that say 'or whatever' because you never know what is going to have happened by the time the show is in full swing. You have to be on your toes." In Peter's case those toes are likely to be encased in some particularly fancy boots as this is the first time that he's managed to fulfil a long-held ambition - to play Dame in a full panto run.
He's had a taste in the past. A few years back he was cast as Dame in a one-off Blue Peter pantomime; and on the London stage last year he played the lead in The Dame written by his daughter Katie Duncan. His performance as old stager Ronald Roy Humphrey wistfully reminiscing in his dressing room received much critical acclaim.
But being Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk at Poole will be the first time he's done it for real in a proper pantomime run. Peter admits that it marks a significant milestone in a show business career that dates back to the age of 15 when he first appeared on the professional stage as Jim Hawkins in a production of Treasure Island at London's Mermaid Theatre.
"To be honest I always felt I wasn't quite old enough to play Dame, but at 65 I'm ready for it." He also sees it as a great challenge. "Everyone thinks the role of Dame is easy, it really isn't. But the opportunities it gives you as an actor are fantastic." What's more Peter feels that Dame Trott is probably the best Dame role in pantoland. The time-honoured story finds her forced to sell her beloved cow Buttercup to satisfy the man-eating giant's demand for rent.
"Trott is at the very centre of the sadness of the story, and the relationship with the cow is lovely," says Peter. "There's a wonderful dollop of pathos there. It's a great role."
It is also a perfect vehicle for a green-twist. "The great panto themes are about things we all recognise - love, loss, poverty, success - but the particularly interesting thing about Jack and the Beanstalk is the way it teaches us to look after what we have." Peter says he watched in admiration as Greta Thunberg inspired 1.6 million students in 120 countries to take part in strikes and press the world's politicians to act on climate change. "What they achieved was amazing and the movement continues to grow, so I'm very happy to highlight that message. Who knew pantomime could play a part in saving the planet?!"
Jack and the Beanstalk is at Lighthouse in Poole from 12 December to 5 January. Further information at lighthousepoole.co.uk. or box office 01202 280000.