James Burns

James Burns

Simon Hoggart: A Life in Panto

I first met Simon Hoggart when our sons were at junior school together.  I knew him by reputation and was, like a lot of the ‘locals’ in awe of his intellect and wary of his bookish demeanour. We lived in a fully paid-up Observer/Guardian-reading community and, irrespective of our political leanings, most people like to point out who they rubbed shoulders with at the school-gate, although actual ‘celebrity’ status was largely eschewed.

Simon and his lovely wife Alyson socialised with the other parents and got involved with community and school events, like the St Margaret’s Fair and ‘speed dating’ style dinner parties (don’t ask but they involved many different food courses at different people’s houses…). But by far the biggest and most impressive of these was the local St Margaret's ‘village’ pantomime. 

Now overall credit for this annual production must rightfully go to my husband, Richard Lightman, who cajoled, charmed and browbeat the teachers and parents at the local schools benefiting from the funds raised by this monumental initiative to make this a reality (believe me Linda Snell in 'The Archers' makes it sound easy).  But it was Simon’s pen that brought the whole project to life with his brilliant and hilarious scripts based on traditional pantos of yore, overrun with local references and characterisations, and more than a whiff of parliamentary intrigue – we performed Hoggartian versions of 'Puss in Boots', 'Robin Hood – Women in Tights' (there were never enough men taking part), 'Aladdin', 'Cinderella', 'Snow White', 'Peter Pan' and 'Jack and the Beanstalk' taking a couple of years off between the later productions to get our parental chakras back in alignment!

I played my parts (Witch of East Twick – twice, pirate, merry man/woman in tights, dwarf, goofy prince, half a cow) and was privileged to have had an input into the story plots but I could not write dialogue in the same witty, double edged way that was Simon’s political sketch writer’s stock-in-trade.  The brain storming sessions over wine and nibbles at his house are engrained in my fondest memories of him as we shared a love of comedy ‘history’ discussing the origins of today’s alternative comedy scene.  His sense of the ridiculous, like mine, was routed in early radio comedies like 'Round the Horne', 'The Navy Lark', 'The Goon Show' and more. 

I am pretty sure that this rekindling of some of my earliest childhood memories led me into my latent career in comedy, even though at 10 years Simon’s junior, I was listening to this stuff as a child more by osmosis than choice.  My late father was a huge comedy fan, as was Simon and it was a joy to discuss obscure comic references and borrow from his vast and unruly archive of cassette tapes of comedy shows past.  We even discussed collaborating on a book about the origins of pantomime.

The pantomimes spanned an eight-year period and involved the parents and children from three local state schools raising thousands of pounds for the betterment of our kids’ education.  When our sons went off to different secondary schools the friendships endured while the panto years faded.  Although they are now only wistful memories they represent some of the best fun I have ever had as a grown up.  I am also particularly pleased to have shared this special part of my life with Simon and our respective families.  May he rest in peace after a courageous and good humoured battle for life.

Lynne Parker is the founder and executive producer of Funny Women.

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