All across the country, in various towns and villages, there is the annual switching on of the local Christmas Tree lights. The tree itself is usually a bedraggled nonentity most of the year (if it is a permanent town resident), but on a certain day at a certain time of year it springs into life as a symbol of the start of the festive period. Depending on which town, village or city you live in, the switching on affair can range from a group of people simply plugging in the lights to a full blown fiesta with pop and rock bands and celebrities counting down. Fleet falls in between both categories.
One of the duties of a pantomime crew is to attend as many switch ons as possible (preferably locally) in order to promote the pantomime and get ‘bums on seats’. The weather forecast for the Fleet lights switch on was looking a bit grim, but we had been told to deck the kids out in their purple Dick Whittington t-shirts with layers – even coats- underneath the t-shirts. And so it was that 36 roly poly kids wandered into the Harlington Centre visibly sweating as they weebled through rehearsals, and shedding layers as they worked. Amanda, as Fairy BowBells, floated fragrantly past as Caz started to bellow out instructions to the children in her best army major Head Chaperone tones.
P, my cohort on the chaperoning course, and also her husband, was skulking in the background looking for all the world like a Mexican bandido. ‘What have you come as?’ I asked cheerily, after greeting him. ‘Movember’ he replied in a muffled voice, as Caz turned to find out who the noisy insubordinates were. A reporter from the local newspaper and his videographer started to record the kids singing and Little Man looked enthralled as he jiggled his hands and head and the pompom on his Christmas hat bobbed up and down. (Note to self: good mummy for not sewing on gold bells, it would have been reminiscent of Noddy on acid).
Then it was all hands on deck and into a rehearsal for the three songs with the full cast. The Dame was wearing an outrageous outfit and this time resembled a mulitcoloured crocheted dalek with a voluminous hooped skirt, topped off with a plant pot (and flower), perched jauntily on her head. Unfortunately she kept forgetting this, and on several occasions got trapped in the door jamb. Layton Williams looked like something out of Narnia as he stretched and pirouetted excitedly, his lithe body clothed in a white shirt and tight fitting breeches, replete with furry tail.
At this point I spoke to the reporter, who was looking out of the window at the rain shimmying off the roads. It turned out that his patch also covered Aldershot, which has a renowned panto scene. How did ours, I asked, compare to our rivals? His answer was that Aldershot was a much bigger affair, more cast, crew and a theatre with an established panto base. He looked thoughtfully at our merry band as they all trilled together in perfect harmony. ‘Of course’, he said, ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be big to be good.’ I could have given him a hug.
‘Loo break!’ called Caz, ‘Anyone need the loo before we go outside?’ ‘Not me’ answered Jeremy Edwards cheerfully as she shot him a stern look. P handed out a glow stick to each child who hung it around their necks as a little beacon of light. And quickly we all filed out into the crisp air.
Hundreds of people were gathered expectantly in front of the stage. Fairground attractions, stalls, the smell of donuts and the sound of the candyfloss machine – all surrounded our little troupe as they stood there smiling away glowing radioactively in the dusk. A huge roar erupted as the stars of the show walked on to the small wet stage, ‘Jeremy!’ called an ecstatic woman behind me.
‘Everyone having fun?’ called Fairy BowBells as she launched into the first song. Then the stars took it in turns to introduce themselves. ‘Jeremy!’ shrieked his fan. Then The Pyromaniacs took the floor in front of the stage launching balls of fire up into the air and shooting flames from their mouths. ‘Jeremy’ said the groupie faintly as the flames came dangerously close to us.
And then it came – a moment that was unexpected, but joyous to behold. All the local schools had sent along some children who filed in front of the stage dressed in Christmas hats and stood smiling up at our kids. They kept on coming, waving all the while, until the floor space was filled with little shining faces. The music started, and a specially composed Song for Fleet filled the air, with hundreds of little voices joining the purple crew in a massed solidarity of communal appreciation. Tears streamed down the face of the woman behind me as she swayed, murmuring ‘Jeremy’. And then he took the stage, kneeling by the switch as our panto crew led the crowds in the countdown to the Lights Switch On.
Five, Four, Three, Two, One! The roars were deafening. Nothing happened. No lights. Nada. Jeremy’s handsome face looked a little perplexed. Someone in the crowd began to snigger, and then Fairy BowBells clapped her hands and pointed at the tree as it suddenly sprang into life in a myriad of twinkling white lights. Oooooohhhh! Went the crowd and burst into wild clapping and back slapping all round.
I went into the hall to collect my son. Little Man was standing, feet together, arms held outwards slightly. He had been decorated in all the left over glow sticks. ‘Look Mummy’, he said, ‘I’m a Christmas Tree.’
The countdown to Christmas has well and truly begun…