"I was being dastardly to kids; they said you should be on Play School!" - how panto got Derek Griffiths his big break
PUBLISHED: 11:22 13 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:22 13 December 2017
He is ageless, fiercely energetic, a master of characterisation, a children's TV icon, accomplished stage actor, and now Derek Griffiths is back as one of the stars of this year's Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty.
In the entertainment world, Derek Griffiths has always been a consistent presence. Whether it is delighting generations of young people through the 1970s and 80s on the BBC’s iconic children’s programme Play School, being a mainstay on stage in the West End, or most recently walking on the Weatherfield cobbles in Coronation Street.
And while some performers may be very different out of the spotlight, Derek has a mix of intelligence, charm and entertainment frequently breaking into character (and a range of accents) to tell the story of his career so far.
Engaging and acutely aware of his audience, there is absolutely no doubt about one thing – he is really looking forward to playing the butler Chortwood in Sleeping Beauty, this year’s panto at Norwich Theatre Royal.
He is also delighted to be resuming his on-stage relationship with the show’s writer, director and ‘Dame’ Richard Gauntlett, having previously worked together on the previous Norwich panto Peter Pan back in 2005.
He said: “I have read the script and I think I know what I am doing. Whether I can do it well enough, remains to be seen. I need to get up to Richard Gauntlett’s standard.
“The butler is going to be fun to play. He is a bit of a straight man but I imagine there are going to be plenty of comedy moments. I am really looking forward to it. I enjoyed working with the last cast and especially the crew here. They are so supportive.”
As well as the fun around the production, Derek also thinks pantomime is vital for getting young people interested in the power of live performance.
He explained: “It is so important to get kids into the theatre. It is often their introduction to it. It was definitely mine. I can vividly remember watching Captain Hook on stage and that was the start of it. I thought I want to do that.”
It works for adults too. Derek recalled: “I have been coming out of the stage door for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford Upon Avon and people will say to me ‘We saw what you did with pantomime so we have come along to see what you will do with Shakespeare.”
That is the impetus to get people into the theatre. “Of course, the other delight of pantomime is being able to stand on stage and cross the Golden Line. If someone shouts something out, because of the nature of pantomime, I can have a go at them. That is my love.
“I was at the King’s Theatre in Southsea one year and a little girl shouted out ‘He is behind you’ and I was behind somebody. I said to her ‘You are spoiling it for everybody else and she just shouted again ‘he is behind you.’ We just carried on and the whole audience were just on the floor with laughter.
“At another panto, there was a lot of noise on stage and I said to one little boy ‘They are making a lot of noise. Do your parents make a lot of noise?’ and the little boy said ‘Yes, if my dad has eaten baked beans.’ The audience didn’t stop laughing for about three minutes. A young audience is just so honest.”
It is young audiences who provided the impetus for Derek to become a household name in the early stages of his career. His big break happened while he was starring in a pantomime at Greenwich Theatre.
“I was being evil and dastardly and was doing horrendous things to kids on the front row – beating them with balloons and things,” he laughs. “This woman came up to me and said ‘You should be doing Play School at the BBC’ and I said ‘What is that?’ She said ‘Watch it and then come and see us.’ I watched it and I thought she was mad. Play School was not for a council house boy like me. It was such a middle-class programme.
“I went along to the interview and this woman met me at the top of the stairs with this bun stretched back on her head and said in a very posh voice ‘Welcome to the BBC.’ I said to her ‘This isn’t the job for me. You would sack me in five minutes’ and she said ‘No we want you to do it.’
“Of course, they suppressed me as much as they could and I kept coming back and fighting but the one thing I wanted to do was change the precedent of the music they had. The music was from the 1940s and kids were listening to rock music at three and four so I started writing stuff for them. The BBC got lots of letters saying could they have more pop songs from Derek because their kids were dancing around the room. That started the ball rolling and the rest was history.”
Derek joined those iconic names of children’s television like Brian Cant and Johnny Ball who were Play House presenters beloved by all ages although he mainly shared the screen with the female presenters.
He also got to indulge his creative side in another children’s TV hit from the era – Play Away – which was packed with anarchic sketches, comedy characters and rib-tickling songs.
“That was aimed at a slightly older audience, it was a little wilder, and I got to write a lot of music for that. I did a lot of writing with Jonathan Cohen who was the pianist on the show. It helped me make my mark on children’s television and particularly move the music on a bit.”
Heavily involved behind the scenes composing music, Derek was also a leading light behind another popular children’s TV show of the time – Heads and Tails.
“I was also flying at the time too and I managed to get the BBC to do a flying documentary for children. I wanted to put the child in the form of a camera in the co-pilot’s seat and show it is not a matter of science. Anyone that can drive a car can fly a plane. There was a whole 30 minute documentary on how to fly a plane. It was a joy to do. Mind you, I did persist until they said yes,” he said.
While he may be best known for his TV work, Derek is also a very accomplished stage actor. One of his most memorable roles was Lumiére in the West End production of Beauty and the Beast.
“I first saw it in New York. The illusions they created on stage were mind-blowing and the kids were saying ‘how did they do that?’” he recalls. “When it came to England and they asked me to play Lumière, I jumped at it because I knew it was going to be a great piece of entertainment.
“It was so magical and that is what theatre is. It is magical. Promoting magic and fantasy was the thing for that production and it did so well.”
His other West End work includes Black Mikado which gave him the chance to get to grips with Gilbert and Sullivan, and one of those landmark theatrical roles of The Engineer in Miss Saigon.
“Taking on that role was a revelation to me. There was no dialogue. It was all sung so that was a challenge doing a mini operetta. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was such a lavish production with a helicopter landing on stage. It was just amazing,” said Derek.
And prior to panto, he has been starring opposite Sian Phillips in the UK tour of Driving Miss Daisy which had an extraordinary audience reaction.
He said: “It is a feisty and heart-warming play and you have people emoting in the audience at the end. Friends of mine have come out and said you made me cry and I have some toughie friends. Some nights, you can hear sobs at the end. Isn’t it amazing to be able to do that? You would never know if that happened if you were working in television and that is just the joy of theatre.”
He also spent a year walking (or motorcycling) along the cobbles of Weatherfield, playing likeable mechanic Freddie Smith in Coronation Street.
“It was an iconic thing. I remember watching with glee, as a schoolboy, the villain of the piece who was Ena Sharples played by Violet Carson. She had no scruples whatsoever. She spat venom. I often based panto baddies on her.”
His focus now though is on panto and he has a message for anyone who is new to panto. “Give it a try. It is a piece of theatre with no rules. That is what I love about it. It is three dimensional and comes out and hits you in the face. The cast may come and join you in the audience and children go up on the stage and may never want to leave. It is an experience. Adults enjoy it as much as the kids.”
• Sleeping Beauty runs at Norwich Theatre Royal from December 13-January 14, various times, £24.50-£7, under-3s free, discounts for over-60s and under-18s, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk