THE delightful Sunbeams have been part of Alhambra pantomimes for over a century.

Francis Laidler, the man known as the 'King of Pantomime', delivered panto after panto for half a century in his Bradford venues, and his theatres in Leeds, Keighley and London.

The theatre impresario started the charming tradition of junior dance troupe the Sunbeams for Robin Hood in 1917 at the Prince's Theatre in Little Horton Lane. In 1930, the Sunbeams came to the Alhambra, when Laidler switched his pantos to the venue.

The Sunbeams were his "ray of sunshine in the darkness of the war years". The girls, with matching bobbed haircuts, were an instant hit with audiences. All recruited locally, they added high spirits to the Laidler pantos, often joining in with comic capers on stage.

Laidler selected Sunbeams from open auditions. Each girl had to meet strict height criteria and be "in perfect health, with evidence of six months regular school attendance".

In 2012, former Sunbeam Jane Wood told the T&A she queued for hours to audition, aged 12, in the 1920s. She said Laidler ran a tight ship. "We were well cared for but he wouldn't stand for any nonsense, " she recalled. "There was no talking in the wings, and we had to be out of the theatre by 10pm. We had our hair cut the same length, some of us played boys. Mr Laidler measured me for my costumes. They were lovely, my favourite was a headdress made of feathers and a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other."

Sunbeams reunions have been held over the years at Bradford's Great Victoria Hotel, where Francis Laidler once lived.

In the 1960s, Bradford Council took ownership of the Alhambra, which prospered into the 1980s with the biggest panto stars of the day, including Les Dawson, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, the Krankies and Russ Abbot. Today's Bradford panto king is, of course, Billy Pearce, who has worked with many Sunbeams over the last two decades.

Laidler's last Alhambra panto was Red Riding Hood, which opened on December 27, 1954. A few days later, on January 6, 1955, the visionary impresario died, just one day before his 88th birthday. In showbiz tradition his widow, Gwladys Stanley Laidler, announced that the show must go on.

Sadly there’s no panto at the Alhambra this year, so we’re looking back with these charming images of Sunbeams from the past.