IS it panto time already? It’s just after 12noon in late September and Billy Pearce, dressed as Buttons, is being photographed in a sparkling pumpkin carriage, flanked by two panto unicorns.

The panto launch is like a countdown to Christmas. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without Billy on the Alhambra stage.

The Yorkshire comic is back for his 23rd Alhambra panto, Cinderella, joined by Great British Bake-off winner and Strictly Come Dancing finalist John Whaite as Dandini and Emmerdale star Samantha Giles as the Wicked Stepmother.

Billy, 72, has the energy of a performer a third of his age. Every year he charges across the stage, leaving audiences in stitches with his cheeky one-liners and flawless comic timing.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Billy's back for his 23rd Alhambra panto Billy's back for his 23rd Alhambra panto (Image: Nigel Hillier)

It goes without saying that he carries the show - so when the Alhambra panto returned after the pandemic, in 2021, Billy had to isolate between performances. “I was staying at Jurys Inn. I daren’t go anywhere or be in contact with anyone,” says Billy. “My understudy got Covid. If I’d got it too the whole show would’ve been at risk. It was a stressful time for theatres.”

Over the years Billy’s panto stunts have left him with various injuries - he cracked a rib while attached to a flying harness and broke a collar bone, finger and toe falling into the orchestra pit. He’s entertained generations of children.

“I’m often asked to record ‘Don’t touch the box!’ for phone voicemails,” smiles Billy. “Panto has changed over the years, it had to, but what kids remember most is the slapstick and the gags. In a high tech age, it’s important for children to enjoy live theatre.There’s a charm to panto, whether it’s a local amateur society or a big professional show. Not everyone has the special effects, but it’s all panto. It makes people happy, that’s what I love.

“I’ve got so many panto memories. Marriage proposals in the audience...meeting the lovely Dame Helen Mirren when she came to the panto a couple of years ago...working with Dexter the cow, who relieved herself on stage - into a top hat.”

Billy fondly recalls stars he’s worked with. “I’ve worked with people I’d never imagined I’d meet. Our paths wouldn’t have crossed if it wasn’t for panto. Some became great friends, like the wonderful John Inman and John Challis, and Divina De Campo in last year’s show. Panto is an intense process, the camaraderie with cast and crew is a big support network.”

As a child Billy went to his mother Jean Pearce’s dance classes in Leeds. He worked the clubs as a stand-up comic and after appearing on TV’s New Faces in 1986 his career took off. He’s been in musicals, with roles including the Rocky Horror Show Narrator and a Bosnian Eurovision host in Eurobeat with Mel Giedroyc, and TV dramas.

What’s his earliest panto memory? “I didn’t go to the panto as a child because my mum was always busy putting them on. She had Mel B, when she was a young dancer, pre-Spice Girls, in one of them,” says Billy. “I’d like to see a panto - but I can’t because I’m always in one. I wouldn’t have it any other way though.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Billy, Samantha and John at the panto launchBilly, Samantha and John at the panto launch (Image: Nigel Hillier)

John Whaite’s first panto was Snow White at Chorley Little Theatre in 1993. “I was three and I was in it - I was the Magic Mirror,” smiles John. “Panto is a skill; you break the fourth wall, and it’s a gateway to theatre for children so it’s our responsibility to make it an entertaining experience. To not take that seriously would be disrespectful. Hopefully it will inspire some kids to work on stage. I loved pantos as a child. We’d get home and me and my sister would re-enact them under the Christmas tree.”

John, a cookery author, content creator and TV presenter, is looking forward to working with Billy: “Someone on Packed Lunch (John is a regular on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch) said ‘You’re going to be working with Billy Pearce - he’s a legend!’ His energy is amazing.”

Will John be treating us to a paso doble as Dandini? He made Strictly history with professional partner Johannes Radebe as the show’s first all-male couple, dancing to the final in 2021. “When you’re pressed up against someone 10 hours a day in training you’re in a bubble,” says John. “Strictly is all-consuming but fantastic. The technique’s gone now though - I can barely remember when a fleckerl is!” he laughs.

Born in Chorley, John was studying for a Law degree while filming Bake Off. He later worked in banking but after winning Bake Off he landed a book deal and forged a cookery career. “I’ve just re-opened the baking school on our family farm in Lancashire, it’s in a 400-year-old barn, a gorgeous location.” says John. “I love watching Bake Off. Alison Hammond is a great fit - she’s brought it back.”

John is co-presenter of Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped and on Steph’s Packed Lunch he cooks recipes that are inspiring and accessible, as well as engaging in current affairs debates. “It’s a fun show but we have intense political debates and I’m not scared about taking people to task,” he says. “I do my research. It’s not shouty or rude; we say it’s okay to have a difference of opinion. Debate is healthy.”

Samantha Giles is rocking a steam punk vibe in her striking Wicked Stepmother costume. Best-known as Bernice Blackstock in Emmerdale, for which she won a TV Quick Best Actress award, she’s also been in TV dramas such as Where The Heart Is and Hollyoaks, Rob Lowe film Midnight Man and stage plays including A Taste of Honey.

This is Samantha’s first panto role - “And what a panto to be in!” she says. “The Alhambra has a rich panto heritage, it feels special to be here. It’s great to be a baddie and do some comedy. Panto can be an expense, especially for families, so you’ve got to get it right. I haven’t been on stage for 12 years, so I’m nervous, but really looking forward to it.”

When she’s not acting, Samantha is a writer. She’s the author of children’s books Rosemary and the Witches of Pendle Hill and Rosemary and the Book of the Dead. “They’re based on my children, with links to the Pendle Hill witch history. About six years ago I had a dream about witch characters and I thought ‘I’ve got to write this’. Once I started, the characters had a life of their own,” says Samantha, who is working on a third book and adapting the first into a TV series.

What’s her first panto memory? “Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone. Children went up on stage, I was desperate to go on too. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t get onto the stage though. I’m making up for it now.”

* Cinderella is at the Alhambra from December 9 to January 21, 2024. Call (01274) 432000 or visit