Here's one I made earlier: Blue Peter daredevil Peter Duncan's DIY panto

The former children’s TV presenter has made a festive spectacular with friends and family. It’s Jack and the Beanstalk – filmed in his own back garden

‘Come in, hi, I’m Peter,” says Peter Duncan, opening the door of his house in south London. And he clearly is Peter. Peter Duncan! Thirty-six years after he left Blue Peter, the hair’s now grey, longer, held back with a Jack Grealish headband. But the eyes are just as blue, he still talks at 100mph, and at 66 he’s as bouncy as ever. The energy is both exhausting and utterly infectious.

Actually, I was watching Blue Peter a few years before his time, in the John Noakes era. But my younger brother is the right age: Peter was around our house, as he was to a generation of kids who grew up with him. He took over that Noakes role, the cheerful daredevil, which he carried on into Duncan Dares, remember? Next he started taking his family around the world and filming that, then he became Chief Scout, dib dib dib. But drama has been a constant throughout Duncan’s life – theatre, TV drama, a few movies, musicals, and in the last 20 years or so there have been a lot of pantomimes.

That’s why I’m here, to talk about his latest, which he conceived, wrote, did the songs for, cast, designed, directed and starred in (as the Dame, obviously). And the whole thing was done here in his back garden, and filmed. Now it’s going to be on in the actual cinema. Oh yes it is ...

Trailer for Jack and the Beanstalk

We sit at opposite ends of his living room, full of lovely things. Peter’s wife Annie puts her head around the door, did he offer me a coffee? Actually he did. And was the answer yes? Actually yes. She gives him a look that says: so where the hell is it, then says she’ll do it. Already I’m getting the impression that Annie ties up the loose ends, quietly making things actually happen, as Peter bounds exuberantly through life.

Was she involved in the panto? She filled in the gaps, she says – so she was production coordinator, administrator, Covid risk assessor, liaison officer. “She’s a midwife, but no one was pregnant,” says Peter, cheerfully.

Panto is in his DNA. His parents were actor-managers. “My dad used to put on beach shows at places like Redcar Sands, you know, put the deckchairs out. When I came along in the 50s, and he’d met my mum obviously, he was putting on pantos, so it’s kind of imbued in me, what I would call variety pantos. I used to go on stage and be his stooge.” That would have started when he was around four or five he says. “The smaller you are, the funnier it is.”

Doing this has made him think about his childhood, he says. “You don’t half feel a presence of your history, that’s quite a powerful sensation.” And what exactly is this thing that he’s doing? Well, during the first lockdown it occurred to Duncan that there probably wouldn’t be any pantos this year. “I began to think about the world we were in, and I met this very old lady on the Southend seafront who didn’t seem to know there was a pandemic going on, but she seemed to suggest that she remembered the first one. I thought she couldn’t be a hundred and … she couldn’t have been that old …”

Putting on the slap … Duncan gets into character.
Putting on the slap … Duncan gets into character. Photograph: Jill Mead/the Guardian

To be honest, I never find out how this woman who can’t have remembered the Spanish flu fits into anything. I think it’s just because Peter was there at the time, in a rock’n’roll musical called Million Dollar Quartet, which got cancelled because of Covid. He does that, just meanders off somewhere – reality television, Robert Baden-Powell, statues, the plight of theatre, education, his children – like an unruly puppy, though you hardly notice because he’s also thoughtful and interesting about everything, and entertaining. Then’ll he suddenly say, “But, to answer your question …” by which time I’ve completely forgotten what the question was, and I don’t believe he remembers either.

Anyway, we establish a few things: he had this idea, to make a panto in his back garden, mentioned it to a few people, who said brilliant – but how is he actually going to do it? “I said: I haven’t worked that bit out yet, but because I’ve made documentaries and bits of telly, the world of making stuff that isn’t in the theatre wasn’t remote for me.”

He surrounded himself with a fantastic ensemble of people he knew, put some of his own money in, got a few donations, did a bit of corporate stuff. It was good to be able to give work to a few people who didn’t have any.

Children’s favourites … Duncan with Sarah Greene on Blue Peter in the 80s.
Children’s favourites … Duncan with Sarah Greene on Blue Peter in the 80s. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Originally conceived as an online alternative to live panto that could be downloaded by families to watch together at home (and that’s still the case), it grew in scale and ambition. I think that tends to happen with Peter Duncan’s ideas. Out went the smart phone, in came proper cameras, proper sound, a cherry picker for an opening panoramic shot, suddenly they had a start date and it was filmed over a few weeks in August. A couple of cinema chains liked what they were shown. Now it’s going to be screened in cinemas.

Oh, and the panto itself: it’s Jack and the Beanstalk, imbued (I think Peter likes the word) with lots of his own ideas. It’s poetic, he’s borrowed from Blake; and Holst – he’s nicked the Thaxted tune from Jupiter; the Pixar film Up gets a nod – Dame Trott flies over London dangling from a bunch of balloons. There are contemporary references of course, too, so the opening song is called Lockdown. And the talking chair that knows the news says (Duncan adopts the high-pitched voice of the talking chair): “Oh, the Orange One won’t leave the White House.”

But there are also double-entendres aplenty, fart gags, slosh, boos and behind-yous; something for all the family, just the way it should be. God, it sounds amazing, I can’t wait to see it …

‘Higher!’ … Duncan makes a perilous ascent as Dame Trott.
‘Higher!’ … Duncan makes a perilous ascent as Dame Trott. Photograph: Jill Mead/the Guardian

Well, it just so happens that he’s just got the final edit back, and he springs up to fetch his laptop. “I won’t show you a lot,” he says putting it down on the coffee table. “I’m going to show you the end, the profound bit.” And he does, the assembled cast singing Holst’s tune, but with the patriotic “I vow to thee my country” lyrics replaced by his own about equality and ridding the world of tyranny and greed. It’s lovely.

He can’t resist, he shows me more (“I don’t know who’s going to tell me off because I’m in charge”). So here’s what he calls the Wizard of Oz prequel, the reality from which the fantasy is entered. And the giant’s lair, filmed in the folly at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden (she’s Iranian French, he’s Belgian, they didn’t really understand the cultural significance of panto, but they went along with it). And here’s Dame Trott herself, attached to her balloons, flying over London, a stadium (empty of course), Parliament (“Boris, stop looking up my dress!”).

Right, Jill the photographer is here, she’s going to shoot him in the garden where the magic happened. He leads the way. The garden, which goes on and on, is a story in itself, full of the weird and the wonderful, some of it left over from filming, some just part of Peter’s life. Here’s a sunken bath that lights up from below, and a toilet, and a pond full of goldfish that tend to get eaten by herons. This is Dame Trott’s milking emporium, Buttercup the cow half in, half out. In the film she’s occupied by Peter’s sister at the front, with her reluctant husband behind.

At the very end of the garden is the sycamore tree that plays the bottom of the beanstalk, with a rope ladder hanging from a lower branch to make the start of the ascent easier. Next to it, the shed that is Dame Trott’s cottage. Inside a rail, with all her frocks, 12 in total, and a dressing table. He – soon to be she – is very obliging; of course (s)he’ll put one on, plus a bit of slap. And would we like him in the tree? Of course, and up he goes, Duncan Still Dares. “How high would you like me?” A little higher I think.

There are now a few more people in the garden – Sarah who’s Jill in the production and is now shooting some behind-the-scenes clips, Gordon doing publicity stills, Derek. Peter’s got an audience, and he’s going to milk us. “I can go into character if you like,” he calls down, slipping into Dame mode. “It’s probably better if I show off, isn’t it? I’ve come out of my bubble … I’m ready to feed the world … that’s coronavirus on me tights ...”

Annie comes down the garden, she’s forgotten the password for the online banking. Peter can’t hear up there. “The what?” THE PASSWORD. He shouts it down to her, and us, and most of south London. So very 2020: Daredevil Blue Peter legend, in a dress, up a tree, invites the world to help themselves from his coffers. But possibly saves panto. Who says Christmas is cancelled?

Peter Duncan’s Jack and the Beanstalk is in Everyman cinemas from 5 December and also available to watch online.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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