Interview with Gok Wan, The Fairy Gokmother

Gok Wan and Brian Conley

Vivienne Kennedy interviews Gok Wan, one of the stars of the pantomime Cinderella, playing at The Bristol Hippodrome from 8 December until 6 January.

Following their truly spectacular production of Aladdin last Christmas, Qdos Productions return to The Bristol Hippodrome this December with the best-loved pantomime of all – Cinderella.

With a cast led by Brian Conley and Gok Wan, it promises to be a family-friendly show, packed with special effects and laugh-out loud comedy. There is a great chemistry between the pair and they had everyone laughing at the show’s press day, back in September, when I had the opportunity to chat all things panto with Gok.

Pantomime, it’s a strangely British thing…

Gok: Or a beautifully British thing!

A visit to the pantomime is often a child’s, or even an adult’s, first experience of theatre – how would you explain it to someone who has never seen one before?

Pantomime is a combination of fairy tale meets musical theatre meets stage play; it’s a hybrid show. It has its own rules, and it has its own humour, and it has its own traditions. It is a visual spectacular.

Pantomimes have historically always been slightly ‘Acorn Antiques’, slightly bodged up, but no longer. The shows are now enormous and visually very exciting. The sound is incredible, the lights are amazing, the sets and costumes are fantastic. It’s a massive explosion of campness and lots and lots of adults pretending they are children!

And you do all that with very little rehearsal time don’t you?

Yeah, very little. We get about a week in London, in a studio, and then just a couple of days in Bristol.

That’s the wonderful thing about panto – you have certain things you have to hit, cues and entrances and stuff, but actually, the rest of it is malleable, you can move it around and play with it a bit. If there are moments in the show that you’re enjoying, and everyone is laughing and having lots of fun, you can extend those, and equally you can shorten parts as well.

The show will continually change, out of all the performances, all 50-odd that we’re going to do, every single one will be completely different and a lot of that is determined by the audience and what they’re there for. Whether they are chaotic and loud, up for a party, or if they want to sit back and listen to the story… a lot of it is dictated by them.

What are your own first memories of pantomime?

It’s very much about family. My family owned Chinese restaurants and we never closed a restaurant… they were open seven days a week, with Mum always working, Dad always working, so for me panto means the family coming together, not being in the business; just spending time together.

I can’t remember which pantos we went to see but I remember sitting in what would have been an enormous chair in a theatre surrounded by people that weren’t our customers in the restaurant. It was a very bonding experience to be away from home, away from the business. The treat level was through the roof – it was the most magical place you could possibly be in. If you’d flown me to the moon, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much.

That’s why I’ve always been a massive panto fan.

You’re something of a panto veteran now, this is your sixth – can you tell me what your most memorable experience has been?

It’s almost impossible to say, because there have been so many. Thousands of them in fact!

I suppose, for different reasons, my most memorable moment would be stepping out on stage for the first time in Birmingham. It was Snow White and I wasn’t with the lovely Brian Conley then. I remember thinking “what the hell have I got myself into?”

This juggernaut of a show was starting, and I was opening it.

“Am I going to remember my lines? Am I going to be able to sing my song? Will I be able to dance?”

I was surrounded by all these amazing professionals, these seasoned professionals, and I’m there asking myself “who do I think I am? This is the most bonkers thing”.

The fear was unlike any fear I have felt my entire life!

So that was one memory. Another one would actually be a combination of memorable moments where I just see Brian laughing. He’s a comic, his job is to make people laugh – he is the front man of the show, it’s his job to keep the story going, to love the audience, and take them on a real journey.

And it’s my job to perform to him, it’s my job to make him laugh, so I spend the entire run doing my utmost to corpse him, to make him laugh, and when I get THAT, on stage, with him, it’s unlike anything else. So that combination of memories is just Brian creased up, bent over, crying with laughter, literally unable to breathe.

There was one time when I walked into the set by accident. I’d come off stage but hadn’t gone far enough into the wings. I spun around on my heels and walked straight into the set. Brian, at that point, was due to sing a very loving song, a very romantic number, and he couldn’t, he stood there with tears rolling down his face and it was wonderful, a brilliant moment. I was still in the wings and I loved every second of that.

You mentioned singing and dancing – is that something you’d done before pantomime?

No, and you’ll see that in the show!

Some bodies are built to sing and dance, and some bodies are built to cook and style people. I am the latter, most definitely.

But I give it a go. I do it and I can just about hold a song together and I can just about move. That’s one of the beauties of panto, within any show you’ll have the famous faces and people know this isn’t my job.

If I go on stage and I can’t dress a woman, or if I go on television and I can’t answer a question or interview someone, then that would be a terrible thing, because that’s my job, it’s what I’m paid to do. But in panto I’ve got a certain amount of artistic licence – as long as I entertain, as long as I look as if I’m having fun, then what actually happens doesn’t matter so much.

I’m in a very fortunate position.

Brian co-writes the show so obviously has a lot of influence over his character; how much influence do you have over your role?

I’ve been really lucky because over the years the guys at Qdos have allowed me to write my own lines so it’s full of Gok-isms, written very much in the way I say things.

Even my name in the show, The Fairy Gokmother – I’m playing myself, so it would be impossible for any scriptwriter to write something that sounded like me. They wouldn’t quite get the intonation right, the phonetics, the terminology, the language, any of that stuff, the phrasing.

I write my blocks and Brian writes the gags and all that stuff. It’s kind of set in stone now. The script now stays the same but every year we’ll review it and add a line in or take something out, and that will go into the bible ready for the next year, wherever we might be.

You’re going to be in Bristol for just over a month, including those two days of rehearsals. You’ll be doing 10 shows a week…

No, it’s 12!

Two shows a day, six days a week?

Yes, we get one day off.

What are you going to do in Bristol on your one day off?

I will shop. I will go to the pub. I’ve got friends that live here, so I’ll be hanging out with them. I’ll do some DJ’ing – I’ve got a couple of weekends when I’ve got gigs after the Saturday night shows. I’ll take all the cast with me and we’ll go and party.

Sundays are normally the day when, whoever’s not going home to see their families, we all get together as a cast and I am the programme organiser – any non-panto activity, I organise it and it normally involves shopping, food, drink, and fun… that kind of stuff.

We look forward to seeing you in Broadmead, The Galleries, and Cabot Circus – remember to tag @bristolshopping in your social media posts, won’t you?

Finally, a lot of you have worked together several times, but you’re sure to have some newbies in the cast…

Yes, we do, we have a new Prince Charming.

What’s your advice for them? Especially if it’s their first Christmas away from friends and family.

It’s to treat everyone as family and just roll your sleeves up and get involved.

You have to hold your own with this group, it’s a company of massive personalities and a lot of talent and if you come in to this feeling a little bit like a rabbit in the headlights then they will roll over you! Just go with it and we’ll look after you.

He has worked with some of the company before though, just not me, so he might think I’m the newbie!

It is a very friendly bunch of people, if anything we become over-protective of each other and we make sure everyone feels involved.

It’s been lovely to talk to you today and sounds like you and the audience are going to have a great time this Christmas; thank you Gok.

Click HERE to read Vivienne’s interview with Brian Conley on the Visit Bristol website and HERE to book tickets to see Brian and Gok in Cinderella at The Bristol Hippodrome.