Stars and agents need to dig deep to see theatres through current crisis

PUBLISHED: 18:44 05 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:52 06 July 2020

Helen McDermott says its unlikely Gorleston's panto will go ahead this year as coronavirus impacts badly on the live entertainment sector

Helen McDermott says its unlikely Gorleston's panto will go ahead this year as coronavirus impacts badly on the live entertainment sector


Panto-loving Helen McDermott says she feels like a fish out of water with theatres and swimming pools shut for the forseeable future

From a very early age I took to water like a fish, even swimming like one, but I could never remember learning how. I do remember swimming with my sister in the sea at Southend, spending childhood days happily splashing about in the salty water. Perhaps it was then that I learned to stay afloat and move in the water.

I know I was inspired and fascinated by a famous book that mum and dad gave me one Christmas. It was The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, with colourful characters such as the kindly Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. I would love to have lived in their magical world beneath the sea.

Then along came another inspiration, a heroine to me, a film star billed as “America’s Mermaid”, Esther Williams who went on to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Formerly a champion swimmer she was spotted by an MGM talent scout. Hollywood was less interested in her trophy-winning speed in the water than in her ability to dance in the stuff, on it and under it. They choreographed special routines to feature her talents, one of which was to hold her breath under water for about three minutes.

I love her films, such as Million Dollar Mermaid and Neptune’s Daughter, when she combined her swimming with glamour and style, always looking so sleek emerging from the water. Some people have said I look pretty much the same.

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Esther worked with some of the biggest names in the business but always said that her favourite co-star was the water. I can fully believe that, the sheer joy of feeling weightless and free, something that only people who really enjoy swimming can understand. That being said, you might have some idea of how frustrating recent weeks have been for those who have been deprived of our very favourite form of indoor exercise, good for muscles and the mind. I’ve been swimming indoors for getting on for 40 years and with pools shut this is the longest time I’ve been out of the water.

We had hoped that the weekend just gone would see thousands of us back in the water. Sadly, the plugs remain pulled and the doors closed. I can appreciate that in the scheme of things swimming may not be seen as a priority, but for some people with disabilities it’s the only form of exercise they can do. Let’s open those pools soon.

Without some resolve and financial assistance some gyms and indoor pools may never open again, casualties to add to so many businesses that we read about every day. Norwich Theatre Royal’s tale is a tragedy with job losses and cancelled shows. What saddens me is the lack of understanding in some quarters about how much the theatre generally brings to our economy and wellbeing. The arts are often seen as a toff’s indulgence. But look at places like the Chicken Shed in London and companies here like Total Ensemble, bringing children and adults together to act or sing and dance. For many of them the experience can be a life-changer.

What about the backstage workers and their skills in design and making scenery, and balancing sound? With no theatres where will they learn their trade?

It’s unlikely that our pantomime will be on at Gorleston this year. In our case only Des Barrit and I would finance it as we have every year. It costs a few thousand to stage and for us it’s a huge financial risk, one we can’t afford to take.

I’ve noticed some big names in the business holding out the begging bowls, pleading for government help to keep theatres open and for outdoor live music events. Perhaps I’m being naive but these people, and their agents, have been making millions over the years. Will any of them ever think of digging down into their deep pockets and pulling out a few plums to help the business that made their fortunes? As far as I can see, this could be pay-back time.

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