Life’s far from grim up Norse for the Dereham pantomime camel

The dames' unfeasibly large padded bras and voluminous bloomers have for the most part been laundered and stored away neatly as another season winds down.

But there's no rest for the pantomime camel, who's been piling up the acting work and amusing spectators lately in, of all places, the Shetland Isles.

The god Odin only knows what ships of the desert and sand dances have got to do with frozen Norse country ritual and legend. Michele Blanks, owner of Dereham Theatre Costumes, hasn't the foggiest idea – all she knows is that folk in Lerwick wanted to hire her two-person camel costume as part of Up Helly Aa, a huge fire festival held there on the last Tuesday of every January to mark the end of the yule season. Naturally, she was delighted to oblige.

By all accounts, the whisky flowed liberally and the spirits were high as Shetlanders engaged in series of marches and visitations, and a torchlight procession featuring 1,000 guizers – costumed performers – meandered through the streets of Lerwick.

At the climax to the festivities a replica Viking galley was burnt, followed by hours of dancing and performing in halls across the town through the evening and into the wee hours.

Mercifully, the camel was kept well out of the way of the inferno. Straying too close to naked flames is not advisable in a comedy dromedary – or Bactrian, if we're being pedantic. What a way to go...

And anyway, Michele's got more work lined up for her costume later this year.

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When you run a firm of theatrical costumiers, you're used to taking unusual requests like this in your stride to keep the customer satisfied.

If Captain Mainwaring in a company's Dad's Army stage show is rather on the portly size, you'll fashion one pair of military trousers up out of two. If the ample 54-inch fairy in one show is a pert 32 inches in the next, you get busy with the needle and thread. 'You do a little tuck here, a little tuck there,' says Jeanie Woods, one of Michele's team.

And, if the dame's going to be dolled up like Lady Gaga in a scene, you knock up a suitably wacky outfit, even if it means using a bit of ingenuity with a length of material you'd normally buy to protect your kitchen table.

'We did one of those - what a job!' said Michele. 'It was more of an engineering exercise than a sewing thing.'

She and her team are always prepared to go the extra mile, too. They toiled day and night to make sure a lavish array of costumes was in tip-top form so the Lowestoft Players' pantomime, Cinderella, lived up to the their enviably high reputation; Kathy Dentten, former owner of Dereham Theatre Costumes, came out of retirement to lend a hand when things got hectic.

And, when a Norfolk Salvation Army group found themselves struggling with the costumes they had hired for their debut production, Cinderella, members of Michele's team nipped along to act as their dressers. Among them was her student daughter Sophie, 22, who has been helping out in Mum's stores and workroom.

'The ladies had never done a show before and didn't know whether to put their petticoats on before or after the hoops, and so on,' said Michele. 'We were glad to help.'

Mum-of-two Michele, who lives at West Raynham, took on Dereham Theatre Costumes last April, having worked for it for many years. She started dressmaking classes at 12 while growing up in London, where her parents ran a Stoke Newington pub, and became involved with the Dereham business, run then by Bill Wynn, after the family moved to take on the Swan pub at Whissonsett (these days mum Rene pops in to iron the costumes).

At first, Michele was a home-worker, sorting out shirts and making breeches by the dozen for chorus lines, but when Sophie started school Bill asked her to become a regular member of the team. When she took on the business she had been working for it for nearly 20 years.

Drama productions keep the team busy for much of the year; the firm has supplied panto costumes to Whitehaven in Cumbria and Newton Stewart in Scotland, as well as to many companies across Norfolk and Suffolk. It supplied 19th century-type ball gowns to Opera Teifi in Cardigan, Wales, for its production of Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne. And an interesting commission for some time has been fulfilled with St Paul's Cathedral: Dereham Theatre Costumes provides period garb for educational activities involving Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys characters.

Inevitably there are lulls in demand during the year, and so Michele has been busy developing the fancy dress service that the business runs too.

As with theatrical commissions, it's not so much a case of make-do-and-mend as improvise and innovate. A lady's jacket has been used to fashion a Joker figure inspired by Heath Ledger in the Batman film, The Dark Knight. A dashing Jack Sparrow outfit, inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, was knocked up out of bits and pieces of old costumes, and Michele ran up a Gladiator costume.

'Film themes are what quite a lot of people ask for,' she explained. 'We've supplied things for people's Hollywood parties – Fifties Hollywood parties seem to be popular.'

Away from movieland, someone wanted to look like Prince Harry, so the Dereham team sorted out a suitable uniform.

Running the business, rather than being an employee, has been a steep learning curve, but Michele has risen to the challenge. And she has a real kick out of seeing her team's handiwork on those occasions when she actually gets to the shows in which they're being worn.

'I'll always be looking out for the colours that don't quite work under the lights and be checking whether they are wearing the costumes properly. But, when you go to see the production, that's definitely the best bit – when someone walks on stage and you think: 'We did that,'' she said. 'It makes all the hard work we've put in worthwhile.'

Dereham Theatre Costumes is based on the Rash's Green estate. For more information call 01362 694206 or visit www.derehamtheatrecostumes.com

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