The Chron speaks to the team of special effect technicians who ‘make the magic happen’ at the Royal & Derngate

Special effects for the Aladdin pantomime at Royal & Derngate. 'Gilles Pink controlling some of the pyrotechnics.
Special effects for the Aladdin pantomime at Royal & Derngate. 'Gilles Pink controlling some of the pyrotechnics.
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“PYRO firing” comes the shout from the side of the stage.

There are a few seconds of anticipation and then a fountain of golden sparks showers our field of vision.

Special effects for the Aladdin pantomime at Royal & Derngate. 'Gilles Pink using one of the smoke machines.

Special effects for the Aladdin pantomime at Royal & Derngate. 'Gilles Pink using one of the smoke machines.

When it’s finished Gilles Pink, senior technician (stage) at the Royal & Derngate, appears back on the Derngate stage with a huge smile on his face.

“This is where the magic happens,” he says.

This week I went behind the scenes with the technical team for Aladdin, where I discovered this panto is, quite literally, set to go off with a bang.

“Special effects are very important for panto, without them it’s just a bare stage... so no lights, no flashes, no bangs, it would be quite bland,” said Gilles.

One of the pivotal effects set to light-up the stage are pyro-technics, referred to by the crew as ‘pyros’.

“For those who don’t know what pyrotechnics are, contrary to popular belief they are not anything to do with fireworks and are small explosive devices, and if you don’t know what you are doing you can mess up quite badly.

“We have 10 pyro pods going off in the first half of Aladdin and 10 pyro pods going off in the second half, as well as others that are mobile, so there will be a lot of bangs.

“Christmas for me means pyros, and there are a lot in this show.

“The same time that the pyros go off there will be a burst smoke on the stage, using our smoke machine, so there will be a flash and it will look like the principals have just appeared on the stage from nowhere.”

As well as lots of sparkles and bangs, other special effects set to entertain audiences include: flame torches, smoke machines, dry ice, and haze.

But this year’s panto will also feature another effect, deemed so ‘top secret’ I was not allowed to see how it works.

“The major special effect this year is the magic carpet, it is really something special.

“I saw it briefly in rehearsals and it really is awesome,” said Gilles, with an edge of excitement in his voice.

“We have had some magic carpets in the past which have been pretty good, I am not allowed to say much about this one because it’s still top secret, but it’s really something.

“It is the best special effect I think I have ever seen - and I have seen a lot.”

However, although it is the stars of the show like Bobby Davro, Jeffrey Holland or Brian Fortuna, that audiences may go away remembering, those working behind the scenes are just as vital in making panto a magical experience.

“It’s not just pressing buttons, there is a lot of physical work in special effects, everything on the stage requires a physical movement from the stage crew,” said Gilles.

“I do quite like that we still use people. I think you can tell the difference between a machine doing something and a person doing it.” Gilles then took us to look at a panel by the side of the stage, where we were confronted with a myriad of buttons.

“Basically nothing happens on stage without cueing from here. There is a comms system here that keeps all the different teams in touch with each other, making sure it all goes smoothly,” said Gilles.

This year Aladdin is being staged by Qdos Entertainment, the world’s largest pantomime producer.

“Qdos bring some of their own staff; lighting designer, a production carpenter, a production manager... but we still have a lot more input into it than other productions,” said Gilles.

“If we have a week long musical showing then it has staff who have been on it for the whole time it is touring venues, and we are just on hand to put things in the right place.

“When other productions come it is pretty much standard stuff but panto comes just once a year and you get left to your own devices more and can really have fun.”

Helping to make sure the show is bright, and loud, is the Royal & Derngate’s Steve Shafer.

“We will have pops and bangs, jeering and booing, some evil music for the baddies, sword fighting, whistles and all the sound effects you need for a bit of slapstick.

“It’s really good time of year from a sound and light point of view,” said Steve.

“We normally have around 150-ish lights and they spin around and are in different colours and can give a number of different effects.”

“A lot of work goes into the lights, before the show Stuart West, the head of light and sound will sit up for hours and hours working it all out, there will be around 40 lighting cues and musical tricks to deal with,” adds Gilles.

But the crew seem to agree the hardwork is well worth it.

“The crew become like a massive family as you basically live together until the panto ends,” said Steve.

“We have a number of casual workers who will watch the panto 51 times this year before it ends.”

With the amount of planning and work that goes into the technical side of the show it is little wonder that the crew get last minute jitters before the curtain goes up.

“We do get really nervous before the show,” said Gilles.

“If the actors mess up, someone gives them a cue and they come back from it. If we mess up there are big knock-on effects.

“For instance with the flying (curtains going up and down) these whizz up and down really fast and they have a metal pole inside, so people need to be standing in the right places.

“We start gathering back-up hardware weeks before the panto, and the panto company plans everything down to the smallest detail.

“We have our own technical rehearsal, as well as other rehearsals.

“There are a lot of people working back stage and a lot to consider.”

I ask Gilles if he would ever give up being behind the scenes to have a shot at the limelight.

“No,” he said. “There is a reason I do what I do and it’s because it is really good fun.”

Aladdin, sponsored by the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, is showing at the Royal & Derngate until Sunday January 8, featuring an all-star cast, including: Bobby Davro, Brian Fortuna, Jeffrey Holland, and icon of children’s television, Basil Brush.

Tickets can be booked on Northampton 624811 or at www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

Who is working behind the scenes.

“Crew wise we have six stage crew,” said Gilles.

“There are two flymen (those are the people up in the sky who pull up the curtain).

“One stage electrician.

“One on sound, the number two on sound.

“Two follow spots, who man the really bright massive lights.

“You have a wardrobe mistress.

“Then you have the visiting crew.

“There will be two assistant stage managers. “The deputy stage manager.

“The company manager.”