In his guise as figurehead of the mid-Eighties children's TV series Duncan Dares, the sometime Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan took on an array of outward-bound challenges, from dragon boat racing to tightrope walking. Earlier this year, Duncan accepted his biggest challenge yet: to save Christmas - and some small part of the West End theatre industry - from the rigours of Covid, by staging a pantomime under lockdown conditions in the grounds of a (very nice-looking, apparently spacious) house in South West London. It shouldn't have worked. It couldn't work, surely. Reader, here's the thing: watching Peter Duncan's Jack and the Beanstalk, I smiled and chuckled more than I have during any of the vastly more expensive awards contenders presently being forced down critics' necks by the major studios and streaming providers. From a very early point - perhaps as early as the first full musical number, complete with socially distanced chorus line - it becomes clear it's been made by people who understand that pantomime is its own eccentric artform: an artform composed of, on one hand, heightened stagecraft and audience awareness, and on the other, a built-in crapness - a built-in British crapness - which Netflix, with its many millions to throw at slick, by-the-yard content, couldn't possibly get near.
So, between regular pauses for audience participation, we witness puppets and costumes that could conceivably have been cobbled together by Duncan and Janet Ellis using old socks and ping-pong balls, thrillingly gratuitous references to "Hands, Face, Space" and Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away, and the broadest imaginable playing in the confines of what may or may not be the Duncan vegetable patch. There's a joke about Pringles that is as old as the hills, and still works. That, on reflection, may be as good a definition and illustration of showbusiness as we could ask for: you take the most antiquated of schtick (timeless, scholars call it), and you give it the energy to get a laugh all over again, even - especially - in times such as this; there's a magic and joy in it. It has to be considered a strange year when one ends it attempting to fast-track Peter Duncan onto any centralised list of national treasures, but he makes a tremendous Dame Trott, flashing his bloomers and giving one especially ribald gag about a tree just enough spin to get it past smaller ears. Co-directing with Ian Talbot, he also makes a shrewd judge of how to make pantomime work as low-budget, shot-at-home cinema: part of the delight here comes from seeing someone using whatever modest sums of cash are available at this level of the British film industry to fashion something good-natured rather than cynically opportunistic, and committedly, commendably daft. Though heaven knows what the neighbours made of it all.
Peter Duncan's Jack and the Beanstalk is now streaming via www.pantoonline.co.uk, and screens in cinemas nationwide from today.