The energy and excitement, the laughing and the dancing, that festive family feeling, there is nothing quite like an Irish Christmas panto.

“Oh no, there isn’t.”

“Oh yes, there is.”

From Tralee to Belfast, Galway to Wexford, there are pantomines taking place across the country during the Christmas season. Each one has its local stars and regional jokes, but for one panto star, this year is very special. Alan Hughes and his partner Karl Broderick are celebrating 25 years of producing pantos with their show Sammy, Buffy and the Beanstalk at the National Stadium.

“I’m actually doing pantos longer that that,” says Alan, known to many as presenter of Ireland AM on Virgin Media. “Karl used come see me in these small productions. One day he said we should do a panto of our own. I thought he was a bit mad, but then we said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ Here we are, 25 years later.”

Financial headaches

Alan is the star of the show, playing the character of Sammy Sausages along with his co-star Rob Murphy - aka Buffy - while Karl is the man behind the production, writing the script. Together they produce it, and every year they take that risk.

“As an independent production, we have to back it ourselves. Our first production in 1998 cost about £17,300 (€22,000) and we thought we were going to go bankrupt. To put it in perspective, our first house which we bought around that time cost €39,000. We were literally sick with worry about getting bums on seats, losing sleep about who would come to see our show.”

Now, the production costs in the region of €300,000. “And we’re still losing sleep about it,” Alan says, laughing.

Una Healy as the Fairy Queen.

However, he does acknowledge it is a huge achievement to keep something running for so long and is pensive when I throw his name out among the greats of Irish pantomine - Maureen Potter, June Rodgers, Twink, May McGettridge.

“I think our biggest achievement is that we kept it going through COVID,” he says. “We did a drive through in Malahide Castle in 2020 and we put on a show in 2021, even though we had to close early when restrictions were re-introduced. But it was really important to us to continue to bring that Christmas joy to people.”

This is why he was so vocal about RTÉ’s Toy Show the Musical, he explains. “There are productions across the country, like ourselves, putting in huge effort every year to put on a panto. “Then RTÉ comes on the scene with this massive production. I wrote to Dee Forbes, asking how much RTÉ spent on advertising to promote this production. Of course the reply was, ‘It’s sensitive information’.

“Since then, it has come out that they spent €3.1m on advertising. €3.1m. There are concerts in Croke Park that don’t have that kind of advertising.

“It just wasn’t in line with the spirit of panto because, at its essence, it’s about wholesome family fun. And it’s something we want to make accessible to everyone. That’s one of the reasons we’ve released 2,500 tickets at €25 each for our anniversary, to say thank you to families that have been coming and supporting us for years.”

Loyal Following

They certainly have a loyal following. “I met a woman recently who said her great grandchild is now old enough to bring to the panto. She has been coming with her grandchildren for years.

“For many families, it’s such a tradition, and I love that for some children, it’s their first experience of theatre. It’s not TV, it’s not an iPad, it’s right there in front of their eyes. You see their faces come alive, it ignites that love and passion for live shows.”

Alan Hughes and the cast of Sammy, Buffy and the Beanstalk at the National Stadium, Christmas 2023

Alan continues, “Panto has evolved over the last 25 years. Yes, the productions are much bigger - bigger sets, screens, music systems. But at its core, panto and the tradition around it hasn’t changed one bit.

“It is still about the comedy and music. It is still the, ‘He’s behind you,’ and ‘Oh no, he didn’t!’ It’s the giant coming on stage and the kids screaming to watch your back. It’s about the double entrendre jokes, those clever adult lines that have the mammies and daddies laughing. And then the kids are screaming laughing at their parents enjoying themselves, and they are completely oblivious to the risque jokes. That’s the secret recipe; the tried and tested format that is keeping pantos alive in theatres across the country.”

Star line-up

Being one of the bigger productions, however, has meant that Alan and Karl can attract the stars.

“This year Una Healy is our Fairy Queen and she appears on the screen throughout the show. With her beautiful auburn hair and her Tipperary accent, she will have the whole audience captivated. And she is dressed in this stunning feather gúna by Irish designer Claire Garvey. The costumes are so important and we love seeing little girls coming to the show dressed in their own princess outfits.”

Una is the latest addition to the star-studded line up who have joined Sammy and Buffy on stage over the years - a list that includes Marty Morrissey, Katherine Lynch, Linda Martin and Mary Byrne, to name just a few. Putting Alan on the spot, we ask him to name his favourite co-star.

Laughing, he says, “It has to be Joe Duffy. For years, our show was in the Tivoli theatre on Francis Street in Dublin and it was an absolute shame that they demolished it in 2019 because it was the perfect size for small productions.

“But that last year, we asked Joe would he join the cast. He had been bringing his triplets to the show for years. He said, ‘Is it really the last year in the Tivoli?’ When we replied yes, he said, ‘Well, they’ll have to tear it down with me in it.’ He played the Magic Mirror that year, and we really went out with a bang.”

Local shows

Alan says being an independent production, they appreciate the importance of the panto in towns and villages around the country.

“There is such community involvement and commitment. Some productions are rehearsing from September because they can only get everyone together once a week. It gives kids the oppurtunity to get on stage and enjoy the spotlight. And one of the great things about panto is every production is individual, with local sayings and jokes. It is the highlight of the year and epitomises Christmas for so many local drama groups.”

With 25 years in panto, what does Christmas look like for Alan and Karl? “We aren’t the best festive guests,” he admits. “We do two shows a day from 12 December to 7 Jaunary and we only have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so we’re usually fit for nothing. Some years, we have gone to family or friends on the big day, but last year we were so run down, we stayed at home and it was a lovely, just the two of us.”

Many farming families walk that tightrope of balancing family time and business obligations. We ask Alan how he and Karl make it work. “Our office is in the house, and of course there are rows. Some days, we’d be killing each other. But we have learned over time to give each other space. Karl has been vocal in the past about having some anxiety and mental health problems, so I need to be understanding of that. I know for example, when we get to the deadline around the script, that can be stressful for him, but then when it’s done and sent to the cast to learn their lines, there is a huge relief.”

Christmas magic

Despite the stress and financial burden, Alan says they still love putting on the show year after year.

“Our most magical moment was opening night in 2021. It was our first live audience after COVID. People were still wearing masks but it was a full house and there was this amazing energy in the room. Everyone experienced this global pandemic, and yes, it certainly affected some much more than others, but we had all been through it.

“I remember stepping out on stage with the spotlights shining, walking to the centre, opening my arms and announcing, ‘We’re back; we are back!’

“The place just erupted, the crowd cheered for a good two minutes. Even talking about it now, I get a lump in my throat. There is nothing quite like a live audience - there really is something magical about the panto.”