Although he may jokingly call himself “Panto Boy, a slightly rubbish super hero”, Tam Ryan has become a firm fixture in one of the nation’s top pantomimes.
For the past five years, he’s spent December treading the boards at the Opera House in Manchester - sharing the stage with international stars such as David Hassellhoff, Pudsey the dog, and Priscilla Presley who headlines the cast this year as the Wicken Queen in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
Tam’s name stands proudly on posters alongside the household stars each year, but away from pantomime, he’s busy on the Blackpool and North West gig circuit, with corporate and private bookings, and auditioning.
“Yes, it’s been five years at the Opera House and about 14 years of pantomimes in total,” he said. “Little old me.”
He admits he was lucky to get the big panto break, filling what was meant to be four shows for stage and screen star funnyman Bradley when the latter had to miss shows for TV filming.
“I first got the Manchester gig the year after I had filled in for Bradley - who’s pretty much the best you can get,” said Tam, 38, who lives in Poulton.
“He was meant to miss four shows but it ended up being 12 and I’d stepped into the lions’ den.
“Funnily enough, my first year at Manchester was Snow White, like this year, and I could tell they were thinking ‘Will he be alright?’.
“I got that break and was able to make it my own and it’s been amazing.
“I’m up there with these huge household names, then a few weeks later I’m entertaining pensioners at the Lyndene.
“The danger of joking about and being ‘Panto Boy’ is that I think it’s how I’m sometimes seen, as you have to be careful what’s on your CV.
“I have toured, but I’ve got a young family now and don’t want to travel too far, but I’d love to do more TV work - which I’m getting close to.”
Tam’s panto role in Manchester is much the same as Steve Royle takes at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, each year - the comic character.
This time round, he’s Muddles and links up the on-stage action with the audience thanks to plenty of interaction.
“He’s in love with Snow White and hasn’t a chance to getting the girl,” he said.
“It’s mucking around, in a structured way. You just can’t call it a real job.
“I don’t have to take the storytelling too seriously, and can send up whatever else we are doing - which I love.”
Taking to the pantomime stage involves ‘ripping up the rule book’ you’re handed at theatre school, losing any subtlety of performance, and Tam admits it took some getting used to.
“I remember the first one I did, I just thought ‘What on earth is this all about?’ You find your way through the experience and learn as you go along.
“Now I have done that many, you get accustomed to what’s expected. You have to innovate though, especially when you’re going back to the same theatre.
“Steve and I have had many conversations about it. The trick is to stick to what is expected from pantomime but also give it your own twist, whatever that may be. I tend to send stuff up.”
And what’s it like walking into the rehearsal room on the first day - when the ex-wife of Elvis Presley is there?
“I was a little nervous to meet Priscilla Presley, but she’s thrown herself into it, which I admire - although I can’t understand why she’s doing it and putting herself through all this nonsense,” he said.
“She has no context as to what panto is, because it’s so British. She’s been thrown into this mad world and copes admirably.”
Having become the regular in Manchester, Tam takes a certain responsibility for easing the American guests into life in pantoland.
“You have to get them into panto gently,” he said. “Priscilla played the same role in Wimbledon two years ago, and was thinking of it as a play - saying it had changed so much from what she remembered.
“What was funny in Wimbledon then won’t be funny in Manchester now.
“But once she got her head round that it got easier.”
This time round, there are going to be two extra special audience members casting their eye on Tam’s work - his children Elouise, aged three and a half, and eight-month-old Barney.
“Elouise is very much into princesses and is looking forward to it,” he said.
“She did come last year, but was just that bit too young, dancing in the aisles and playing with ice cream lids was more fun.
“Barney will come, he’s a good lad, and will just sit on his mum’s knee taking in the lights.”
Not all young audience members are quite so easy to predict mind you. Another of his duties as Muddles is leading the audience sing-along and meet the kids section so beloved of many panto-goers.
As the old performers’ saying goes... Never work with children or animals.
“There have been some classic moments with the kids, you can never tell what’s going to come out of their mouths,” he admits.
“Back years ago, at Stockport Plaza, and it was the show being filmed for archives, a kid said ‘When I grow up, I want to spend my life on drugs’. She was the cutest little girl, with pigtails and everything. “I think I just said ‘Right, to make people better’ and moved on.
“And last year, a little lad said he wanted to be an Eddie Stobart driver.”
It’s the magical family occasion of panto that’s one of the key reasons Tam keeps going back - keeping the tradition alive.
“One thing you can’t get away from with panto is that it’s bringing children to theatre. And that’s forever true,” he said.
“It’s such a technical world these days, that arts and theatre can get left behind but pantomime stimulates our trade as actors. And it’s a great bit of British culture. It’s truly ours - they just don’t have anything like it anywhere else in the world, they haven’t a clue.
“It promotes family values, gets everyone together, works on many levels and is just so much fun to be involved with.”
* See Tam Ryan in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Opera House, Manchester, until Sunday, January 4. Call 0844 8713018.