The first time I came across Morgan Brind he was wearing an outfit consisting of a large Martini glass with a straw coming out of one side and a huge strawberry on his head. “Every woman needs a simple cocktail dress!” he revealed to an audience at Derby Theatre.
The occasion last July was the presentation of the Eagle Awards, an annual event celebrating amateur theatre in Derby. Morgan’s opening gambit before he handed out one of the awards was for me the funniest part of the evening.
Four months later Morgan, looking casual but studious in dark-framed glasses, and his business partner Alan Bowles sit opposite me in a coffee shop in Loughborough where they are rehearsing this year’s panto, Robin Hood, at the Town Hall.
It’s not the only production that they’re concentrating on: Morgan and Alan’s company Little Wolf Entertainment have picked up their biggest gig so far in their relatively short history, the panto at Derby Arena. They have chosen to stage Beauty and the Beast.
In a fascinating conversation they tell me about how they’re probably the only company in the world who produce every aspect of a pantomime, how they’re already planning shows for next year and why this year they’ve had to import glitter from the Middle East.
It’s obvious after the first few minutes that Morgan and Alan are totally engrossed in panto and have the same ethos. When one is losing his train of thought the other takes over to make a succinct point. And they have a similar sense of humour.
Morgan is 31 “although panto has greyed me prematurely”. He was born in Derby and went to youth theatres where he got the bug for being on stage.
After training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, he did lots of freelance acting jobs, going on tours and living and working in Venice for six months.
Alan, five years older, grew up just outside Dunstable. At the age of 18 he went to Guildford School of Acting. He appeared in musicals and a play that was taken to Cyprus. Then he toured the world with a four-piece vocal group as well as being lead singer in a band that performed on cruise ships.
It’s only in the last few years that he has based himself in Derby. Little Wolf have their own office and warehouse in Little Eaton.
The pair met in 2008 when both appeared in panto for Slough borough council. Ironically it was Beauty and the Beast.
The following year Slough was going to cancel its panto, so Morgan rang Alan and said: “Why don’t we give it a go?”
They had spent the previous Christmas in a dressing room in Slough saying they could do better, so they felt it was time to take action. Morgan admits they were “young and stupid” back then, but to Slough council’s credit they took a punt on the pair. The 2009 panto Robin Hood was the result.
“If we’d ever logically sat down and worked out what we were getting into, we wouldn’t have done it,” says Morgan. “But I wouldn’t have changed it.”
“What’s been nice is that from Slough we realised that we quite like making panto but we didn’t really like Slough – which I think is a conclusion a lot of people have come to over the years.”
They didn’t have a lot of experience but they certainly had enterprise. They searched for areas of population without a panto and that led them to Berwick-on-Tweed.
Alan was on tour and ran into Miles Gregory, chief executive of The Maltings Theatre in Berwick. “Rather cheekily I said ‘you don’t have a panto, do you? Would you like one?’
“Based entirely on half a dozen promotional shots and a rather grainy video of our production in Slough, he gave us two weeks at his theatre and an awful lot of support. We did five years there and outsold ourselves every year.”
Managers from Loughborough Town Hall travelled all the way up to Berwick to watch the show and commissioned Little Wolf to produce their panto. Then the company tendered for the Derby LIVE festive show and won it despite competition from much bigger organisations.
Morgan admits it’s been a slow process. “We’ve taken our time to go from 200 to 1,500 seats. But I quite like the fact that we’ve had time to make mistakes and now hopefully we know what we’re doing.”
Alan chimes up: “As you always say, Morgan, we’ve made mistakes cheaply!”
“And it doesn’t cost much to put it right,” admits Morgan.
Alan explains their philosophy: “We’ve seen several companies turn up, get a raft of venues and before you know it they’ve gone again because they’ve run out of cash. They try to put on relatively cheap panto and get a quick return.
“We’re the opposite. We’re putting on what we hope is real quality theatre. It costs money and it’s taken eight years but we’re getting somewhere now. It’s built on a foundation of experience rather than just a quick flash in the pan.”
The Derby panto means Little Wolf have had to go up another gear but the pair are really excited about that: “The people coming to see this show are my neighbours – I’ve got to do a good one!” says Morgan.
Alan adds with a glint in his eye: “It’s fun driving around town and Morgan’s face is everywhere on posters – but it’s also slightly alarming.”
For Beauty and the Beast Morgan and Alan have signed up Derby actress Gwen Taylor to play The Enchantress and Ben Faulks, better known as CBeebies’ Mr Bloom, as Idle Jacques.
“In both Ben and Gwen we’ve found really terrific actors who are going to do great performances,” says Alan. “And the fact that they happen to have a profile on top of being a good actor is great for ticket sales.”
Morgan is a big fan of 78-year-old Gwen: “We were a bit worried because she’s a national treasure and you’ve got to be careful with her. But she’s really up for challenging herself and getting stuck in. This is why she’s a legend – not only is she talented, she’s also a completely lovely human being as well.”
Beauty and the Beast will be totally new – Little Wolf don’t have a stock of pantos on a shelf which they bring out every few years.
Morgan has written Beauty and the Beast which will be set in 17th century France in a place called Spondon sur le Seine. He plays Betty Brioche who runs Le Birds the bakery.
He says his wardrobe will be outrageous. He will wear nine different costumes, each of them costing about £3,500.
As well as being the dame in Derby and writing and designing Beauty and the Beast, Morgan is the writer, director and designer of Robin Hood in Loughborough. He has even found time to design two more pantos for other companies.
But this year Little Wolf has had a particular problem: one of its glitter suppliers suffered a mechanical breakdown, so Morgan and Alan have had to import more than 12 stones (80 kilos) of glitter from Dubai to go on their sets in Derby and Loughborough.
It’s all part of giving audiences an unforgettable evening’s entertainment: “We’re the only panto company in the country and therefore the world that we know of who write, design, build, paint, act – we do the whole lot,” says Alan.
“That means we can work on every aspect and make it all work together seamlessly to create what we consider to be great shows.”
Morgan chimes in: “A lot of the time people say ‘oh it’s only panto, it’ll do’. We’ve never had that attitude and I sincerely hope we never will because if you give people more than they expect, make it funnier, better, more exciting, more engaging, they’ll come back.”
Little Wolf are already well into planning 2018’s pantos, Jack and the Beanstalk in Derby and a completely new Beauty and the Beast for the smaller Loughborough Town Hall. For Morgan and Alan pantomime has become a business that takes all year.
“By the time we’ve put away last year’s show, tidied everything away, sorted everything out, finished paying the bills and wound down, we have a week off and then we’re back into the swing of the next one,” Alan points out.
Some people may turn their nose up about panto which they feel isn’t top-quality entertainment. Morgan agrees that not all companies have the right attitude.
“I’ve gone to see some pantos and maybe there’s a smile in each act. But we hope that everyone has a brilliant night out. That’s our sole focus.
“We really hope people will take a punt on Beauty and the Beast this year because it’s our first year at Derby Arena. We hope we can repay them with a cracking night out at the theatre.”
Beauty and the Beast runs at Derby Arena from Tuesday 5 until Sunday 31 December.