Elf: The Christmas Arena Spectacular – Son of the Father, meet producers Jon and Jordan Conway

“My dad would have loved the idea of what I’m doing now,” says Jon Conway, actor, writer, theatre producer, reinventor of traditional panto and the mastermind behind the The World’s Biggest Pantomime company, producers of Elf: The Christmas Arena Spectacular.

The world ‘arena’ should tell you all you need to know about the scale of Jon’s ambitions for his shows but right now it’s a more modest endeavour that finds him preparing to go on stage to play straight man to his son, Jordan, in a piece he directed and in which Jordan stars. Tonight, the production is one cast member down and Jon is stepping in as cover to save the day.

Talking to the father and son team, it’s clear that Conway senior is relishing the opportunity to be back on stage, after all it’s where he started all those years ago having spent his childhood ‘living’ in the theatres of Scarborough and Bridlington.

He recalls, “My dad was General Manager of Bertram Mills and Billy Smart’s Circus before becoming Director of Tourism in Scarborough and Bridlington during the Sixties and Seventies, so as a child I would go to see all these shows – back in the day Bridlington had five theatres and Scarborough seven.

“I saw everything from comedy plays to variety shows and all the big names of the time, people like Frankie Howard, would come up to do what they called Sunday Concerts. I actually met Frankie when I was 10 years old and, astonishingly, co-starred with him 14 years later in one of the very first pantomimes I ever did.”

Jon’s transition from actor to producer came after a serendipitous meeting with a then little known magician called Paul Daniels.

“I was very lucky to meet him the year before he became famous. He mentored me and there’s still stuff he taught me in the show now. At the time I was in a comedy magic act but when I saw Jasper Carrott on stage I suddenly realised my kind of act was over because here was this incredible guy doing two hours of ‘different’ material with no support act, no dancers, just him on his own.”

The age of alternative comedy had arrived and Jon knew it meant he had to look at how he could survive in a brave new world that was eschewing variety and light entertainment.

He explains, “I figured if I wanted to have a career as a performer I was going to have to produce the shows myself and was very lucky to meet Nick Thomas, who had won New Faces, and he agreed with me. We started putting on shows with me as a performer while he looked after the business and that took off to such an extent I realised there were better performers than me and I could have three careers, as a writer, director and producer.”

Jon and Nick went on to form Qdos Pantomimes, producing dozens of the biggest pantos across the UK every year. Along the way they reinvented the traditional pantomime, Nick looking after the bookings while Jon took the creative reins evolving the format into the festive, star-studded extravaganza we know today.

Watching from the wings as a child was Jordan, who not only stars in Elf alongside Steven Serlin who inhabits the title role, but also co-produces it with his dad. Not that it was a career choice he was encouraged into – at first anyway.

“It was a bit weird,” says the 25-year-old, “because my dad never actually pushed me to go into the business, he always wanted me to get an education, so I’ve kind of had to work my way up – he even used to make me audition, parts were never a given.

“I think that actually made me want to do it more. To prove to him that he should push me a bit harder because I really wanted to do it.”

Seeing between five and 10 pantos a year as a child, Jordan was becoming a fledgling director and producer without even realising it, although Jon had obviously clocked his potential.

“There’s quite a good story about one of dad’s first big musicals, Boogie Nights. When I was about 10, he asked me to make notes about a performance I was about to watch. Then, at the end of the show he went through them, didn’t change a single one, and then made me read them out to the cast.”

It wasn’t just Jordan’s attention to detail that Jon had noticed. He chips in to reveal that many of the big ideas he introduced to his pantomimes came from his young son too.

He explains, “The strength of our working relationship now goes back to when Jordan was a kid. He came to me one year and said, ‘Well, why can’t Spider-Man be in a pantomime?’ So I booked the rights to Spider-Man and put him in a pantomime. Then he said, ‘Why can’t you have 3D in a pantomime?’ And I pioneered all that 3D stuff on stage. He asked, ‘Why can’t Peter Pan have a real ship and sail through the theatre?’ And that’s exactly what we did.

“With Qdos we had 25 pantomimes and our stars never knew that some of the things in their shows were the result of a seven-year-old boy in Gerrard’s Cross saying, ‘Hey dad, why don’t you do it like this?’ And we did.

“All the things he demanded as a kid were a great litmus test for me because that was what a family audience wanted and now, in our shows, he has the ability to co-direct and cast – normally I write the script, give it to him and then he makes it better.”

Elf: The Christmas Arena Spectacular finds the pair working together more closely than ever, but then it is the biggest panto in the world.

“We call it the world’s biggest panto for three reasons; it performs to the biggest audiences on the biggest stages with the biggest cast,” explains Jon.

He continues, “Pantomimes should always evolve. Back in the day when we put the boxer Frank Bruno into a pantomime we got criticised, yet in 1786 the Great Mendoza, a boxer, was also in a pantomime, putting Frank in one wasn’t a particularly new idea.

“The many and varied new things we have introduced have always been about wanting to move the tradition on. I wasn’t unhappy leaving Qdos after 25 years as I felt I had taken the theatre-based pantomime format as far as I could. I wanted it to be in an arena where it could become an event. So now we don’t do 60 shows in each city, we do two or three and the audience turns up, sees it on this big scale and realises that it is special.

“The best shows are always the funniest but it’s still about actors on a stage communicating the story. In Elf we haven’t changed a word of the written script that much but there are a hundred extra laughs than in the version you will see in the West End of London. That’s because of the way Jordan and I worked the physical comedy business into the performance. We’ve even made the props bigger and more extravagant and the effects ever more spectacular, always with a view to, not throwing tradition out of the window, but making it more contemporary to reach today’s audiences.”

So what are Jordan’s responsibilities on the production?

Before he can answer, “sixty-twelve” year old Jon jumps in again, “Let me answer that,” he laughs, “I write the script and direct it and then he goes on and changes it all, live on stage.”

Jordan, it seems has developed a reputation for being a ‘dangerous’ performer, in the best possible sense of the word, and is responsible for all those extra laughs. Dad approves.

“He’s got this dangerous reputation, the rest of the cast never know what to expect – he might do a different piece of business or come on from a different side. The audience senses that danger and that what they are watching is special and just for them. That is what makes Elf such an event.”

Jordan adds, “Because I grew up watching so many comedy greats, I have a feel for what will work, so I never plan anything. Basically, my thing is, if I can make the people on stage laugh, then the people in the audience are going to laugh too. It’s as simple as that.”

He continues, “97 per cent of the time dad and I are on the same wavelength as I’ve grown up learning from him, but I’ve also learned how I can change things a little bit as well, the nucleus of each idea comes from him, I just put a little bit of icing and a cherry on it.”

The three most important things Jordan says he has learned from his dad are the ‘ability to be innovative and creative on the spot’, to ‘make changes and not panic’ and ‘to be nice and make everyone have a good time’.

In turn, Jon reflects on what makes him the proudest dad in the world, “Jordan has a level of humility that good looking and funny, talented people don’t always have. I’m proud that he has remained grounded and has a great work ethic. He has also retained his joy in the work itself, not a lot of people do that.”

After a moment’s reflection he adds, “When I was growing up, you’d see butchers and plumbers shops that would say, ‘Conway and Son’, you don’t see that often now. Jordan has the patience, interest and respect to not want to wait and inherit something, but to actually create something now.”

“Working together is the best job in the world,” beams Jordan, as Jon laughs, “And at least when he is in the theatre with me I know where he is and that he’s not getting into trouble somewhere else.”

Tonight they’ll both be on stage together and Jordan quips, “He might have directed me in this show, but I now know it so well, I’ll be able to let him know where he goes wrong.”

The pair laugh spontaneously, like father, like son.

For full details of and tickets to Elf: The Christmas Arena Spectacular visit www.worldsbiggestpanto.com

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