Whitwell’s John Woodford loves Christmas because it gives him the chance to come out of himself and put on his best dresses and high heels. There’s no need to get too alarmed. He’s quite safe and a real family man. It’s simply because he’s the most celebrated dame in Island pantomimes.
I could have been fooled because one of his sons, Andrew, who is following dad into local amateur dramatics, told me there was a shed at the end of the garden where father went to dress up and practice. I couldn’t find it and suddenly realised it was purely a little family mischief.
It is a fact that John’s delightfully rustic father, Dave, a recently retired long distance lorry driver, has never watched his son perform live on stage. He does know what goes on because he discreetly watches the videos and DVDs.
John Woodford began acting at Carisbrooke Grammar School before joining the Niton Players, now the Pepperpot Players. He played mainly character parts for them but was once cast as the juvenile lead.
When the family came along John took a less active role but did make a comeback by playing in pantomimes for the Don Mills Variety Club. He’s come a long way since being cast as an ugly sister in a 1993 production of Cinderella.
Playing a dame is not as easy as it may look. In more recent years, both in professional and amateur shows, too many actors have just thrown on a dress and hoped for the best.
“It‘s much more of an art and takes a lot of hard work and plenty of observing,” admitted John. His particular favourite has always been Danny La Rue and he has also enjoyed the skill of the late John Inman. “I think a dame should be glamorous and really over the top. The comic timing is very hard to perfect.” Barbara Williams, a former professional, helped John so much when they were in the Don Mills group.
John Woodford, who can sprint across the stage in high heels faster than any catwalk model, loves the banter and inter-action with his audience. “I always put the shoes on first and this helps me get into the character. I do also have an input into the dresses I wear,” he admitted.
In everyday life John Woodford can be quite shy and the world of amateur dramatics has considerably helped. Away from the spotlight and the makeup he is a normal family loving person. He would far prefer to flick his eyelids and stick out his chest in front of hundreds of people than make a speech at a social function. On stage he is not John Woodford. He is able to hide behind his character.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago he failed to turn up for an introductory evening for the Savoyards. He was just too shy and could not face it. Now he is one of their local stars. So far, John has appeared in fourteen pantomimes and has won more County Press Amateur Theatre Awards, for Best Dame, than anyone else.
John is also a great advocate for the more modern approach to pantomime when, other than the dame and ugly sisters, men are played by men and ladies by ladies. He is not in favour of a girl playing the principal boy. In the 21st century seeing two ladies holding hands and singing to each other can often provoke more funny lines from the audience than on the stage. Sometimes it can even look like mother and daughter as the romantic leads.
“I most definitely think the two romantic leads should be a boy and girl and our Ventnor Theatre Group pantomimes always do this,” added John. This Christmas John will be playing Liza the Cook in Peter Pan at the Winter Gardens, Ventnor. This runs from December 6 to 9. The part is likely to be extended to give him more comedy opportunities.
It can often be a Woodford family outing. John’s son Andrew is always in the production, his younger son Jamie plays drums in the band and his wife Jane is front of house. Away from the amateur stage John is the catering manager at Blackgang Chine and he is also a hard worker for the Chale Show, where he helps to feed the exhibitors and is the cup secretary. He has also been known to win a few cake competitions. Sadly, as yet, I have not tried one of his renowned specialties.
John Woodford certainly did not have the stage opportunities today’s Island youngsters have. There was no hope of a drama school or theatre college. It was a case of leaving school and out to work. Like all good amateur performers he must think what might have been if the opportunities had been there. Now he enjoys his local pantomimes, Gilbert and Sullivan shows with the Savoyards, where he sings, dances and acts, and the occasional play with the Pepperpot Players.
I’d love to take his father to a pantomime and hide a tape recorder in my pocket. Oh yes I would!