By Jeremy Miles
DOING pantomime is like running in the Grand National twice daily," says Victor Spinetti, currently oozing villainy as King Rat in Dick Whittington at The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton.
The veteran actor, famous for his appearances in the Beatles films, is probably more of an old war-horse than a shiny young thoroughbred - but he's still a safer bet than most.
And unlike some actors, jaded at 25, 68-year-old Spinetti is unashamedly enthusiastic about his work and finds panto as exciting as Shakespeare.
"It's rather good when you say 'Silence' to the kids and five laser beams shoot out of your hand!" he laughs.
Working with Jim Davidson, director and star of this lavish, high-tech version of Dick Whittington, has been something of an eye-opener for Spinetti.
In fact he reckons Davidson is one of the best directors he has ever worked with - second only, in fact, to Joan Littlewood, whose legendary Theatre Workshop changed drama in the 1960s.
Spinetti seems to be having a great time in panto. He certainly finds it more of a laugh than working with the the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"I was with the RSC for two years and I didn't come away with one funny story," confesses Spinetti. It's a startling admission for an actor whose name is a byword for theatrical anecdotes.
Spinetti is famous for his stories of showbiz life and encounters with the rich and famous. He's worked with them all, from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
"The reason I was in all the Beatles films was because George Harrison's mum said she wouldn't come to see them if I wasn't," laughs Spinetti. He has told me before about how George’s mum had a bit of a crush on him. But that’s Spinetti for you, a mine of showbiz stories.
My favourite, told with much gusto, was about how he turned down the chance to seek his fortune in Hollywood.
Sitting in a beaten up bar at the end of Bournemouth Pier a few summers ago he described how a big-shot, cigar-toting American agent had once approached him and, stabbing a finger in his direction, had announced in a broad Bronx accent: “I can make you a star - million dollars, name in lights!”
Asked how this might be achieved, the agent sucked his cigar and thought for a moment: “Well, we’d have to change your nose, and maybe lift the eyes... and the accent, the accent will definitely have to go. We’ll fix the hair and give you a new name. Can’t fail.”
Spinetti, comfortable in his own skin and proud of his Italian-Welsh heritage, says he didn’t hesitate. “I just told him to fuck-off. I said: “You don’t want me, you want someone entirely different.”
So it is he happily continues to work in small provincial productions - one man shows, summer season and panto.
He tells me of friends in the business with higher ideals who have fallen on hard-times. He speaks of one actor who has barely worked in years. “I went to see him and gave him some money just so that he could pay the bills. He asked me what i was doing and I told him I was about to go into pantomime. He shuddered at the mere thought of it and said ‘Oh Victor, I could never do that’ It’s a strange business at times. ”