It just moves me.
I love it. I love the
theatre. And I love
what I do
Comedian Billy Pearce, 70, has been entertaining people all his life. His mother Jean Pearce ran the biggest dancing school in Yorkshire and Billy couldn’t escape the pull of the stage. He started as a song-and-dance man and performed at Working Men’s Clubs in Leeds and all over the country. He was a Redcoat at Butlins. “We used to catch people climbing over the fence,” says Billy. “And then send ‘em back to finish their holidays.” Gradually he dropped the music in favour of comedy.
Billy found national success after appearing New Faces in 1986. “It took me 16 years to be a New Face,” he jokes. After multiple appearances at the Royal Variety Performances, Billy Pearce became a household name.
Billy has been appearing in Panto at the Bradford Alhambra for many years; Sleeping Beauty will be his 22nd show. “It’s great for all the family,” he says. “With a lot of innuendo – which is an Italian suppository.” After 18 months when he wasn’t able to work, Billy is now performing onstage to hugely appreciative audiences.
When you’re older people
seem to have respect for you. “He’s been around for so long – he must be doing something right!”
How does it feel to be back on stage, making people laugh?
I’ve done a few gigs since we were allowed back. At my first gig back after 18 months, I had to do 2 hours of
comedy. All I could remember of my set was “Good evening!” I didn’t know if I could still do it, to be honest. I felt like Superman – but somebody had grabbed a big block of Kryptonite and shoved it down my knickers. So I’m not Superman any more. I’m just Man. But it was great actually. My first gig back was at the City Varieties in Leeds, so I had a lovely audience. And I love that theatre. I was panic-stricken, but it all went well. People need to laugh, it’s part of humanity.
Why do people love panto so much?
I think it’s because you can go with your family. All the kids, the mums and dads, the grandparents, the aunts
and uncles – they all go and enjoy it. If you can get the kids laughing, the adults love it. I say they’re all kids!
What an introduction for young people to go into a theatre – which can be a daunting place - sometimes for the first time, and really enjoy it. Sit there, shout out, join in, understand the story – who the baddie is and who the goodie is. The special effects in ours are spectacular, West End standard. I love it. I always look through a little hole in the wings to look at the front row and I find a woman who I pick out and talk to. You can tell by their faces if they’re up for it. You don’t want to pick a misery! I saw this lady nudging her kid and telling him, “You boo that man, he’s the baddie. And you cheer that lady, she’s the goodie.” But when I looked out a bit later on, she’d forgotten about the kid and she was shouting out and booing and hissing as loud as she could – you just get sucked into it! It’s a wonderful family experience. And there’s a beauty to all pantomimes at whatever level. It’s not about the money. It might be the Rugby Club panto, or the local amateurs. There’s always a charm and a
beauty about pantomime.
This year the panto at the Alhambra is a bit different. No visitors backstage, and you have to wear masks. And no kids in the show, sadly. For the first time in a hundred or so years. Which is a shame because I absolutely adore the ‘sunbeams’. It’s a great experience for them and a lot of them go on to be successful in the entertainment business. There’ll be some broken hearts this year because they can’t take part. But it’s too much with all the Covid restrictions. But I can’t wait to get back on the stage there! I do have to be careful of Covid though because I had a motorbike crash a long time ago. Actually I’ve had a few. I like motorbikes – I just can’t stay on ‘em. But it left my body a bit mangled and I have to take care. I’ve had two thirds of my liver taken out, my spleen and my kidneys are damaged and I’ve got a rib missing. I was actually jumping 14 motorbikes in a doubledecker bus – and somebody rang the bell…
You like to take risks onstage too, don’t you? You certainly throw yourself around in your act and in the pantos!
I’m having to be a bit more careful now because I’m physically not as capable. I am knocking on a bit. But I’m still having sex at 70 – and I only live at 58! I’m not as fit as I should be at the moment because I haven’t been working, but you soon get fit doing pantomime. It’s all about energy, I think. You can’t just shuffle about on stage. The kids want entertaining! If you act like a child, they identify with you. I’ve had loads of injuries in panto. Broke my ribs, my fingers, my toe. One year I knocked myself out. I was putting the bins out at 1 in the morning. It was all mossy and slimy – and I fell over and headbutted the patio. I had 8 stitches in my eyebrow. I was doolally for a couple of days after that. One year I had a thing called plantar fasciitis – they used to call it Policeman’s Heel. It’s where a stabbing pain goes right up your leg and up to your hip. So I had this funny walk. That went on forever. In fact, Colleen Nolan bought me some insoles - they worked a treat.
You’ve worked with loads of great acts.
I kind of know everybody! I did Summer Season with Danny La Rue in Bournemouth in the 80s. He was an
icon. He was very kind to me. He was so funny. I worked with him for a couple of years. I got very close to Danny and we became good friends. It was very sad when he passed away. Who else did I work with? Cannon & Ball. John Challis. John Inman – I loved him, he was very kind to me. I did another Summer Season in Blackpool with The Nolans, Kev Orkian, Jimmy Crickett and a full band. You’d never get that these days, it’s all gone really. Les Dawson. I became a stagehand at the Grand in Leeds. Les was in the pantomime – this was before he became mega famous. He used to rehearse his piano going wrong in the pit between shows. But he was nice to me. In those days, a lot of the stars didn’t speak to the stagehands. They looked down their noses a bit. But Les Dawson didn’t. After that I got my union card and I became a dresser at YTV. Les was in a show called Sez Les and I was the dresser for the Syd Lawrence Orchestra – and for Les. And he remembered me! He was a star by then. A few years later we did Blankety Blank together. I was terrified because he was so brilliant. But he was so
kind to me and I got to know his wife and his daughter. It was so lovely to meet him and to work with him. He
was an absolute icon. I did a Summer Season in the early days with Tommy Trinder. I was so looking forward to meeting him. He was the first person to do Sunday Night at the London Palladium, before Bruce Forsyth. But he turned out to be a right misery!
Your mum was also bit of an icon, wasn’t she?
All her life, my mum danced. She didn’t have the confidence to go on stage herself, but she was a brilliant teacher. Fantastic at imparting her knowledge to kids. She just had the knack of getting the best out of every child. And every child loved her. For me, that gave me the best start. I used to get roped in to all the shows. I took my ballet exam and I was highly commended, but they put me in tights and I wasn’t happy about that at all. I never did it again. How many times have I worn tights in panto?! I learned to tap dance and immersed myself in that. The only time I could see her was to get involved in the shows! I’m very grateful to my mum – I wouldn’t be where I am without her. Sadly, my mum passed away with Covid over a year ago. She was in a care home and the staff were absolutely wonderful people. But I couldn’t go and see her and I don’t think that helped. Towards
the end, they would wheel her down to a window and I’d wave from about 20 feet away. She was happy right until the end, even though she had dementia. We’d like to have a memorial to her when everything is settled down.
You didn’t set out to be a comic, did you?
I don’t really know how it all happened! I loved guitar and taught myself to play. My song and dance partner
Andrew Beaumont and I, we did the Everly Brothers. One drank Everly, the other smoked Everly… We went on Opportunity Knocks in 1972 – with “Spewie” Greene. We tap-danced, played guitar, banjo, ukulele. It started when I had to make the time up so I’d tell a joke. In the early days I’d always be behind the guitar and it was a big step to take it off and walk around. It’s wonderful making people laugh. It’s like mass hypnosis. A perfect night for me is when everyone’s had a right good night and left with a smile on their faces, and the man comes up to pay you and he says, “When are you coming back?” I drive home happy. I always like to make people happy and I don’t like to upset anyone. I steer away from certain subjects and I don’t swear too much. Some people want to be controversial or aggressive. I just want to be funny, make people laugh and forget their problems for a while. You know I’m terrified when I go to work sometimes. I think, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through it?” I suppose I can’t do anything else. You know, I thought about packing it all in when Covid came along. But at one of the first gigs I did after the lockdown, I heard people laughing. And I thought, “What a beautiful gift, to be able to make people laugh like that.” I’ve realised that what I’ve missed is “the fear”. I’ve missed the rollercoaster. I drive to a gig, I’m terrified, nervous; I do the gig; they laugh; and I drive back
relieved. All my life I’ve been terrified!
There’s something special about seeing comedy or a panto in a live venue, isn’t there?
I appreciate the theatres because I was brought up in them. I like the clubs, don’t get me wrong, but you do take your life in your hands a bit! But the Bradford Alhambra, that’s special. When you walk out on that stage, it’s like home to me. I love it so much. In between shows, when everyone’s gone out to get something to eat, they wash the stage down and set up for the next show. Everyone disappears or they have a sleep. The theatre’s empty. It’s all quiet. And I’ll stand in the middle of that stage and just look out into the empty auditorium. You can feel it. She’s asleep. You can feel her resting, breathing. You can feel all the emotions – the laughter, the tears – soaked into the brickwork over the last hundred-odd years. It just moves me. I love it. I love that theatre.
And I love what I do. I say to the other actors in the finale, “Take the applause.” That applause hits you like a blast of warm air. I wish I could bottle that.
When you do showbusiness, you’ve got nothing to show for it. You don’t make something you can take home. That atmosphere is gone in a fleeting moment. But if you could bottle it, then one day, when I can’t do it anymore, when I’m too old and I’m laid down on a bed, I could just unscrew that bottle, open it up and take a listen.
What’s great about getting older?
I was always the young one, coming up; now I’m the old one, looking back. I have a lot of respect now – but you have to work for it. It doesn’t come overnight. Nobody gives me a contract any more because they trust me that I’ll be there. They used to say, in the old days, you can’t be a comedian until you’re 40. When you’re older people seem to have respect for you. “He’s been around for so long – he must be doing something right!”
This Christmas Billy Pearce is appearing as King Billy in Sleeping Beauty at the Bradford Alhambra. His co-stars include TV presenter Dr Ranj as The Royal Doctor. Expect the usual mix of mirth, mayhem and magic.
Sleeping Beauty plays from 11th December 2021 – 16 January 2022. For tickets ring 01274 432000 or book online at www.bradford-theatres.co.uk
Billy continues to perform live comedy across the country. For the latest information on his stand up shows, see his website www.billypearce.com