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How Panto Led to Maths Inspiration

The idea for doing maths in a theatre had an unlikely origin

The year was 1989.  I was working for Deloittes, the international consulting firm, and truth be told I was a bit despondent.  It had just been announced that another big firm, Coopers & Lybrand, would be taking us over in the New Year.  As somebody who struggled to tuck his shirt in, all the indications were that I would be a misfit in the new firm's culture.

Still, the merger was a few months away.  One morning, a memo appeared in my in-tray*.

       "Wanted - volunteers for this year's Deloittes Christmas pantomime". 

The Deloittes panto had been running for a few years, a charitable event aimed at underprivileged children in London.  It was always held in a proper theatre, the 400-seat Chaucer Theatre in the City of London.  This year's panto was to be the non-traditional story of Santa In Space.

One of the roles that needed filling was that of Producer.  It sounded like an interesting diversion, and despite my complete lack of theatre experience I put my name forward.  I was the only applicant, and was instantly accepted.

It turned out that being producer meant doing most of the dogsbody work:- building sets at the weekend, sorting out rehearsals, and most important of all, keeping the cast and backroom team happy.  I was soon in at the deep end. Within a week, Charmian (the director) and Terry (the previous producer who was also the Senior Partner's chauffer), fell out.  Terry announced he was pulling out of the show, and without his access to the firm's senior management, the whole production was likely to be abandoned.  I met Terry in a pub, listened to his grievances, and somehow persuaded him back into the fold.

Those of us involved in the production felt that the panto was an important part of Deloittes' culture, and we were determined to convince Coopers that this was something worth preserving when the firms merged.  Two months later, the show went ahead.  We had three full houses, and lots of Coopers staff came to the show and enjoyed it.  The following May I resigned from Coopers to start my freelance career.  Meanwhile, we'd given the panto just enough momentum to carry it through to the following Christmas, when a joint Coopers-Deloitte team took over.  And when Price Waterhouse merged with Coopers a few years later, the pantomime became part of the new PwC culture as well.

Yesterday,  on a whim, I looked up the PwC pantomime.  I was astonished to see that not only is it still going (its 37th year, apparently), but it now runs for five nights in a West End theatre, with a cast and production team of 250.  Wow. I think there were only about 25 people involved in the show that I produced.

It now occurs to me that the Deloittes panto had another legacy, too.  In 2004, I wanted to set up a school maths lecture show in Manchester.  The previous year, Simon Singh and I had held a lecture event in a hall of residence in Manchester.  The venue was flat, hot and lacked atmosphere. It occurred to me that a show would be much more impactful in a theatre with raked seating.  I must surely have been thinking back to my only other theatrical experience, the Deloittes panto Santa In Space, nearly 15 years earlier. 

And so, our shows were born.  They are now in their 20th year, and like the PwC panto, we perform in theatres across the country, from the Bristol Hippodrome to the Nottingham Playhouse. Funny how things turn out.



* This was a physical in-tray, with bits of paper.  Not an inbox.  None of us had a pc at our desk at that time.