Elephant and Des O’Connor Were the Big Stars of Festive Panto

by | Dec 4, 2017 | History, Manchester

As festive preparations move into full swing, iNostalgia takes a light-hearted look at some of the more unusual moments of Manchester Christmases past.

They say never act with animals or children.

Well, popular entertainer Des O’Connor broke the golden rule when he played Buttons in the panto Cinderella at the Palace Theatre in December 1967.

His biggest co-star, at a whopping 1,600 pounds, was Tanya the baby elephant. She’d been a huge hit with Dickie Henderson a week earlier at the Royal Variety Show at the London Palladium.

Now Tanya was trampling the boards in Manchester! Fortunately for the cast, which also included singer Vince Hill and actress Pippa Steel, Tanya didn’t put a foot wrong.

Her favourite trick at the Palladium was finding sweets her keeper had hidden in his jacket when she came off stage.

At the end of the night, Tanya got a tremendous round of applause when she held up a sign saying: ‘I work for peanuts!’

Pippa Steel as Cinderella and Des O'Connor as Buttons with Tanya the Elephant.

Des O’Connor is upstaged by Tanya the baby elephant, December 1967

Animals were always a major attraction at Belle Vue’s annual Christmas circus. Performing elephants, seals and horses all took to the ring.

But perhaps the most dangerous were the tigers tamed by Gilbert Honch, pictured whip in hand in January 1947. Each majestic beast weighed more than 30 stones – and Gilbert had to keep a watchful eye on six of them in his twice daily routine!

Gilbert Honch and tigers at Belle Vue

Gilbert Honch and his majestic tigers at Belle Vue circus, January 1947

At least there were no tigers about when the Salvador troupe rolled into the ring at Belle Vue in 1969. The trio’s balancing act was a familiar part of the Christmas circus.

Members of the Salvador Troupe demonstrate the art of balance

The Salvador troupe balancing act at Belle Vue circus, December 1969

It was a little more sedate for the little girl who encountered a dove in Santa’s Grotto in a Manchester department store in December 1954 – although there were tears when the bird settled on her head!

A present from Santa and his elves no doubt helped put a smile back on her face!

A little girl is upset when a dove lands on her head in Santa's grotto

This little girl’s not too happy with a dove on her head in Santa’s grotto, December 1953

Father Christmas clearly got into the Yuletide spirit at Lewis’s department store in 1969. Santa decided to dance with the customers, who obviously enjoyed the impromptu experience.

Father Christmas enjoys a dance at Lewis's store in Manchester

A sprightly Santa enjoys a dance at Lewis’s department store, Manchester, in December 1969

Christmas was clearly in the air for Salford police in December 1955. Heavily disguised as Santa, Police Sergeant Cyril Condliffe climbed into a patrol car decked with snow to tour schools in the city.

It was all part of the Save Christmas on the Road campaign for children – and Sergeant Condliffe gave advice to youngsters over the police car’s wireless.

Police Sergeant dressed as Father Christmas

Salford Police get their Christmas safe-driving campaign on the road, December 1955

Santa suits provided hardly any disguise at all for football stars and best friends George Best and Mike Summerbee when they were guests of honour at Children’s Charity Show at the Odeon Cinema, Manchester, in December 1969.

It might have been a slightly awkward moment for Best as one of the female Santas lined up at the event was none other than his ex-girlfriend Eva Haralsted. She’s standing third from the left in the back row of our photo.

The season of goodwill clearly failed to work its magic on the pair as they did not speak at the event!

Also in the picture are, from left, Diane Westbury, Miss Great Britain Wendy George and Jenny McAdam.

George Best and Mike Summerbee at a Charity Childrens Show

George Best and Mike Summerbee don Santa suits at a children’s charity gala, December 1969

If George Best got a frosty reception as Santa, it was nothing compared to the icy cold and snow that greeted the railway version of Father Christmas on the tracks in Manchester in 1995. Perhaps he got a lift from the Polar Express.

Father Christmas sitting on railway tracks.

Waiting for the Polar Express? A cold railway Santa, December 1995

The best way to beat the winter cold is to get away from it all – which is precisely what Coronation Street couple Jack and Vera Duckworth managed to do when they shot a one-off video for the Christmas market in November 1997.

The popular pair, played by Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey, jetted off to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows. Our photo shows them trying out the one-arm bandits in one of the desert town’s many casinos.

During the 75-minuted production, Jack and Vera were joined by Corrie hairdressers Maxine Heavey and Fiona Middleton who flew out as a surprise to style Vera’s hair.

There were cameo appearances from Joan Collins and former Street favourite Ray Langton, played by Neville Buswell, who worked in Vegas as a waiter.

The one-off special, entitled Viva Las Vegas, was directed by Coronation Street fan and future Doctor Who writer and director Russell T. Davies.

Jack and Vera Duckworth in Las Vegas September 1997

Jack and Vera Duckworth hit Vegas in a Coronation Street seasonal special, November 1997

If you have any Christmas memories of Manchester you’d like to share – or even a picture or two – why not post a comment on our Facebook page or get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.