Scunthorpe Plowright Theatre pantomime Aladdin opens on Saturday. Oh yes it does!
HELLO everybody" – "Hello Annie Fanny" is a greeting that is embedded in the heads of families across North Lincolnshire.
Children, parents and grandparents who have been blessed to get tickets for one of Scunthorpe's pantomimes over the last seven years will remember Annie Fanny – after all, who could forget her? She's loud, proud and never fails to pick on the crowd.
And back by popular demand, she will return to grace the stage for her role in this year's Tony Peers production of Aladdin at the Plowright Theatre in Scunthorpe.
Aladdin is the pantomime that actor Darren Johnson made his Annie Fanny debut.
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And believe it or not, had he not been given a lucky break, he would have ended up working as a miner – and his desire to become a dame would have been kept a secret.
Darren, 40, said: "John Spiller came up with the name Annie Fanny when I first did panto at Scunthorpe.
"There was a nurse called Annie Fanny and in the script I said 'Hello everybody' and the audience replied 'hello Annie Fanny'. In the next year's show I was called Hanky Panky. But when I shouted 'Hello everybody', the audience shouted 'Hello Annie Fanny' and the same happened when I played Dame Dottie in Jack and the Beanstalk the year after. So the producer and I decided to use the name Annie Fanny every year after that.
"It's down to the people of Scunthorpe that I'm Annie Fanny – kids love shouting it out – so well done you lot. I've even got an Annie Fanny fan club on Facebook."
Darren's pantomime career stretches back 23 years, to when he started working professionally as a member of the stage crew, aged 16, at Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House, where he was responsible for moving the scenery about.
And his first experience on the other side of the curtain was on the closing night of a panto once the audience had gone home.
Mr Johnson said: "We used to do our own version of the pantomime – which was known as a cod panto. It used to be funnier and cruder to suit an older audience. The director asked one year if I wanted to be in the real pantomime and I've been doing it for the last 20 years.
"I don't ever get embarrassed – I've been a tree, a dinosaur, a woman, I've even played a cloud – that was a rubbish job."
And he is used to getting things wrong.
Darren said: "Every night I mess up – whether it's falling off stage, getting my costume ripped off, forgetting to put my bra on or my wig falling off."
He says it is hard work as a woman and Darren admits he was thrown straight into the deep end in his debut as a dame.
Aged just 21, he was believed to be the youngest dame in the country.
He said: "In those days it was very much an old boy's game. On my first appearance, I was supposed to have my make-up done, but the lady that was suppose to do it was ill so I had to go around all the girls in the cast and ask if I could borrow lipstick, mascara and they all helped me out."
It is on stage where Darren can really get into character.
He said: "My mum makes all my costumes for me. She got an old pair of curtains from somebody's bedroom and cut them up and made Annie Fanny's favourite dress. the spotty dress makes an appearance at every pantomime – it's my lucky dress. She comes to see me every year but she doesn't look at me – she just looks at her costumes, but she's very proud of me."
Also proud of his acting career was his grandmother.
Darren said: "My grandma was from Scunthorpe and she always used to say to me 'why don't you do a pantomime in Scunthorpe? You're better than they are'. Then the year after she passed away I was offered the panto role in Scunthorpe but sadly she never got to see me perform there."
Hiding on the back row is not an option when Annie Fanny is in the house, but there can be a risk to audience participation, as Darren explained: "I picked on a nun on the third row during panto in Oldham. I went out and tried to get her to stand up and join in so I pulled her up. She had calipers on and that was the worst mistake to happen to me.
"I should have known not to pick on a nun – you only do that once."
When the panto season is done, Darren takes his Pocket Panto business around schools and community groups – passing his skills and knowledge onto youngsters. But out of costume, he fails to be noticed as Annie Fanny.
Tickets for the panto are £14.50 for adults, £11.50 for concessions, £48 for a family ticket and £8 for schools. Call 0844 854 2776.