How to become Father Christmas on stage...

Michael Fenner as Santa in Dear Santa LiveMichael Fenner as Santa in Dear Santa Live
Michael Fenner as Santa in Dear Santa Live
Did you know one of Father Christmas’ ancestors was an admiral who fought the Armada? And did you know that one of the admiral’s sons was a pirate who knew Shakespeare?

Oh yes, Santa is terribly well connected. Or least this Santa is – Michael Fenner who is ho-ho-ho-ing his way through to Christmas Eve in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in Dear Santa Live (December 10-24, aimed at ages two to seven, running time 50 minutes, plus meet and greet time with Santa afterwards).

Michael is currently staying with his uncle near Chichester. Michael knew the family had Sussex connections going back hundreds of years. His uncle tells him that those connections actually go back a couple of hundred more: “My uncle brought out some family papers the other day, showing that one of our forebears was Admiral William Fenner, who sailed out of Chichester, to fight the Armada! He had four sons, one of whom, George, was a pirate and poet who knew Shakespeare!”

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George was in fact a privateer – but as Michael points out, it was piracy by another name: “If you were a privateer you were law-abiding but you were commandeering other ships and you were basically a pirate without actually breaking the law. George was a well-known privateer. He made a lot of money out of it. I knew that we were related to Admiral Fenner. At least, I thought that we were but my uncle brought out these papers. I suppose it's not actual proof but I'd like to think the story is true!”

As for the show, as Michael says, Santa is a role that you have to take as seriously as any other role you take on: “When I was offered the role I thought that I wanted to be exactly the Santa that every child imagines. I worked on the make-up. I did quite a few make-up versions before I decided. And I decided that I ought to have a fat suit. A lot of Father Christmases you see are really skinny. He has got to be bigger. It’s that old pagan thing of the rich fat old man dying at the end of the year and then being reborn in the New Year out of the earth. So I had to make myself bigger and I grew a proper beard early on and my hair is quite long anyway and the darker bits I have highlighted. I wanted to look right.

“And people have been saying lovely things about it, that my Father Christmas comes across as very warm and very kind and so on. Obviously ho ho ho is written into the script but I make sure that my laugh is ho ho ho and that it seems to come very naturally. It is like any role that you do, you have to take it seriously and my walk changes – especially being in a fat suit!”

But put it all together and it is lovely to do: “I actually started it during the lockdown Christmas when we were in different zones. I was in Hammersmith and we did something like a week’s worth of performances and then it was cut short but when I got the chance to do it again I jumped at the chance. It is such a sweet and lovely show. It doesn't matter how tired you are and sometimes we do three shows a day, once you've got the suit on and once you've done the make-up and you walk out and you hear the children, you just get such a wave of warmth and joy. It really is so lovely to do this.”

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