"You've got to come on like everyone’s favourite inebriated aunty"

Michael J Batchelor describes himself as a professional fat bloke in a dress.

Michael J Batchelor
Michael J Batchelor

And that’s the perfect qualification to play the dame, which he is doing once again in Crawley this year.

He will be at The Hawth for Cinderella (December 10-January 2), alongside Scarlett Moffatt (Gogglebox, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Saturday Night Takeaway) and CBeebies’ favourite Nigel Clarke (The Baby Club) as Dandini.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

An entertainer, vocalist, drag performer, writer, costume designer, wig maker and Greggs loyalty club member, Michael is delighted to be making it nine Crawley pantos in a row – including last year’s scaled-down pop-up panto production which was cut short by the Christmas lockdown.

“I have said it before, but I just love the theatre in Crawley. I just love the audiences and I just love the staff here. The audiences in Crawley are just so up for it, and they so obviously want to have an amazing time. From the moment you go out and say ‘Hello!’ it is like being with a wonderful group of friends.

“This is my 22nd year as a dame, and I am only 26! If only! But it is great when you have a residency when you go back every year and you can build your relationship with your audience. It is just so lovely.”

Michael describes himself as a “minority dame”, in other words one of the few that make or design absolutely everything for themselves “I have got to come up with a whole new set of costumes every year, costumes and wigs, and you know you have got to be outrageous and over the top. I have to stop myself from thinking ‘Oh! Is this better than last year?’ But I just love doing it. You know that the audience are sitting there waiting for what you are going to come on wearing next. This year I have got ten changes. And every costume I have made myself or is my design. The control freak in me gets to wear exactly what I want to wear, but the main reason is that I have never been a particularly small bloke. I have always been a bit overweight, and sometimes you would be given costumes that were not the right size and just wouldn’t feel great.

“You have got to feel comfortable, and you have got to come on and make the audience laugh with what you are wearing, and once you have done that, you know that you have got them on your side.”

Michael’s career began as a Red Coat for Butlin’s and then he went on to work for several years at the Alton Towers resort as its outrageous hotel manageress Ms Tanya Hyde, a drag persona which led him to perform all over the UK and abroad, including Tenerife, Salou and Gran Canaria.

More recently, Michael has written and directed shows for Butlins and has spent the past six years helping produce and tour in their year-round pantomimes. Also, in partnership with Richard Franks, he has written pantomime scripts for many other venues.

As for the dame role, the key, Michael says, is to come on rather like “everyone’s favourite inebriated aunty. You have got to have two things really. You have got to have the warmth. There must be warmth about you. And the other thing that is really important is that the audience shouldn’t forget that you are a man in a dress. That’s where the comedy comes from. There is a lot of comedy in what the dame says and that comes from the fact that a real woman wouldn’t get away with saying it and doing it!”