Christmas at Chatsworth will be something of a pantomime this year – with staff playing their part in more ways than one.
The stately home has been transformed into a fairytale palace with classic pantomimes depicted in every room. And costumed guides will be bringing the stories to life, playing the parts of key characters from Captain Hook and Widow Twankey to the Fairy Godmother and Beanstalk Jack’s cow.
In the five days leading up to opening on Saturday, 20 staff worked long into the night, hanging more than 20,000 baubles, 11,000 lights and putting the finishing touches to 13 different tableaux.
“It’s like a really big family. People come in during their time off to help with Christmas and everything’s done in-house,” says Paul Hayes, who’s in charge of visitor services – and will be doubling up as the back end of a pantomime cow.
He oversees the guides, who are happy to throw themselves into their seasonal roles. His team has also erected a marquee over the entrance to the house this year, to shelter visitors queueing for admission, and laid on live music to entertain them.
They have also enhanced the interactive approach with a free children’s trail, more than 70 handmade costumes to dress up in and eight ‘wish trees’ in the sculpture gallery.
“We’ve had to double the number this year because we get so many wishes left,” says Paul.
These range from marriage proposals and memories of loved ones, to messages from children whose parents are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. A random sample of 100 is saved each year for the Chatsworth archives.
Paul trained as a film cameraman at Hallam University and was manager at the Showroom cinema, the Millennium Galleries and Weston Park Museum before taking up his Chatsworth role five years ago.
“Its funny how things turn out,” he says. “I don’t do any filming, but even the most mundane things have to have an element of day-to-day creativity here.”
The textiles team, normally busy maintaining curtains and hangings, has made all the costumes and props including Jack’s 60ft beanstalk, which winds its way up the Oak Staircase.
House joiners, generally involved in conserving valuable furnishings and picture frames, have built Widow Twanky’s washing machine – fully workable by young visitors – as well as a gingerbread house and a life-size cage for naughty children.
There are personal touches too: Dick Whittington’s cat has been specially made, based on Edward, the pet of assistant housekeeper Janet Bitton. And head housekeeper Christine Robinson has roped in her husband to make a herd of wooden reindeer for the dining room.
Chatsworth welcomes Christmas visitors daily from 11am until December 23, with early opening from 10am at weekends to allow for extra visitors.
Other seasonal specials include twilight evenings each Thursday and Friday, with candlelit tours, a wine and mince pie reception in the Painted Hall, and entertainment from local choirs and handbell ringers.
There are also Christmas markets from Thursday to Sunday this week and next, with more than 100 stalls in addition to the Stables food and gift shops, and live performances by bands and choirs.