Like father, like son

CINDERELLA AT THE LYCEUM   Holly Johnson as Cinderella and Bobby Knutt as the Barron.     13 December 2007
CINDERELLA AT THE LYCEUM Holly Johnson as Cinderella and Bobby Knutt as the Barron. 13 December 2007

SIMON Hanna can take to the stage in A Christmas Carol feeling that he has in his genes the wherewithal to entertain audiences at this time of the year.

For his father is Bobby Knutt, for many years Sheffield’s panto king.

“He and my mum split up when I was a baby,” he explains. “When I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties I used to see him on television and felt a bit in awe for him. But in the last few years I have had a pretty close relationship with him.”

Simon used to be in the audience for his pantos at the Crucible in the Eighties – except for one year.

“When I was 16 he asked me if I would like to be in it with him. He said you’ll be playing Bertie Bassett and you’ll get 300 quid. That appealed to me because I could use the money to buy a video but I did it on condition that no-one would know it was me dressed like an idiot. Also it was a chance to see my dad close-up doing his thing.”

Bobby’s commitments as a cruise entertainer will probably mean he won’t be able to return the compliment.

Simon also remembers his dad taking him along when he performed at working men’s clubs and saw that every show was different and how good he was at responding to issues like hecklers.

“I could never do that,” he said. But there was a side of Bobby’s talent he could emulate – straight acting.

“I think other people realised it before I did. I wanted to be a history teacher. I was in school productions (at Low Edges/Jordanthorpe) and then did drama at Norton College. Then it was a question of whether I wanted to take it a step further and going to London.

“There were no grants or anything and it was going to cost £18,000 and there was no way I was going to get that. I decided to write to Anthony Hopkins, an actor I admired, to ask him if he thought it was possible to make it without going to drama school.

“He wrote back saying you need to really – and enclosed a cheque for £6,000. When I saw the cheque I couldn’t believe it but that got me started and saw me through the first year and then I did all sorts of jobs in restaurants and council offices to get through the course.

“I didn’t excel at drama school until the second year when I realised it was really what I wanted to do,” he reflects. “Funnily enough it was playing the same role I’m doing now – Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol.

“It was a more traditional production than the one at the Lantern which is a modern take and is a bit irreverent. Marley is of course Scrooge’s old business partner and I’m his cockney sidekick, he’s more of a gent.

“He was the brains and I was the brawn. There’s a lot of comedy comes out of that but there’s still the essential message of A Christmas Carol.”

Just as he was finishing drama school in 1998 he and a few fellow graduates were recruited for supporting roles in a Radio 4 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles with David Suchet and Judi Dench (who weren’t too grand not to talk to them as equals, he remembers).

“The main thing was I had spent three years learning how to project a whisper to the back row of a theatre and for radio you had to do the opposite.”

After that he stayed in London doing “bits and pieces” but eventually realised he needed to earn a living and left the business to do various jobs including working in local government and teaching English in Eastern Europe.

“After 15 years I began to miss it and came to realise it’s the best job in the world and what I really should be doing,” he says.

He has done a couple of professional gigs in the last couple of years but not enough to give up the day job just yet – presently in the haematology department of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

In the meantime he has got involved with the Dilys Guite Players because he has fallen in love with the Lantern Theatre and feels the work being put on is of professional standard.

One of the professional jobs he did last year was playing a fire officer on Coronation Street - the soap in which Bobby Knutt once appeared. “On the set someone said to me, ‘How’s your Dad?’ which surprised me because I hadn’t told anyone of the connection. But it’s good that he’s remembered there.”

lA Christmas Carol runs at the Lantern Theatre until December 17.