'Silliness and ridiculousness': My dad, the Footlights President

Image credit: Johannes Hjorth

It’s that time of year. The Christmas lights are on (with the notable exception of that one on Trinity Street), the mince pies are on offer, and the scarves are out in full-force. As such, it feels like the perfect time to sit down with Tom Fraser, President of the Cambrdige Footlights, in a generously heated room with a cup of tea, to talk comedy and the pantomime. This year’s pantomime, The Emperor’s New Clothes started on Wednesday and seemed like a good place to start.

“I haven’t seen the script, but from what I’ve heard from rehearsals, from all perspectives - production team, creative team, the cast, it is a funny script, and it’s been a very funny and industrious and productive rehearsal process. So it’ll be funny and that’s what makes it special, [that it’s] written by students. It’s quite a big scale - it’s quite a big undertaking.” Tom tells me one of the nice things about producing the pantomime is that “it’s for everyone. Luke, Josh, and Ellen, who are the writers, set out to kind of write a show for children, and for their parents, and for students, and that’s great about any pantomime, in particular the Footlights one, because it takes into account the span of the demographic.”

Whenever there’s a big Footlights show, like the panto, I wonder how much pressure must be on the President to make it amazing. “Anything that has the Footlights name attached to it [creates] a certain expectation. That’s good, though, because it makes people turn up. Obviously we don’t want to get complacent about that, but it certainly does generate a lot of interest, and probably if I saw that I’d think ‘yeah this is going to be a funny show’, [but] I don’t think that’s a problem. I don’t think that’s a pressure.”

A keen friend of mine writes a reputable comedy blog, and had asked me to pin him on the lack of originality of the pantomime in comparison to their other shows. I try, dutifully, but Tom doesn’t buy it. “What makes it so funny is in a way that it’s so unoriginal, or that it’s a kind of format that has been done so many times. [It] allows a silliness and a ridiculousness that other formats don’t allow. It’s hard to explain. I don’t think every show has to be breaking boundaries in terms of genre, [and] it’s just a really cool thing to have leading up to Christmas. I maybe take issue with the idea of originality anyway - one of the big criticisms [of shows] is always that ‘it wasn’t original’. Especially as a student, one of the ways which you learn is [that]  in the search to find something which is approaching originality you have to be derivative in some sense. It’s quite hard to be totally original.”

In attempt to be a bit more serious-minded, I ask about the underrepresentation of women in the Footlights, an issue that has been raised repeatedly in recent years. “It’s definitely a thing that needs to be addressed, [and] I think there are things we can do. There are definitely things that we can do to bring more women into comedy. I would say that it kind of has to be at a very early level, at which you foster talent amongst women. We have been discussing as a committee ideas which are at an early stage.” Despite my best efforts, he won’t be lured into any more detail.

At this point I should mention that Tom happens to be my college dad, an English student, and a particularly good one at that, so I feel a few conceptual questions might not go amiss. “Does comedy know no bounds?” I ask, and sit back, expectantly. “I don’t think we should really be bullying people. It shouldn’t be ‘mocking the weak’”, a pun he admits is Oliver Taylor’s rather than his own.

“It’s from person to person what they choose to do with their stuff. There’s certain contexts in which that sort of discourse can be potentially acceptable, but in general I think that the context is very narrow, like absolutely not for me.”

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