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Meet Bury St Edmunds musician, Ward Baker, who has played a key role in Christmas pantomimes for 30 years

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Panto swept back in style to Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds this month with fans glued to every magical moment as, after a year’s delay, Cinderella finally went to the ball.

But at every performance one man has been following the action even more closely than the audience.

Out of sight, watching on a screen, musical director Ward Baker is on high alert for any glitch, or slight deviation from the script. If it happens he must be ready to react in an instant.

Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton
Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton

Ward is the man whose composing and keyboard skills, along with drummer Luke Pettit, provide the orchestral sound that weaves together every song and laugh and tender scene as the story unfolds.

And if things don’t go exactly to plan he is the one who must seamlessly fill the gap with music so no-one will notice anything amiss.

The one thing he knows is whatever happens on stage there can never be ‘dead’ time.

“Doing my job in panto is 100 per cent concentration. Anything could happen at any time,” says Ward.

“As musical director I’m seeing the action on screen, and if there are any gaps I have to cover it with something.

“If there’s a problem there has to be some sort of cover music. Or maybe the actors throw in another gag or something and I have to react to that too.

“A few shows ago I had to extemporise on a fanfare because there was a problem with one of the entrances.”

Ward Baker, musical director of the 2021 panto at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds
Ward Baker, musical director of the 2021 panto at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Ward has plenty of experience. He been doing pantomime every Christmas for 30 years, working all over the country with a host of star names.

The exception was last year when Covid shut theatres and pantos were cancelled, including Cinderella at Theatre Royal where he has been directing music for shows for six years.

“We weren’t sure entirely how people would feel about coming back this year but it’s going very well and is being very well attended and received,” he said.

“The first day in rehearsal was the first time back in a rehearsal room working for two years, and it was a great feeling for everybody.

“There have been so many musicians and actors that have given up. They didn’t have work so they have taken something which has a more regular wage. An enormous number of people have left the business. There is an enormous shortage of technicians in theatres now.

“This is my sixth year at Bury, and my fifth panto, which is ideal for me. I can commute for the first time since I can remember and have Christmas at home,” said Ward who has lived in Boxford since 1993.

“That was always the disappointment when my children were younger. I used to have to rent a cottage near where I was working and my wife brought the children there.

“I also do other work at Theatre Royal when they need music.”

Ward, who has two older brothers, grew up in Ringwood in the New Forest – part of a family where there was always music.

“I took piano lessons from a very early age. Piano was my speciality, and singing, and I also played the cello.

“From an early age a piece of music would be put in front of me and I would have to sight read for the others to sing.”

He won a music scholarship to Ardingly College, in Sussex, where one of his best friends was Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and star of Have I Got News For You.

“Ian and I went on a cycling tour of Brittany when we were broke 17 year-olds, sleeping in barns and living on a shoestring.

“Some of us formed a revue company at school and that’s what got me into that side of things.

“English was Ian’s speciality. He wrote sketches for our revue – he was always very funny, very witty – and I used to write songs with his lyrics. I still have a couple in his handwriting.”

Ward won a choral scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, at 16, and after A-levels went to the college and studied social anthropology. But music was taking up more and more of his time.

“I was doing a lot of singing in the choir, and was also picking up work as a composer.

“My first job was was with the National Youth Theatre as their resident composer and music director, at the grand wage of £40 a week – a lot of money for a student.

“They operate mostly during the summer so that fitted in well. I did three Shakespeares with them, composing original music, playing live, and musical directing.”

Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton
Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton

That led to commissions to compose music for an audio tape called The Kings and Queens of England, with Derek Jacobi as narrator, and for two progammes for BBC Radio Three.

After leaving Cambridge he became director of music at Holmwood House prep school near Colchester, where he met his wife Karen – at the time school matron and still there, now teaching art.

“During that time I wrote several musicals and a rock opera called Princes, which was about the princes who were murdered in the Tower of London,” he says.

Among his young cast was13-year-old Jay Kay – later of Jamiroquai – and 10 year-olds Theo Fraser Steel, who will be seen in The Crown as Princess Anne’s husband Timothy Laurence, and Robert Thorogood, who went on to create the TV drama Death in Paradise.

“We took that production to the Edinburgh Fringe, which was very unusual. The headmaster was very forward-looking and keen on the performing arts.

“We went again with a musical called A Day at the Seaside, which led to a link with the Children’s Music Theatre and I’ve done a lot of work with them over the years.

Although he enjoyed his work at the school, Ward eventually decided his first love was theatre.

“In 1989 I was given the opportunity to become musical director for a European tour of The Rocky Horror Show.

“It was the first big show I had done. I was flown out to Germany on a Saturday, watched the performance that night, and had to take over from scratch the next night.

“I made contacts and started doing musicals. A year later did my first panto, Dick Whittington, with Charlie Drake and Barry Howard from Hi-De-Hi, at the Theatre Royal, Margate.

“Working with Charlie was an experience. I got on with him very well, although he could be a difficult character. But I’m the sort of person who likes to get on with people.”

It also led to Ward being in at the conception of Jim Davidson’s risque adult pantomime Sinderella.

“We would get drunk quite a lot in Charlie’s dressing room after shows. Jim Davidson came down to see the panto because he knew Charlie, and just the three of us were in the dressing room until 3am drinking whisky.

“That was where Jim Davidson came up the idea for his Sinderella adult panto. It was born in Charlie Drake’s dressing room in Margate. I was asked to be involved, but I had other work lined up,” he adds.

“From there I got picked up as a musical director who loved doing panto, and worked all over the country.”

Memorable times include working with Peggy Mount, who specialised in playing formidable women. Off duty, she was very different from the characters she played.

“I miss Peggy. We were very close, and she became a sort of grandmother figure in my family,” says Ward. “I worked with her three or four times and got to know her very well. She had Christmas lunch with us one year.

“Her eyesight was failing, but she was still a wonderful performer, in her 80s. She had this wonderful frightening matronly voice when she wanted, but she was a very sweet, lovely lady.

“I also worked with quite a lot of EastEnders stars including Letitia Dean and June Brown, who plays Dot Cotton. She’s terrific, very down to earth.

“The other actor I got on particularly well with was Trevor Bannister, who played Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served. He was a really good pantomime dame.

“We had a particular love of Ivor Novello. Trevor was passionate about his music, as am I. We were talking about putting together a musical about Novello before Trevor died about 10 years ago.”

Ward has also worked for production companies who do multiple pantos around the country. “They tend to have the bigger stars,” he says, “but they aren’t as much fun to do.

“I always arrange the music for a panto. It depends what’s required by the script. I’m a great believer in not just putting in the latest pop hits because they’re popular. If there isn’t a suitable song I’ll write one.

“For Cinderella this year I’ve written ‘A Jolly Good Jig’, which was mentioned in one of the reviews as being a favourite moment. I also write all the incidental music.

“By June we’re looking to audition the cast. Then I do the arrangements – there are 14 numbers in Cinderella – and that takes a good two months.

“I can do a musical in between, but taking on writing music for another show is tricky.

“While the show is on we have one day off every six days. There are two, and sometimes three, shows a day each lasting two and a half hours.

“I perform all the music on computer, with a keyboard. But I always insist on a live drummer, which is particularly important in panto. If someone gets a slap on the stage you need a percussive hit, and it’s never the same twice. We have a terrific drummer at Bury, Luke Pettit.”

Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton
Theatre Royal panto musical director Ward Baker. Picture: Mecha Morton

Through the year Ward does other composing work. His main project at the moment is easy piano arrangements of popular songs which are accessible online.

“It’s not a nine to five job but it’s good to earn a living doing something I love,” he says.

His son, Jobie, is also a musician – a singer songwriter who has just released his first single, Crash, which has featured on Radio One and Radio Suffolk.

Ward is working on a choral arrangement of one of Jobie’s other songs which has been
taken up by two colleges for analysis for their performance degrees.

For the past 10 years he has also chaired Boxford Community Council, which provides funds for all organisations in the village. It also set up the community hub which has helped hundreds of residents during Covid with shopping, prescriptions and a friendship scheme.

For more on Ward’s work, go to his website. Cinderella is on at the Theatre Royal until January 16, 2022.