MICHAEL Starke has not played dame since his repertory theatre days in Liverpool in the 1980s, but Those Magic Beans pantomime producer Jamie Alexander Wilson is giving him that chance anew as Nurse Nelly in Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood at York Barbican from today.

"It's quite daunting to be doing it for the first time since my Everyman shows, but I've worked with some good dames like Phil Randall and Sean Luckham, and I've watched a lot of pantos through the years," says the 60-year-old Liverpudlian actor, best known for his 16 years as the lovable Sinbad Sweeney in Phil Redmond's Channel 4 soap opera, Brookside, before roles in The Royal as Kenneth Hopkirk and Coronation Street as Jerry Morton.

"It's a natural progress in panto for me to play the dame: it's a demanding role but great fun. I've had a lot of changes in my life this year, changing my agent after 24 years, and my new agent said, 'What do you think about playing the dame?'. I said, 'Depending on the show, yeah, great'.

York Press:

"Once you can do rep pantomimes, you can do anything," says Michael Starke, recalling his early panto days in Liverpool. Picture: Simon Cossons

"I've not worked with Jamie before, but this is a company who do good productions, the show is in York, it's quite a short run [December 21 to 31], so it ticked all the boxes.

"We began rehearsals on Monday last week, and I've been amazed by how fast Jamie works. By Tuesday, he had the show all blocked, and we've been running it and running it and running it ever since, so you get that muscle memory very quickly – and I think working quickly actually helps. Once you're safely in your role, then you can polish it, and that fear of how am I going to be, playing the dame, wasn't so much of a problem."

His early days at the Everyman were invaluable too in building up Michael's pantomime skills. "That was my first experience of performing in pantomime. I did repertory pantos at the Everyman in the early Eighties, when you'd do the full season and you'd end with the rock'n'roll panto, so that was good training. I played guitar, bass and drums, and once you'd finished a scene, you stayed on stage because you're part of the band. They were great days," he recalls.

York Press:

"I don't want to disguise my face with too much make-up," says Michael Starke on the art of playing dame

"Equity minimum of £135 for ten shows a week. I played the Dame in Aladdin In Liverpool, Widow Twankey, and the Broker's Man in Jack And The Beanstalk, and to be honest they can be difficult shows to do because kids can control panto and take it over, but once you can do those rep pantomimes, you can do anything."

Michael has never forgotten his first visit to a pantomime. "My very first show I saw was Norman Wisdom in Robinson Crusoe at the Empire Theatre [in Liverpool], which was an incredible show. I remember there were 30 dancers and a huge orchestra and Norman played all these instruments on stage, like Roy Castle used to, and he was just amazing," he says.

"I fell in love with theatre. There it was, in my home town, ten minutes from where I lived, and though I saw other shows, that was the one that made me say, 'I want to do this'."

Michael learnt too from working with the Patton Brothers double act, Jimmy and Brian Elliott, the two older brothers of Barry and Paul Elliott, alias the Chuckle Brothers. "It was about 15 years ago in Llandudno, and I used to stand in the wings watching them work, and although their 'schtick' was old, they were always doing new material. Anything topical, they were on it," he says.

York Press:

Michael Starke with Ben Ofoedu in Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood. Picture: Simon Cossons

Michael certainly has the face and the built-for-comfort frame for playing dame. "I've been working on my 'dame look' with a huge blond wig but I don't want to disguise my face with too much make-up, so it's kind of conventional, and I'll have the 'Scouse brow' too: the thick eyebrows!" he says.

"The Scouse accent really suits the dame. It has an attack to it, which you need. I'm trying to put it somewhere between Paul O'Grady's and George Melly, though I'm not sure where it lands!"

Michael is no stranger to being a man appearing as a woman on stage. "I played Edna Turnblad in the first British tour of Hairspray, the role first played by Divine. That was a chance to play it totally as a woman – which was liberating! – as it's never acknowledged in the show that a man is playing her, but you're always made aware it's a man playing the dame in panto."

York Press:

Michael Starke's Nurse Nelly, Shane Lynch's Sheriff of Nottingham and Ricky Norwood's Silly Billy Scarlett in a routine in the York Barbican pantomime. Picture: Simon Cossons

Starring in Robin Hood brings Michael back to York pantoland, where he first played the Emperor of China in Aladdin at the Grand Opera House in 2006-2007. "That was a lovely time as my wife, Lynn [Francis], was in the cast with me playing the Genie of the Ring," he says. "It's good to be back in York again."

Those Magic Beans' Robin Hood And The Babes In The Wood runs at York Barbican from today to December 31. Box office: 0844 854 2757, at yorkbarbican.co.uk or in person from the Barbican box office.