Showbiz tradition kept in the family
POLLYANN Tanner, 51, is principal of Tanwood School for Performing Arts, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. She lives in Swindon and has three daughters aged from 15 to 25, each of whom learned to dance at the school, and a baby granddaughter.
SOME of Pollyann Tanner’s earliest memories are of watching Tanwood performances from backstage.
The theatre was usually the old Playhouse, part of the Mechanics Institute. She was still a toddler when she took that stage herself.
“I sort of remember when I was two, getting my first cups in competitions at the Playhouse. That was the British Rail Festival – British Rail sponsored it.
“I don’t remember being on stage then but I do remember being backstage at the Playhouse in my dressing gown on many, many occasions because my mother used to run pantos there.”
Pollyann’s mother is Mollie ‘Miss Mollie’ Tanner, founder of the school of performing arts which is an iconic Swindon institution.
Her father, John, 91, was known to generations of pupils as ‘Mr John’. A draughtsman by profession, he provided piano accompaniment to countless thousands of performances, rehearsals, exams and practice sessions.
It was perhaps inevitable that Pollyann would be a performer.
“My first professional job was aged nine at the Wyvern, in their first Christmas production, which was Toad of Toad Hall during the day and a panto in the evening.
“I played Lucy the rabbit and a frightened stoat – and Mr Badger was Charles Dance.”
He was only one of many stars Pollyann worked with during a performing and choreography career that would last until she took over the running of Tanwood on March 3, 2003.
At school she considered careers including medicine, but the allure of the stage was constant.
By 16 she was in panto in Poole with Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett, known to millions as Steptoe and Son. The ensuing years saw her work with Barbara Windsor, Danny La Rue, Fiona Fullerton, Wayne Sleep, Crossroads mainstay Noele Gordon and many others.
Pollyann has appeared many times in the West End and been involved with stage productions in Britain and across the world. She has worked on commercials for everything from Maltesers to McDonalds and also on several of the extra-long Woolworth commercials that signalled the approach of Christmas during the 1980s.
Other credits include a stint presenting Freeze Frame, a Plymouth-based Televison South West magazine show for young people. This made her such a regional celebrity that when she agreed to a pantomime in Plymouth one year, the announcement made a bigger impact in the press than the fact Danny La Rue had agreed to star.
“Had I not known him I think he would absolutely have gone mad. I kept in touch for many years and whenever he came to Swindon he would always ask to see me.”
Pollyann was among the mourners at the star’s funeral in 2009.
The 11th anniversary of her becoming principal of Tanwood is fast approaching.
She said: “It was a massive learning curve, because I went from having to worry about me to having to worry about lots of pupils.”
Tanwood has upwards of 150 pupils and 10 staff. Pupils are aged from two to adult.
“Although I had taught them, being a teacher is very different to being a principal. You have the admin, the building and the parents of the children to worry about.
“But I quite like the idea of business – in fact, at one point I wanted to be an accountant. Maths and paperwork come easily to me.”
Prospering for 70 years involves moving with the times, which is why the Tanwood curriculum incorporates new developments in the world of dance, such as street dance.
One difference between some of the would-be pupils of today and those from years gone by is an expectation of instant success.
“I call it X Factor Syndrome. They want the fame without the hard work. They forget a lot of people who appear to have instant fame had been trying for 10 years to become an overnight success.
“We have quite a lot of students that need motivating into working hard at every class, not just doing it when there’s a medal at the end of it or 600 people watching them.”
With plenty of shows to work toward, though, incentives are never thin on the ground and students soon learn that dedication pays.
In recent years alone, Tanwood has had about eight pupils in Billy Elliot, 40 in Annie, 20 in The Sound of Music and scores of other successes. Pupils have appeared in national tours and West End shows, and two Tanwood youngsters are waiting to hear whether they’ll soon join the cast of Matilda.
In one sense, though, Tanwood is a victim of its own success.
“We seem to have this reputation that you have to be experienced to go to Tanwood, but you don’t. We’ll take them as babies and we’ll nurture them.”