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THIS CHARMING MAN; Joe Riley discovers how Neighbours bad die Dr Darcy is about to play the nice guy in pantomime . . .

Byline: Joe Riley

IT'S a long and winding road that leads from Ramsay Street to Merseyside pantomime.

And Mark Raffety, the latest Neighbours star to don tights and tunic, thinks he knows exactly why.

``There is no pan to tradition in Australia, '' says the actor who plays Dr Darcy in the long-running TV soap.

``We wouldn't probably be anywhere near a theatre at Christmas. Instead, we'd be sunning ourselves on the beach. ''

``Panto is just not an in-bred sort of thing back home. So coming here is quite an eye-opener.

``The first time I did pan to was a couple of years ago. This is my third.

`` But prior to that I'd never seen one.

I didn't know what the hell was going on.

``It proved to be a very steep learning curve. ''

Mark's first couple of pan to outings were as King Rat in Dick Whittington - in Portsmouth (his birthplace) and in Ashton-Under-Lyne.

``We had a ball. It was good to return to a role I knew, so I could build on it.

``I really enjoyed playing the same part back to back. But this time around, I'm playing the good guy. ''

The transglobal trek to be part of Merseyside's festive season began in 1990 when Stefan Dennis, who played Paul Robinson in Neighbours, starred in Robin Hood at the Empire.

Jason Donovan arrived as a pop star at Quadrant Park, Bootle, and later also appeared at the Empire; Anne Charleston (Madge) took part in touring plays, and in more recent times, Ian Smith (Harold), Jonathan Dutton (Tad) and Maggie Miller (Rosie the vicar) all appeared in various pantomimes at Widnes.

But this year, the partial closure of the Queen's Hall has seen pan to transfer to the new Brindley arts centre, on the opposite bank of the Mersey in Runcorn.

Despite that lineage, Mark Rafferty insists that there is no Neighbours pan to club as such.

Playing the prince in Snow White - together with singing sisters Anne and Amy Nolan - is a notable transition.

The show is about to transfer to the Brindley after a pre-Christmas run in Torquay.

Dr Darcy is Neighbours' ``baddie'', a character who brought much grief to the soap's Kennedy clan, and then ended up in prison.

In terms of storyline, he is presently in hospital in a coma, while his creator has turned pantomime hero.

``I'm cast as the nice guy in Snow White, so there's not much of Darcy in that.

``But even so, Darcy was not without a sense of humour.

``I am a character actor, so one of the reasons I have stuck with Darcy for three years is that there has been an opportunity to develop the character. ''

In Snow White, there is no attempt to impose the soap character on proceedings.

There's also an opportunity for Mark to sing a line or two: ``There's a song about snow falling all around. Good seasonal fun, even though Snow White is not actually a Christmas tale in itself.

``But we're having a great time. It feels like one big family, ``It's got to be the most comfortable pan to I'vedone. ``I don't think the fact that we are opening the show after New year detracts from anything.

``I think the festive season goes right through into January. So it is more a feel-good vi be rather than needing to be Christmas specific. ''

For Mark the UK visit has a particular significance, as he was born here.

``We emigrated so early on that I don't remember anything at all.

``When I first went back to Portsmouth for panto, it was a very strange feeling.

``I was walking the streets where my father and mother walked. ``I went to the hospital and had a look in there. I can't tell what the difference is between now and the 1970s, but it was an interesting experience.

``I actually envy people who have a fixed home and grow into the life of a village or whatever.

``They have a real sense of place.

``But we moved around a lot, including backwards and forwards between Australia and New Zealand. ``I suppose for my kind of work, that's not so bad, because I can make-believe that I am from anywhere. ''

Talking of make-believe, is there a future for Darcy in Neighbours?

``We're negotiating that one, '' says Mark. ``But this year I've done nine or 10 other gigs. And I guarantee if you see me in something else you would not associate me with Neighbours.

``I also write and direct, and do my own projects.

``However, there is a rumour that Darcy will be back next year - a pretty strong one at that!''n Snow White, The Brindley, Runcorn, January 4-9

CAPTION(S):

TOURS: Anne Charleston; OZ STARS IN PANTO: Ian Smith, far left, Jason Donovan, below, and Stefan Dennis, main picture, have all made a mark in British pantos.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 31, 2004
Words:813
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