Last Christmas Sir Ian McKellen shocked the artistic establishment and delighted the greater public when he appeared in the Old Vic's production of Aladdin.

This year, with the help of First Family Entertainment, everyone seems to be at it. Richard Wilson, Susan Hampshire and Simon Callow have all put up for this new partnership between Clear Channel Entertainment and the Ambassador Theatre Group, which aims to put the tradition back into panto.

And now Brighton's Theatre Royal is getting its own ac-tor in the form of Simon Shepherd.

Okay, so he's best known for having played doctor Will Preston in long-running TV drama Peak Practice. But he's also spent six months of the year directing and performing in the awardwinning comedy Art, and has just hot-footed it over from Bristol, where he's been appearing in Chekhov's The Seagull.

"Five years ago I wouldn't have thought of doing Jack And The Beanstalk," he says. "But this year what Ian Mckellen did has filtered down and it's like it has become legit for people to do panto again.

"Last week I was doing very methodbased acting and of course panto needs an entirely different energy. But my commitment is exactly the same.

"In fact my first job, 20 years ago, was playing Dick in Dick Whittington for Salisbury Rep. So I've gone from principal boy to baddie in one fell swoop."

The evil nemisis to Twiggy's pink-tinged Fairy Sweetpea, Shepherd plays Demon Fleshcreep. Henchman to the giant (who lives in cloudland and appears here in the form of a giant Jim Henson puppet), Fleshcreep is a self-regarding villain who appears "in flashes of green light, roars a lot, kidnaps Jill and puts her in a cage and steals Daisy the cow and threatens to turn her into a large cow pie.

"I suppose I am there for the mothers," says the one-time ITV hearthrob. "I'm not going to wear facial hair or wigs, so you're definitely getting Simon Shepherd as Simon Shepherd.

"I sing in tune but without a great deal of subtlety, and I do a little bit of dancing which is hilarious - more a sort of a shuffle."

Directed by Twiggy's husband Lee Lawson and featuring the ever-popular Ian Good as Dame Sarah Trott, this new version of Jack And The Beanstalk is "sharp and lean - not full of terrible smuttiness or tired old television references", and sees Shepherd speaking in rhyming couplets.

"It's very spectacular,"

he says. "I think that pantos here have been a bit drab in the past few years - or so people say.

"But with this one they're really pushing the boat out."