Maggie Hartford talks to an Oxfordshire pantomime dame and crossword enthusiast

Pantomime dames have a long and noble tradition, but would you expect them to solve the Daily Telegraph crossword in half an hour?

Tony Long, who has trod the boards almost every year for the Thame Players, has a simple sense of humour. The more corny the jokes, the more he likes them, and he says this makes him perfectly suited to cryptic crosswords as well as amateur dramatics.

“If you think about cryptic crosswords, it’s really about playing with words.

“I like silly signs – ‘toilets closed, use floor below’. If you think about words, you think about jokes. ‘Home Secretary to act on video nasties’. That sort of thing. That’s my style of humour. I don’t try to be sophisticated. ‘Small poodle, neutered, like one of the family’. Or ‘table for sale suitable for lady with short wide legs’.”

He says his sense of humour has remained over the years, despite, or perhaps because of, his long career in management with Marks & Spencer.

Now 71, he remembers as a teenager helping his father with the Daily Telegraph crossword.

“He was very good at it and always did it every day. I was not exactly on his knee, I must have been about 12, and he used to explain how he solved each clue. I suppose my love of doing crosswords has blossomed from that.

“I am a Telegraph reader now and I do their crossword just about every day.”

Tony has lived in the Thame area for more than 40 years, and commuted to London every day from Princes Risborough.

“I managed to do the Daily Telegraph one in the morning and another one coming home, every day for more than 30 years.”

For the return journey he removed the Financial Times from M&S’s head office in Baker Street, where his work involved the company’s stockmarket listing. But he never fell in love with another newspaper crossword in the same way.

“I have become so used to the Telegraph that I can do it quickly. The Times is definitely harder. You get on the wavelength of compiler after you have been doing it for a while.

“If for some reason I do The Times, I haven’t got the experience of that compiler, but I think it is harder anyway.

“Like anything else in life, the more practice you get, the better you become.”

After he retired from M&S in 1999 he started compiling crosswords himself, and tried submitting them to the Daily Telegraph.

“They had a long-standing group of compilers and no vacancies, so I gave that up and started a small business, and then I developed a show.”

The business, Personal Crosswords, sends gift cards containing a crossword he has designed, featuring the name of the recipient. And he has taken his show, Cracking Cryptics, to literary festivals, clubs and venues up and down the country, to audiences ranging from several hundred to a few rows in a village hall.

The show combines his two loves – crosswords and amateur dramatics.

He gives people three golden rules.

The first is never to take a clue at face value. An example that comes to mind (from the Guardian) is “panto dame’s outside accoutrement makes her an important person”, to which the answer is bigwig.

The second, to reassure beginners, is that the clue will include a definition, usually the first or last word or phrase.

It is the third rule which puts off many people from even trying cryptic crosswords: always look for ‘indicators’. This is a secret language, whereby words like ‘mixed up’ are used to indicate that the answer is an anagram, while a phrase such as ‘I hear’ means that there is a homophone, or pun.

He urges beginners to persevere.

“I remain in awe of those people who can do the Times crossword in 10 minutes, and there are people like that.

“But for me part of the pleasure is taking time to pitch my brain against the wiles of the compilers, and to get into his or her way of thinking.”

It is difficult to move in Oxfordshire for crossword compilers, the most famous being Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, who set The Oxford Times crossword for many years.

There is also Jonathan Crowther, Azed in The Observer, and Don Manley, who supplies crosswords for The Independent, The Guardian and other national newspapers.

These are hallowed circles, and Mr Long is not in this upper echelon, he says, but inevitably, he has encountered experts in his audience.

“I go through 10 different types of clues – other people say there are more than this – and I give examples and ask the audience to give the answer. There is always someone who can solve the clue, and I try to explain how they did it.

“I was giving a talk at an arts festival and there was a Times compiler in the audience. He didn’t make himself known, but afterwards he contacted me. He was very complimentary, but he gently pointed out a mistake in one of my crosswords. I have altered it now.

“Afterwards, people were coming up to me and buying my little book, Cryptic Crosswords. I don’t think you are ever too old to learn how to solve cryptic clues.”

He does admit that some of the solutions involve antiquated language which may be easier for older people.

“One of the answers in yesterday’s Telegraph was ‘hashtag’ which took me by surprise. More often, a soldier could be RA, REME, RE, or OR (for other ranks) which must be difficult for those who don’t know about the military or ranks.”

He admits that for him it is a bit of an addiction. “If for some reason I can’t do it, I do get a bit twitchy.

“It’s only half an hour a day and it does take some lateral thinking.”

He was impressed by the film The Imitation Game, which showed the selection procedure for Second World War codebreakers to join Bletchley Park – anyone who could solve a difficult crossword within the time limit was taken on.

“I think it does show that you have an analytical mind. Crossword compilers can be devious and you should never take anything at face value.

“You have to see things differently and it is good training for codebreakers.”

For Mr Long, crossword solving has to take second place to amateur dramatics when he is involved with a Thame Players production.

He was chairman for 14 years until two years ago, and has already written the Christmas pantomime, which he will be co-directing as well as appearing as pantomime dame.

“I love light comedy, but I also do play serious roles sometimes.”

As for The Oxford Times crossword, Mr Long, who lives near Towersey, admits he is not a regular, but he does have this advice: “My father used to do the prize crossword on Saturday for years and years and he never won it.

“I don’t always send mine off but I do sometimes and I have never won it. Clearly, the chances of winning become significantly greater with a local paper. I know people who only take a newspaper because of the crossword.”