A VETERAN Burnley dwarf actor who has appeared in 50 pantomimes has spoken of his sadness at theatre bosses' decision to use puppets instead of short actors.

This year's Christmas panto of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at King George's Hall, Blackburn, will use puppets instead of short actors for the roles of Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Bashful, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy.

Blackpool-based production company Stageworks said puppets were being used because "children love to see them on stage" but they have been accused of cost cutting by not empl-oying actors for the roles.

But Burnley-born Albert Wilkinson, who has starred in scores of productions of the classic Brothers Grimm tale, said substituting puppets operated by dancers for the real thing will lose some of the panto magic.

Albert, 69, who is currently rehearsing for a production of Snow White with Su Pollard at Malvern's Festival Theatre, said: "I can understand that smaller theatre companies like Blackburn's might not be able to afford to pay dwarf actors but kids will recognise right away that the puppets are not real people, I think it'll take away from the performance.

"This must be my 50th panto, most of which have been Snow White for obvious reasons, and it's a great show but the dwarf actors are a major part of it."

But Stageworks said there was no reduction in cost because the dancers who operate the puppets need to be paid, and "the puppets themselves are not cheap".

Albert's son-in-law Tony Cooper, 45, is also a dwarf actor and appearing with him at Malvern this Christmas, added: "Having real dwarfs gives the kids a real buzz, not having them kills the atmosphere."

Albert moved from his Brownhill Avenue home to Blackpool more than 15 years ago, along with his daughter Julie Cooper, who also inherited the dwarfism gene.

He has been in showbiz for 55 years, during which time he has appeared in the 1974 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and in Star Wars, and, closer to home, in Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights TV show alongside Julie and Tony.