My love affair with pantomime goes back to seeing Jimmy Tarbuck (father of Lisa) playing Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk with Arthur Askey as Dame Trott. Forty odd years on and I can still see it so clearly in my mind’s eye. Like your first kiss, you never forget your first pantomime.
It’s a theatrical experience which defies description. There’s usually a bloke dressed as a woman and sometimes a girl dressed as a boy. There’s music, dancing and comedy. The cast talk to the audience, encourage them to respond, tell them off if they don’t make enough noise. It’s entertaining and anarchic. It’s unique.
Pantomime in England goes back best part of three hundred years to the days of Harlequinades. Over the years the customs developed as did the canon of stories – fairy tales and legends – on which the productions are based. When I was younger I can remember people saying that panto was dead, that it had become little more than a vehicle for pop stars to plug their singles, but it’s returned to its roots, been espoused by serious/popular actors and is thriving once more.
So who are the leading players? There’s the Dame of course; whether she’s Dame Trott or an Ugly Sister, she’s feisty, man mad and arrayed in a serious of ridiculous costumes. There have been some notable dames over the years, including Douglas Byng who rather specialised in it.
I have a soft spot for John Inman, who was a wonderful Nurse – and Ian McKellen added a degree of respectability to the genre when he played Widow Twanky.
I’ve come across the theory that this tradition dates back to the times when monks put on dramas based on bible stories. Mrs Noah was a harridan, played by a monk in drag, and so the pantomime dame was born. Such a nice idea, I hope it’s true.
Then there’s the principal boy, perhaps Dick Whittington or Prince Charming, played by a handsome woman with legs up to her armpits and costumes which even Liberace would find effeminate.
Ann Sidney made a particularly dashing Prince, Su Pollard was a suitably saucy Jack. Peter Pan was always traditionally played by a woman, the first being Nina Bouccicault – Maude Adams also made a dashing ‘hero’ in the role.
Mind you, I’d agree with the impresario who insisted that his productions always had a handsome man in these sorts of roles ‘for the little girls to fall in love with’. As someone who’s had John Barrowman as Aladdin address her from the stage, I can concur with the sentiment.
There has to be a villain, one you can boo and hiss and generally abuse.
John Nettles (dear old Inspector Barnaby) makes a marvellous King Rat, one who plays the role absolutely seriously, as is correct. The villain has to be convincingly scary. His nemesis is usually a fairy of some description who works hard to make all things right by the time the curtain falls. There may be a pantomime cow or horse (two blokes dressed up in a costume)
some semi-spectacular special effects, lots of bad jokes, children in the cast to sing and dance, those in the audience to be dragged up on stage and made to take part.
I love theatre, I adored the recent Hamlet at the RSC, but I’m equally excited about going up to Birmingham to see Barrowman play Robin Hood. Try it yourselves; leave your theatre-snobbery and inhibitions at the door, get ready to hiss, cheer and shout ‘Behind you’ when instructed. Get thee to a panto this winter or else I’ll send King Rat around to duff you up with his fearless gang of men in grey tights.
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