Thigh Slapping Family Fun
by Robert Veitch
Oh yes, it is that time of year when your local theatre is in full pantomime mode. Robert Veitch looks into the history of Cinders, Aladdin and Jack and recalls a few childhood memories of his own.
As Widow Twankey waltzed onto stage and asked the rhetorical, “where’s my career?” Wishee Washee bundled into the foreground, and encouraged the audience into a loud and spontaneous, “it’s behind you!”
That line could have come from 2016, 1986 or 1956, because in panto-land, some conventions never change. It’s esoterically British, as quintessential as The Archers, Morris Dancing and watching the Eurovision Song Contest with a bemused smile. Modern pantomime is a musical comedy designed for the whole family to enjoy, but its’ history is a rich and varied tapestry of theatre.
IT’S BEHIND YOU… A POTTED HISTORY
The etymology of pantomime is Greek, meaning ‘panto’ (all) ‘mimos’ (dancer), essentially a dancer performing all the roles. During the Roman era, these Greek tragedies were embellished with myth and legend. This evolved into the Italian Commedia Dell ’Arte that were touring shows with a little comedy added to the performance. From the dawn of the 17th century until the end of the 19th this form of entertainment became popular in the UK and was known as The Harlequinade. It involved five regular characters and revolved around a comic incident. Originally silent, a little dialogue was gradually introduced.
In the early 19th century, fables, folk stories and fairy tales gradually superseded the classical stories. These originated from the silent Mummers Plays that were performed around the UK at Christmastime. Humour, staged fights, gender role reversal and good triumphing over evil became the order of the day.
The fairy tale pantomimes used dialogue, song and comedy, gaining ascendancy over the harlequinade to such an extent that by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign the harlequinade was reduced to an addendum of the main event.
The harlequinade’s journey towards extinction was under way and the last known performance was at the Lyceum in 1939. After that, pantomime swiftly transmogrified to become what it is today. Most modern spectacles are based on fables, folklore and fairy tales from the likes of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Others have crept in over the years and sometimes two stories are welded into one.
Pantomime is an entity with a flexible format allowing it to be topical, contemporary and relevant as well as historic and traditional. Plot lines are often adapted to suit topical events of the day, the cast, or the need to get in a good joke at the expense of a neighbouring town or village!
Professional pantomime tends to play in larger theatres and utilise a bigger budget to produce a more lavish, indulgent experience with a celebrity of the day taking a leading role. But woe betide the celeb that doesn’t throw their heart and soul into their performance or is ill equipped as a stage performer.
Meanwhile in the commonwealth of amateur panto, it’s routine to see the same actors playing the same or similar characters year after year. Despite the smaller budgets and smaller venues, for many am-dram performers it’s the highlight of their year and the only time they’ll play to a packed house.
OH NO IT DOESN’T… OH YES IT DOES! PERFORMANCE CONVENTIONS
Pantomime has come a long way and yet some things are pretty much guaranteed to be the same – a girl acting as a boy, pursuing a girl, with a cross dressing man for a mother.
Pantomimes are rarely set during Christmastime; it’s usual to see them play out in a never-land of indeterminate space and time.
A young woman usually plays the principal boy as a ‘breeches role’ wearing tight fitting garments. This began in Victorian times and served three purposes. Firstly, twenty-something female actors could come across as young boys on stage quite easily. Secondly, in less permissive, polite Victorian society it was seen as an acceptable way to view a nice pair of ladies legs. Thirdly, tight fitting garments are just so much better for thigh slapping. The principal boy always takes the moral high ground and has a kind heart – after all, good must triumph over evil and there must be a wedding with a heroine for the finale.
The dame is usually played by an older chap in a dress. She’s often overly made up and generally outrageously dressed, with a ridiculous frock to end them all, kept for the finale.
The fairy godmother always enters stage right; the villain always enters stage left, harking back to the sides of heaven and hell in those medieval plays.
There will be dancing from the chorus from time to time. It’s all that remains from the harlequinade.
There will be an animal played by two thespians that might prefer to be performing Hamlet at the RSC. Spare a thought for the rear end, as that poor actor must surely need to visit an osteopath by the end of the run.
The dame and the comic will at some point end up sitting on a bench, singing a song to cheer themselves up, while the villain of the piece creeps on stage behind them.
There is comedy, be it slapstick, buffoonery, subtle innuendo, puns, topical gags and jokes at the expense of the audience. Some of it will be deliberately awful, while some of it will be subtle and close to genius. Occasional double-entendre will fly over the heads of the children as innocently as the fairy godmother, only to land with a wink and a nod on the funny bones of the adults.
A handful of children are invited on stage to be interviewed by the comic towards the end of the show. A seat of the pants moment for the comic that tends to reveal his speed of thought to be far faster than the fool he has been playing.
And of course… audience participation is key; the audience has to partake to make the magic work, to make good triumph over evil. Hissing the villain, consoling the loveless dame, yelling out the catchphrases and singing along with the mass participation song as the lyrics on the song sheet drop down from the ceiling.
With the audience on it’s feet and clapping along to the music, one by one the cast take a bow for the curtain call. It’s the norm to boo then applaud the villain just as the rest of the cast are acclaimed in turn, but to save the loudest cheers for the hero and heroine.
My hazy memory recalls seeing a first pantomime as the dog days of the 1970’s reached their denouement. Anthea Askey was starring as Peter Pan in Worthing. Alas, I remember nothing but the sprightly Anthea performing heroically as the boy that never grew up.
A Christmas or two later, my Aunt took me to see Basil Brush in Eastbourne. I fail to remember the name of the panto or role played by the faux fox. All I have is a faint recollection of queuing afterwards with my Aunt to get desk bound Basil’s autograph. I don’t remember how he signed his moniker.
I witnessed the true magic of pantomime in the amateur productions I saw at the onset of my teenage years. Our grandparents took the family to the (now demolished and much missed) Victoria Hall in Southborough to see a troupe with the motto ‘Children first and always.’ I got the jokes aimed at the children and most of the jokes aimed at the adults. The sheer force of positivity that emanated from the stage and the audience coalesced in a fusion of unbridled joy and goodwill above the orchestra pit. The performance raised the roof and rumbled the foundations to their core. I had never heard such noise and never witnessed such unadulterated excitement, laughter and hysteria.
If you’ve read this far you’ve probably witnessed that same blissful experience somewhere else, some other time. Like me, you’re keen to do it all again… all that’s left to do is to find a pantomime and get booked up. Otherwise it will soon be the middle of January, and like the old dames career, panto season will be behind you.
Pantomime photos: Hurstpierpoint Players