Terrific fun, of course, but writing pantomimes can be a perilous occupation. Not only do scripts have to be side-achingly funny, but politically correct, issue-aware, community-focused and socially on-message into the bargain!
And now here’s another factor we scribes need to contend with – choosing a theme that won’t give children nightmares! According to a recent survey by US TV channel Watch, one in five parents have turned their backs on traditional fairy tales, considering the yarns too frightening for young children. Whether anyone asked their offspring what they thought is open to question – I tend to think not, as most kids I know love nothing better than a really good scare!
Some of the adults interviewed also find certain stories unrealistic, reactionary, and even immoral. Tales such as Hansel & Gretel and Rapunzel, for instance, involve kidnapping, while poor Snow White gets a raw deal from the wicked stepmother and is morally endangered by seven strange little men.
Parents involved in the study are also of the view that fairy tale characters should be set a good example which, apparently, the thieving Goldilocks does not. Come to that, neither does the notorious beanstalk crawler and hero of my own epic Jack, who broke into the giant’s castle and made off with his victim's nest egg. As for Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty - those wimpy stereotypes of the female persuasion - don’t even go there!
With strongly held views like these, it’s hardly surprising that, rightly or wrongly, a whole generation of under-fives are now being reared on modern alternatives such as Thomas the Tank Engine, the Mr Men series and The Gruffalo, tomes that are considered suitable bedtime reading.
Of course, many of the original, unexpurged folk tales - envisioned by Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and others - were actually quite horrific, so much so, they could no doubt give your average video nasty a run for its money! Take the Ugly Sisters, for example; in the original version, they mutilated their own feet to fit into Cinders' dainty glass slipper. Snow White involves a rather nasty account of attempted child murder - by a family member at that! And what the Big Bad Wolf did to poor old grandma doesn't even bear contemplating!
Needless to say, pantomime versions are carefully sanitised.
Interestingly, many people feel that fairy stories can help children deal with real-life fears. Renowned pyschologist Bruce Bettelheim, for example, believes their far-fetched scenarios offer coping mechanisms for youngsters, enabling them to chart their way through difficult situations in an increasingly hostile, adult-controlled world.
In his book, Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bettelheim argues: "Fairy tales are loved by the child…..because — despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context — these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.”
Children can also learn to identify human traits and frailties. Take any well-known folk tale and it's easy to parallel even the most exaggerated characters with flesh and blood people they encounter every day.
Like Mum, for instance. When in conflict with her child, a mother who's normally cast as the good fairy is, to the child's mind, quickly transformed into the wicked witch; Daddy becomes the wise old Wizard, the fearless woodcutter rescuing Little Red Riding Hood from the slavering jaws of the wolf, or (my favourite) the eternal magic money-tree! And I'll give you three guesses who Justin Bieber represents! My own handsome heartthrob will soon be collecting his bus pass, which just goes to show not all fairy tales end happily! Meanwhile, a host of walk-ons in these fantasies i.e. ogres, beasts and pixies substitute for teachers, siblings and various friends or rivals.
Personally, I find echoes of old fairy tales in almost every book I read, in films, in plays and even video games. It's said there are only 6 (or is it 8?) basic plots for which every writer has a different way of telling, each unique in its own way. Without such tales, there wouldn't be pantomimes - putting me out of a job for a start!
Which reminds me, it's time to crack on with my tale of Jack, the Beanstalk, and his criminal tendencies!
PS. Watch out for more panto news from http://www.touringpantomimecompany.co.uk