Strange. I’ve always thought of pantomime as a peculiarly British tradition - as unique to our ‘green and pleasant land’ as the Union Jack, jellied eels, bacon and egg, strongly brewed tea and Marmite.
Yet every blog I write about panto gets more views from the States than from dear old old Blighty. Maybe the Brits take this ancient mummery for granted. After all, it’s been going strong since Roman times when, along with bread and circuses, it kept the populace pliant and less likely to revolt over the dire state of the nation.
Similarly, in our day a good pantomime provides a welcome distraction from the miserable winter weather, the endless recession and the absolute fortunes spent on Christmas presents which nobody wants. But whatever is happening in the world, there’s one thing we can count on; from November to February pantomimes will be playing at almost every UK theatre.
What is it that makes pantomime so special, so beloved of children of all ages? Distinguished Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian MacKellen (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) explains: “Pantomime has everything theatrical: song, dance, verse, slapstick, soliloquy, audience participation, spectacle, cross-dressing and a good plot, strong on morality and romance. What more could you want for a family outing? I believe there’s more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare, and if it works, it’s unforgettable.”
Audience participation is one of panto’s most endearing aspects, with the cast positively encouraging audiences to shout, cheer, sing, heckle, hiss and boo! The result may seem anarchic, yet there’s a strong discipline involved – certain rules which unite both cast and audience, creating unity from mayhem!
Now I’m going to say something really contentious: If you’ve only ever seen a pantomime in the West End, you’ve probably never seen panto! Unfortunately, the bigger the show, the more likely it is to be a vehicle for TV reality and soap stars, retired politicians, pop singers and comedians with smutty jokes. It may have plenty of glitz and glamour, but very little authenticity.
For pantomime in its purest form, Act One Panto, a small touring theatre which specialises in the genre, comes as close as it gets to the strolling players of old, featuring mime, songs, dance, acrobatics and comedy – all incorporated into the plot. Artistic Director Jule Watson has studied pantomime in depth and, while adding her innovative flair into the mix with a contemporary slant, she believes firmly in keeping its traditional core intact. “Before you can break a rule, you first have to keep a rule” is Jule’s maxim.
How to create a Pantomime?
Creating a pantomime with Act One is very democratic. After the current season’s productions go on tour, Jule consults with her cast and crew, inviting suggestions for the following year’s offerings. Then, once the theme has been decided, she’ll telephone or email me to commission the script.
It’s now left to me to create a general outline for Jule to consider. At the same time, I’ll start picking the brains of family, friends and colleagues for jokes or funny anecdotes. (The best of them invariably come from youngsters!) These are all scribbled in my notebook, ready for inclusion where appropriate, along with ideas of my own and any snippets I overhear when out and about.
Then I think about it. And think about it. And think about it some more....until finally, I get down to the actual writing, which can be completed within a relatively short time, depending on how my ideas are forming.
Then it’s back to Jule who’ll consider the physical aspects of the show, such as visual gags, special effects and ‘business’. For example, for Alice in Pantoland, we had the comedy duo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, ‘galloping’ Monty Python-style around the auditorium on wooden hobby horses. (This year’s offering, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, is even more ambitious......let’s just say the actors will need lots of energy and a good sense of balance!) Meanwhile, Act One’s technical team are also hard at work, designing the sets, costumes, sound and lighting, and choosing appropriate songs - some of which are specially composed by our resident Maestro.
What IS pantomime?
Literally, the word means All-Mimicking - ‘Pan’ [Greek word for‘All’] and ‘Mimos’ [Greek for ‘Imitate’). Think vaudeville with a plot and you may get an inkling what it involves. The story is usually taken from a popular fairy tale, interwoven with topical themes to which the audience can relate, i.e. the price of food, political manoeuvring, the comings & goings of high profile figures – the sort of material comedians use but – and this is vital – without the smut!
Although traditionally performed over the festive season (Nov-Feb) panto attracts audiences throughout the year. Act One puts on shows during the summer at theatres, schools, residential homes, private parties and community centres.
One thing you should be warned about – pantomime can be very, very loud, especially when the audience is encouraged to join in. A classic bit of business is the “Behind you!” scenario, when a monster/ghost/animal keeps appearing behind one of the characters and the children are asked to yell when they see it. The character (usually the Dame) will turn around, only for the monster/ghost/animal to dodge out of sight. “Where is it?” asks the Dame. “Behind you!” cry the kids who get beside themselves with frustration!
Another well-used gag is the ‘argument’ between two characters when one will say “Oh no it isn’t!” while the other, again urging the audience to join in, says “Oh YES it is!” and so forth. Make sure you and your family have a good gargle before curtain up! You’ll also be expected to join in the singalong at the end!
Regardless of the theme of a pantomime, certain stock characters are common to all:
The first person we meet is the Dame, normally an impoverished widow who, after introducing herself, gives the audience an overview of her circumstances, accompanied by jokes, cheeky asides and bucket-loads of tears. She bewails the loss of her husband, moans about her feckless son/nephew or frets about her vulnerable daughter or niece. Often, there’s a wicked baron/witch/landlord lurking in the wings, threatening her with eviction. But, whatever the circumstances, they’re inevitably dire and highly melodramatic.
From the moment the Dame appears, you can’t help noticing her appalling taste in clothes – Anna Wintour she is not! Frumpy, old-fashioned frocks in hideous, garish colours are the norm, while her hair is – for want of a better description – a wig in not-so-glorious-technicolour! As is her face with its grotesque rouge and over-applied lipstick. Another give-away is her voice; no simpering soprano this, but a deep resounding medicine ball of a voice which reaches a crescendo when its owner is roused! You’ve guessed it. The Dame is played by a man! This custom dates back to Elizabethan times when acting was despised and women were not permitted to take part. Whoever plays the Dame not only needs incredible skills, but also a commanding personality so as to whip up an audience yet prevent things sliding into anarchy.
Just to confuse you even further, since Queen Victoria’s reign, the Principal Boy, (eg. Prince Charming) has usually been played by a woman whose fetching tight-wearing thighs are regularly slapped, macho fashion, by her own fair hand.
Then we meet the Baddie. This may be the Baron already mentioned, a Wicked Witch, Cruel Queen, Evil Wizard, Captain Hook or Bullying Ogre. Like the Dame, this role calls for a big personality; a Boo-worthy bogeyman who knows how to goad an audience yet can also make us laugh.
As a counterbalance to the Baddie, a Good Fairy or Fairy Godmother can be featured, using her magic when all other solutions fail.
Other characters include the Juvenile Leads – Jack and Jill, Aladdin and Jasmine, Beauty and the Beast, for example. The typical male lead tends to be rather feckless, a bit of a dreamer, yet is always likeable and basically kind-hearted. His female counterpart, the Principal Girl is feisty and practical, and both characters must be excellent singers.
Some productions feature a Funny Animal, such as the Goose (Mother Goose), cats (Dick Whittington), horses, chickens, donkeys, cows, and dogs, all good dancers and always more intelligent than their human owners!
And, of course, no pantomime would be complete without the ultimate Comedy Duo. Tweedledum & Tweedledee, Biff & Boff, Bill & Ben. Neither are particularly intelligent, but the daftest of the duo is the butt for his partner’s practical jokes. Having this couple in the show provides many opportunities for the sort of slapstick, knockabout humour children love.
[Photo: Ryan Angelo Deponio & Vicki Glover in Aladdin]